GAYS MILLS - I recently received a most unique and puzzling birthday gift. At first, I thought it was a piece of avant-garde art of some kind because it was given to me by an artist. Then I figured it was a child’s toy, some kind of a crude, homemade ray gun perhaps. Then, I saw it as simply a holder for drinking straws. Whatever it was, it would surely be a showstopper if it were ever entered in a ‘Name That Gadget Contest.’
Luckily, the object had an info and instruction sheet included. The fog started to lift and the thing made perfect sense. Turns out, it is a bee hotel. Handmade by the gift-giver’s relative, who is apparently somewhat of a zealot on the topic, it opened the door on a whole other world to me.
We are all aware of the problems beekeepers are having maintaining their hives. Insect problems in the hives (mites, etc), predators outside the hives, winter kill, colony collapse, and insecticide drift, are just a few of the challenges beekeepers face these days. Honeybees produce three products: honey, of course, beeswax, and pollination. Oh, and pollen. Some beekeepers collect the little pods of pollen that bees collect and that product is available in health food stores. It’s supposed to help with allergies.
Part of the effect beekeepers’ problems have on us as consumers is their reduced availability to pollinate plants that produce the food we eat. It is commonly believed that honeybee pollination accounts for about 30 percent of the food we eat. Most of our diet, wheat, corn and rice, is wind pollinated, no help needed. However the special stuff, nuts, fruit, and many vegetables that give our diets pizzazz depend on some kind of insect pollinators.
But, as I am learning, there are many insect pollinators in nature that are ‘under the radar.’ Honeybees, some sources say, may account for only seven percent of the insect-pollinated food we buy. Other insects, much less known and celebrated than honeybees, go about their important work of facilitating the fertilization of food crops, crucial to our enjoyment and survival.
And that’s where the bee hotel comes in. The device is designed to encourage and propagate mason bees. Mason bees are phenomenal at pollinating. The info sheet claims that the pollination of one mason bee is the equivalent to 120 times that of a single honeybee.
Mason bees are small; they look like flies. They are solitary, do not live in hives, produce honey, or have a queen. They are non-aggressive and may sting only when pinched. Even then, the sting is not nearly as painful as the sting of a honeybee. The bees seek out tubes of some kind: a grass stem, an insect hole in old wood, whatever they can find. The female gathers pollen into a ball, places it in the tube or cell, lays a single egg in the cell and seals the cell with mud, hence the name: mason. They never see or care for their offspring.I talked with Kraig Oppriecht, a local apple grower who has experimented with mason bees and has built several bee hotels himself. Pollination of apple trees is crucial for this local enterprise and having a viable alternative to honeybees is a wise strategy.