Red Mason bees

Nesting tubes

Nesting tubes

Understandably a lot of attention is directed towards the plight of bumblebees, honeybees and colony collapse; a serious situation requires serious minds to pay serious attention, just one reason why we support the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. But there are other types of bee - there are about 250 species of bee in Great Britain - and they need our help too. One of those is the Red Mason bee (Osmia bicornus).

Father and son team Chris and John Whittles were the guests of the Gloucestershire Orchard Trust at their Annual General Meeting last Saturday and introduced us to their business and the fascinating life of the Red Mason bee. The Trust has been working with Chris about establishing Mason bees in the orchard at Longney.

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Mason bees are gentle, solitary creatures; there is no bossy queen bee, no worker bees or class division, just individual bees going about their business. And unlike honeybees, they don’t sting. In ways that sound familiar, the role of the male Mason bee is to have sex and die, leaving the female to do all the work of gathering nectar and pollen, laying eggs and building a secure chamber with adequate supply of pollen and nectar in which the eggs can complete the metamorphosis from egg to cocoon via larva. In spring, once the temperature reaches 12 degrees C, the next generation of Mason bees emerge from the cocoons.

And here are just some of the fascinating things about Red Mason bees; both generally and in relation to orchards;

The gender of each egg is determined by the female bee. It is not left to chance. Eggs are laid in tubes and the eggs at the back of the tube will be female, eggs at the front will be male.

Mason bees are much better pollinators, quantitatively, than Honeybees or Bumblebees. Honey- and Bumblebees are after nectar, Mason bees are after both pollen and nectar, and so have a higher success rate in fertilising the blossom of fruit trees.

The detailed science and molecular biology behind it isn’t yet understood - almost zero research funding is directed towards Mason bees - but there is growing evidence that Mason bees are better pollinators, qualitatively, than other bees;

  • the shelf life of fruit pollinated by Mason bees may be longer;

  • the size of the crop pollinated by Mason bees may be larger;

  • diseases, such as Bitter Pip in apples, may be eliminated in fruit pollinated by Mason bees.

Chris will be doing more studies on these aspects of Mason bees this autumn but from what was said at yesterday’s meeting it’s a powerful example of what could be achieved in a low intervention / low intensity / no chemicals method of agriculture.

Get involved - it’s really easy

Chris Whittles in the Longney orchard, inspecting nesting tubes

Chris Whittles in the Longney orchard, inspecting nesting tubes

Mason Bees UK runs an interesting and no-hassle scheme which enables you to establish Mason bees in your own garden. For a fee of around £50-60 - it can be more, it could be less - you’ll be sent nesting tubes, a cocoon box as well as some cocoons. Each autumn, send the nesting tubes back to Mason Bees UK (all included in the initial price) and they’ll look after the cocoons when they’re dormant during winter. In the spring, they’ll send you the cocoons for you to put in the cocoon box, in time for you to see them emerge when it gets warm enough, and in time for them to pollinate all the flowers in your garden.