gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you must have heard about the drastic, mysterious decline in honeybee populations worldwide, the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Considering how much of our food supply is dependent on the bees in their role as pollinators, the rate at which entire colonies are disappearing is just plain scary. My heart goes out to the beekeepers: some of them are giving up their life’s work, disheartened; others persist, experimenting with and teaching others about alternatives to conventional beekeeping.

But an exclusive focus on the honeybees keeps us from seeing the bigger picture — and possible solutions. We can no longer rely on just one kind of pollinator. One other species in particular might prove at least a partial solution to the problem: the honeybee’s less glamorous, less famous cousin, the mason bee. Mason bees (also called native bees) are solitary bees that don’t produce honey, but are amazingly effective pollinators and, perhaps most crucially, are not affected by CCD.

Yet mason bees too are struggling because of lack of food and habitat. For that to change, they need you. Here are 3 steps to becoming a guardian of the mason bee:

pollinatorplants-2pollinatorplants1. Plant a range of native flowers

Bees prefer sunny sites with high floral diversity. If you have access to a lot of land, plant an entire meadow full of colorful wildflowers native to your area. The urban gardeners among us can create dedicated pollinator plant beds in our gardens. Go for colorful flowers of many different shapes, and ensure a steady food supply for the bees by planting flowers that bloom during different parts of the year.

The Xerces organization’s website has really wonderful resources, including lists of pollinator-friendly plants for different regions. You can even order ready-made wildflower seed mixes through their website. My small native bee sanctuary, suited to the Southeast, is just getting started, with anise hyssop, Black-eyed Susan, salvia, and borage that I bought and transplanted this week. But I am also seeding marigolds, clover, buckwheat, mint, goldenrod, and cowpeas to complement them.

2. Provide nesting places

masonbeehouseAfter spending a day working in a garden, even the buzziest of beings need a place to rest. Mason bees nest in little cave-like tunnels. Mason bee houses are quick and easy to build, and there are dozens of designs and demos online. Some people use bunches of tubes that are 5/16” in diameter. Alternatively, you can simply drill holes of 5/16” diameter and about 3 inches deep in a wooden block (not treated wood or a fragrant kind like cedar). I made mine out of a basic 4×4, and the whole process took maybe 10 minutes. The mason bee house should be placed off the ground and facing south, but not under direct sun, and close to a source of mud since the bees use mud in building their nests.

3. Avoid using pesticides

This last one is hopefully second nature to y’all by now. Do it for the bees, for the health and safety of you and yours, for the worms, for the sake of soil that is healthy enough to sustain us all in the future.

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