Get to Know Native Bees of North America

My Garden Life
May 2, 2020
Table of Contents
Pollinators are instrumental in growing the food we eat. They collect pollen on their bodies from a plant and transfer the pollen to another plant – the first step in a process that ultimately produces fruits, seeds and plants. Bees are an important part of that process, but honeybees aren’t the only bees on the job. In fact, there are many species of bees in the pollinator world and some of them are even more efficient pollinators than honeybees.
Such is the case with mason and leafcutter bees. These are solitary native bees that don’t make honey or live in a hive. You don’t need protective gear, as when keeping honeybees, because these bee species don’t sting. But best of all these are two exceptionally efficient pollinator species, driven by their need for pollen and nectar to support egg laying.

Native Bee Life Cycle

The male and female emerge from their nests and mate. The male dies soon after and the female must find a suitable nest. She collects pollen and nectar to make a bee bread to feed her young. She deposits one egg on the bee bread, seals the chamber and repeats. After laying the eggs, she dies and her offspring will remain in the nest for about eleven months, passing through the egg, larva and pupa stages before emerging as an adult.

Mason Bees

(Osmia species)
Mason bee on leaf

  • Active in early spring pollinating fruit trees, nut trees and berry bushes.
  • Use mud, chewed up vegetation or resin to build chamber walls in their nest and hibernate as adults in their waterproof cocoons.
  • The male mason bees are smaller, and they emerge before the females. This gives the males time to search for nectar before returning to the nest to wait for the females to emerge.

Leafcutter Bees

(Megachile species)

Leafcutter bee carrying a piece of a leaf

  • Active throughout the summer pollinating food like tomatoes, squash and beans.
  • Cut away pieces of leaves to use to build protective cocoons for hibernation as well as protect eggs or larvae through the winter.
  • Typically, don’t travel further than 350 feet from the nest to find food.

How to Attract Native Bees

Native bee on a lilac flower

  • Grow a variety of pollinator-friendly flowers throughout the growing season to provide the nectar and pollen bees need.
  • Provide nesting materials such as moist dirt for mason bees and leafy plants such as roses and lilacs for leafcutter bees (two of their foliage favorites for constructing nests).
  • Make or buy a bee house.

Set Up Your Own Bee House

Native bee house for nesting

You and your family can get creative and build a bee house. Make sure the inside dimensions will fit the bee chamber you select (see descriptions of bee chamber options below) and provide a two-inch overhang in the front to protect the bees from wind and rain.

If purchasing a bee house, make sure the chambers are six inches deep and smooth. Female eggs are deposited in the back of the tunnel and male eggs in the front. A six-inch tunnel produces more female bees, which in turn increases the potential for a bigger bee population the following year.
  • Attach bee houses to a tree, post, building or fence; ideally at a height of four to six feet. Secure the house firmly so it won’t wiggle in the wind or heavy rain.
  • Hang the bee house so it faces the morning sun. A south-facing exposure is ideal to capture the most sunlight (and warmth) through the day.
  • Do not use pesticides because they kill the bees. Avoid lawn treatment as the bees don’t like the smell.

Choices for the Bee Chambers

Bee box for native bees using reeds for chambers

Stacked Bee Wood Tray
Choose a bee stacked wood tray that is at least six inches deep with smooth chambers. These are available for mason bees and leafcutter bees. The wood trays are easy to clean and reusable for many years. Avoid cedar as this contains natural insecticides.
Cardboard Tubes
Purchase cardboard tubes to use as your bee chambers. These are available in the mason bee size 8 mm and leafcutter size of 6 mm. Use these cardboard tubes on their own or make them reusable by lining them with paper liners.
Paper Liners
Buy these or make your own with parchment paper. For the easiest clean-up and inspection, you can make removable liners for the tubular chambers of your bee house. Cut a 7-inch by 3-inch piece of parchment paper and wrap it around a dowel or pencil. Place the wrapped pencil in a hole of the bee house and then twist to remove the pencil, leaving the paper tube behind. After use, dispose of these paper tubes and make fresh tubes to install.
Natural Reeds
Purchase natural reeds closed on one end and easily opened. Do not use bamboo because bamboo can’t be opened to harvest and clean the cocoons.
Inspect the holes in the fall (opening each used hole) to make sure there are no pests living there. An infestation of certain pests, such as earwigs, could significantly impact future bee populations. Remove and clean mason and leafcutter bees around October.
Native bees in nesting chambers

The observation of native bees can become a lifelong pastime and pleasure. Most importantly, working with the bees gets you outdoors with your children to experience the amazing habitats that we share with pollinators, flowering plants and our food.
If you’d like to learn about more insects that are good to have in your landscape then you’ll enjoy our article, 8 Beneficial Bugs for the Garden.

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