When we hear the word bee, we will likely jump to a honey bee or a bumblebee. However, these are not the only kind of bees that exist, and definitely not the only species of bees we should care about.
There are approximately 20,000 species of Bee but only around 10 that make honey!
Most of these other species are solitary bees, meaning that they do not form swarms or colonies, and often don’t even make honey. One of the most amazing and useful kinds of bees are the mason bees. When we say mason bees, we refer to a number of species belonging to the genus Osmia who lay their eggs in cocoons which they seal with mud – hence the term “masons”.
Mason bees are often considered a nuisance, because they like to crawl into holes and lay their eggs there. However, mason bees are actually incredibly useful insects as they are among the most efficient pollinators in nature. In any case, these friendly bees are often surrounded by myths and misconceptions. Today, we will look at some of the most persistent myths about mason bees and check whether they have any basis in reality.
Myth #1: All solitary bees are mason bees
Maybe this is not really a myth, but it is quite common to encounter people who equate mason bees with solitary bees, both in everyday life and in popular culture. There are many bees that don’t have hives. Mason bees? Solitary bees? Let’s clear out the confusion!
Fact: There are more than 20,000 species of solitary bees in the world, only 5% of which are mason bees
Today, scientists can differentiate between only 7-10 different species of honey bees, with approximately 44 subspecies. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the total number of species of bees existing in the world. In fact, approximately 85% of all existing species of bees are solitary bees, only a small part of which are mason bees.
Almost all solitary bees are relatively short-lived and they all go through the same life cycle:
- a female emerges from her pupal case
- constructs a cell in which which she will lay an egg after filling them with food.
- the egg develops into an adult and a new life cycle begins.
However, where species of solitary bees differ (besides appearance) in the way the build (or find) the appropriate cells to lay their eggs. Sweat bees (from the Halictidae family), for example, mostly nest in the ground. Leafcutter bees, on the other hand, make the cells for their young from small pieces of leaves, as the name suggests.
Leafcutter bees actually belong to the same family as mason bees called Megachilidae. Mason bees are also often confused with carpenter bees, also known as digger bees. However, carpenter bees are from a different family, Apidae. Carpenter bees often nest in wood, but they actually dig the holes where they lay their eggs, while mason bees like to find already existing holes.
In conclusion, mason bees are solitary bees, but not all solitary bees are mason bees. An odd phrase but just remember how many species to break down that there actually are!
Myth #2: Mason bees are native to North America
The common honey bee we all know and love, Apis mellifera, is also known as the European honey bee. As the name suggests, the European honey bee was brought to North America from Europe, probably sometime during the 17th century. It is a common belief that mason bees are native to North America. But is it really true and where did it come from?
Fact: While some mason bees are native to North America, some species come from Europe and Asia
When we talk about mason bees, we refer to a group of species that belong to the Osmia genus, part of the Megachilidae family. More than 300 species belong to the Osmia family, around 130 of which are actually native to North America. Some of the most common mason bees in the Americas are the blue orchard bee (O. lignaria) and the blueberry bee (O. ribifloris). Both of these are native to North America. Depending on the area you are in, it is also common to encounter mason bee species like the taurus mason bee (O. taurus) and the hornfaced bee (O. cornifrons). These two species originally come from Asia, and just like the European honey bee, they were imported to America for commercial purposes and have since spread across the landscape.
To conclude: yes, some mason bees are native to North America, but not all of them.
Myth #3: Mason bees don’t sting
One of the things one can most often hear about mason bees is that mason bees don’t sting. After all, it’s part of their image. They are nice, friendly bees, they help pollinate plants, and they pose no danger to anyone whatsoever. Why this representation is generally correct, is it really true that mason bees don’t sting at all?
Fact: Yes, mason bees can sting, but it’s not very painful
Even though many people believe that mason bees don’t sting, they are actually capable of stinging – but only the females, that is. However, there are a couple of reasons why it’s a common belief that mason bees don’t sting.
First of all, mason bees will only sting when they feel they are in extreme danger. Since they are not very prone to defending their territory, like honey bees, they would likely only be compelled to sting if someone harmed them physically.
The sting of a mason bee is much more gentle than the sting of a honey bee. In fact, it feels more like a mosquito bite. How is this possible? Well, as you might know, bees have a barbed sting, and because of this the sting tends to remain in your skin and the bee dies after stinging. With mason bees, this is not the case – their stings are smooth, which means they can sting multiple times.
In conclusion, yes, mason bees can sting, but they are not very likely to do so. Their sting is generally not dangerous – but some people could still have an allergic reaction to the sting of a mason bee, so stick to common sense and don’t expose yourself to mason bee stings unnecessarily.
Myth #4: Masons bees can replace honey bees as pollinators
As you all probably know, the numbers of honey bees have been dwindling in recent years across the world, and this is a big problem. Mason bees are often mentioned as a solution to this crisis. If all the honey bees would die, mason bees would replace them! But is this really true?
Fact: Mason bees are excellent pollinators, but they can’t replace honey bees
Honey bees are an invaluable part of many an ecosystem because of their role as pollinators, and the same holds true for mason bees. In fact, research has shown that mason bees are actually more efficient pollinators than honey bees. This is thanks to their ‘sloppy’ style of pollinating. As female mason bees visit flowers, pollen sticks to the hairs on the underside of their large belly. The pollen they carry around remains dry, so it easily falls off as they fly from flower to flower, resulting in quite efficient pollination.
So far so good. However, there is an important reason why mason bees can’t replace honey bees completely. While honey bees can pollinate a variety of flowers pretty much during the whole flowering season, starting from spring to autumn, the life cycle of a mason bee is much shorter.
Depending on the species, mason bees emerge some time during the spring (typically when the temperatures have reached 50 degrees Fahrenheit or higher). When they reach adulthood, female mason bees will start pollinating the flowers and gathering food to fill the cocoon they are building. This phase only lasts a month, two months at most, and is after the activity of mason bees for the year is pretty much over. This is a classic example of nature developing to work in harmony between all creatures.
Myth #5: You can’t keep both mason bees and honey bees
A common cause of concern for people thinking about building honey bee houses on their property is the way mason bees will interact with honey bees. It makes a lot of sense to have both types of bees in your yard, but many beekeepers who already have honey bees worry that competition will arise between the two species if they are kept in the same area.
Fact: Honey bees and mason bees can coexist peacefully in the same habitat
In reality, honey bees and mason bees are highly unlikely to enter into conflict with each other over food sources, even if their homes are quite close together. The reason for this is the fact that mason bees and honey bees have very different lifestyles.
Mason bees tend to gather nectar in the area that is close to their nest, while honey bees can look for appropriate food sources that are much further away. Honey bees prefer nectar that has higher amounts of sugar in it. They need the sugar to make honey. Mason bees, on the other hand, don’t make honey, so they don’t care for sugar in nectar very much. Pear tree blossoms, for example, have a low sugar content which is why honey bees are highly unlikely to be attracted to pears. Mason bees are the perfect pollinators for pear orchards.
Finally, depending on the sub-species, mason bees can often work at lower temperatures than honey bees. Honey bees don’t fly out on cold or rainy mornings, while mason bees are hardier and more likely do so.
Please see our other article related to bees flying in the rain: https://schoolofbees.com/can-bees-fly-in-the-rain/
Myth #6: You need to buy or rent mason bees
There are many companies out there offering mason bees for sale or rent. If you are not familiar with this, just googling “mason bees for rent” or a similar phrase would paint the picture. But do you really need to purchase mason bees?
Fact: You can attract local mason bees by putting up a mason bee house
It is definitely possible to attract mason bees to your garden without resorting to buying the bees, if there are bees native to your area, that is.
Buying or renting bees, whether they are honey bees, bumblebees, or mason bees is generally not a good idea. Unless you are a commercial operator (and even then), it should only be considered as a last resort. There are multiple reasons for this.
First of all, bees are often adapted specifically for living in the climate conditions of their local area and moving them around is stressful for the bees themselves. Also, it is very common for the insects and their cocoons to get damaged during transport. They are just not built for this. Finally, as we have seen in the past, the practices of renting and buying bees from different areas can lead to spreading mites and diseases.
If you want to know more about bee diseases, see our other article: https://schoolofbees.com/do-bees-carry-diseases/
Attracting mason bees to your garden naturally is completely achievable. All you need to do is put out a mason bee house and give it sometime. Once the mason bees start nesting in your garden, their numbers will grow every year.
Evans, Elizabeth, and Carol A. Butler. Why Do Bees Buzz?: Fascinating Answers to Questions about Bees. Rutgers University Press, 2010.
Honeybee Conservancy: Mason bees