Part 1: The Little known Super Pollinators!

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The Solitary Bee Story
by Dave Hunter of Crown Bees

July 16, 2015

Published Weekly

David: Hello.  We’re here today with Dave Hunter with Crown Bees. Dave, if you could give us an idea of some of your experience with bees and what your company does.

Dave Hunter: I’m going to say 20 years ago …  I’m living out in the Northwest, Seattle area.

My wife had a friend of hers that just had tons of apples on their trees.  I’m an engineer by degree.  What’s going on?

How can you have so many apples compared to us?  She said, “Hey, we’ve got these things called mason bees.”

What’s that?  Back then there wasn’t really much technology.  You drill some holes in blocks of wood and presto.

That year, I bought some and they all were dead. Then it worked. I had these holes and by that June I had 10 filled holes.

That was interesting. I never saw the bees doing anything but we had good apples that year.

Then fast forward all the way through until a good 8 years ago, bequeathed with time off.  I was a real estate director for Airborne Express.

Could I take a backyard hobby and create an industry from it?

What we had learned is that the almond industry is the largest pollination event in the world and they’re very concerned that the honey bees aren’t doing that well.

They were looking for something that was an alternative.  They found that this exact mason bee is a phenomenal pollinator. 

I initially started just trying to get as many people in the Northwest raising bees for these people.

Then as you get going, I probably had, 8 years ago, probably a good 400 or 500 people that I got raising these bees for me.

All of a sudden, you kind of realize that these are wonderful bees. Could I now actually, poking my head around, seeing some websites out there, create a company that would maybe help people raise these bees?

At that point, Crown Bees became a company.  We opened up a website about a year later and we started.

There’s that little path.  That’s how Crown Bees got started and then a parallel path to that is how the commercial orchards got going. That will be a different question.

David: I have an interest in bees. To be quite honest, I don’t have a lot of background in them. Can you tell me, are mason bees and honey bees, are they compatible? Say could I have both in my backyard if I wanted to have both?

Dave Hunter: Yeah, actually let’s talk a little bit about bees.

Bees, hornets and wasps; all things people run away from and scream. But, bees are vegetarians.

Hornets are meat eaters. Wasps are paralyzers.  They’ll grab caterpillars and poke them in a hole.

With bees being vegetarians, pretty much they all get along.

You can put them side by side and really the only difference when you’ve got a huge orchard of just honey bees and you mix them with mason bees, for example, the honey bee gets a little mad, moves a little faster and gets messier with how she gathers her pollen.

That’s about the only thing.

The difference between social bees, which we all picture having hives.

Honey is with the honey bee.  Hornets and wasp nests are all social insects.

We have one queen and a whole bunch of workers, some drones. Bumble bees are similar to that.

That represents about 10 percent of the 20,000 bees of the world or of the 4,000 bees of just North America.

All the rest are solitary bees. A solitary bee, every female is a queen.

She mates and does her own thing. She gathers her pollen, gathers her nectar, lays an egg.

Typically, seals and protects that egg for when she’s dead most of the year.

Each bee actually lives 6 weeks. In a honey bee hive, the queen’s going to live a little while. She’ll live maybe a year or two.

Every bee, every worker she’s got …she lays about 1,000 eggs a day, maybe 1,500. About 1,500 bees die a day.

With the solitary bee, they all come out about the same time and then they’re dead about the same time, maybe 4 to 6 weeks.

What has these bees come in typically are heat cues.  The mason bees that I’m talking about, there’s a spring one.

These all come out when the cherry trees are first coming into bloom, plum or cherry. They live about six weeks.

Once they’re dead, there are other bees that maybe started apple season or could have started raspberry season. Then it died 6 weeks later.

Leafcutters are coming out in late June, July and August.  They pollinate your beans, squash and peas.  Then they’re dead.

You’ve got a variety of social bees and then solitary bees.  That’s the other part that’s kind of interesting with those two kingdoms, social and solitary.

You’ve got some bees that nest in hives, in a hive or a big hollow in a tree.

Or you’ll see the nests up underneath an overhang. That’s only social, the queen and all of her workers.

Then you’ve got bees that nest in holes. There’s about 130 species of hole-nesting bees. These are nesting bees.

They go into reeds or paper tubes or whatever. Those are all solitary. Most of the bees go into the ground, about 70 percent.

Those are both social. The bumble bee is a ground nesting social bee or solitary.

Bumble Bee
Bumble Bee

You can actually tell the difference. If it’s in the ground and you walk on by and you see a bunch of holes and a bunch of bees using these little holes, those are solitary.

You can walk right on through there and feel very comfortable that no one is going to get you. If you’ve got everyone coming in and out of one hole, the closer you get the more they’re going to defend that queen.

There are kind of three different, air holes in the ground, social and solitary. That’s your whole bee kingdom.

David: If I was trying to promote mason bees in my background, maybe even the leafcutter and the other types that you’ve mentioned, what type of equipment or facilities would I need to purchase or provide to enhance them being in my back yard?

Dave Hunter: That’s a great question, David.  We’ll talk about the spring mason bee up front.

They’re an opportunist. There are things called carpenter bees that will dig holes into wood.  Mason bees are just looking for existing holes, about maybe a 5/16ths of an inch, 8 millimeter, 4 to 10 inches long.

You’re going to find woodpecker holes are what these guys are looking for. For what you’re buying, you can get in and out for 30 bucks.

A little house, a bunch of holes and that’s all you need.  You’re just putting these things up on a sunny morning wall at about that time when the bees should be flying.  It’s real cheap.

When we’re talking about holes, old technology had people drilling holes in blocks of wood.

What you find quickly after a couple of years, pests just build up in those holes and you can’t rescue your bees actually.

You wind up just staying out and the bees all die. Our products are very careful that you can open these holes, whether it’s paper tubes or reeds or wood trays that are just kind of all stacked on top of each other.

You can open in the fall.  We show you how.  We’ve got videos and we talk you through on Bee Mail.

In the fall, you’re actually opening these holes up, now separating good guys and bad guys.

Good guys are cocoons, they’re really easy to notice.  Bad guys are, there’s some bad guys out there, pollen mites and certain wasps.

It probably takes you an hour, maybe an hour and a half of maintenance per year. If you’re buying bees, maybe 50 bucks, maybe 60 bucks.

David: That sounds like that is quite a bit cheaper than what it takes to keep honey bees.

Dave Hunter: Another part that is kind of interesting, people are always concerned about having to buy protective gear for the honey bee.

You get close to a hive, they’ll protect the queen. That’s what a social bee does, whether you’re a bumble bee or hornet or anything. With a solitary bee, there is no equipment needed.

The reason is the female, she’s mated, the male bee is already dead. She’s out there gathering her pollen, gathering her nectar and poking it back into that hole.

Maybe about 30 trips gets a pea-sized bit of pollen back there. She backs in, lays an egg, looks like maybe a grain of rice.

Then she seals that little chamber with mud. This is the spring bee. In that same hole, pollen, egg, mud, pollen, egg, mud. Maybe in a 6-inch hole, you might get 6 or 7 egg chambers.

As she’s doing this, she’s doing everything.  She can’t sit there and defend the hold with a bazooka and go out and gather pollen, nectar and all this stuff. She doesn’t.

She’s not designed to sting. She can. If you grab her in your hands and squeeze tight, she’s going to sting you to let you know she’s here but she’s not there to disembowel herself like the honey bee.

She’s just there to say, “Hey, don’t squeeze me. I’m here.” You open your hand and off she flies. It’s kind of more of a mosquito bite than it is a sting.

They’re a real gentle bee. Leafcutters are the same thing.

Leafcutter Bee
Leafcutter Bee

David: Is that common to the solitary bee?  More gentle than the social ones then?

Dave Hunter: Absolutely. I would say all solitary bees are that way.

The solitary bees, every female is the queen.  Whether you’re in a hole in the ground or a hole in a tube, she has nothing to defend.

In fact, if you take her hole away, she just goes and finds another hole. Very gentle.

David: If someone had kids in the backyard, they wouldn’t have to worry about having a home for the …

Dave Hunter: Not at all.  The cool thing about mason bees, we’re always telling people to put the house at the height of your shortest kid.

They’re really fun. You see them in and out, in and out.  Towards the end of the season, they say, “Mom, we got 17 holes built.” Next day, “Mom, we got 20 holes built.” You can hold the bees in your hand.

As they come out, they’re in cocoons in the spring.  As they are emerging, you can actually hold the bee in your hand and it finally chews through the cocoon and kind of crawls around your finger.

Typically poops on your hand. Two or three minutes later, off it flies. Really educational piece.

David: It sounds like it would be really educational for them.

Dave Hunter: Yeah.

David: For young kids.  We have a low-cost factor to have them out there.  They’re gentle to have around.

Dave Hunter: Easy to maintain.

David: Yeah, it doesn’t take much to maintain.  What about the pollinating efficiencies versus the honey bees?

Dave Hunter:  A wonderful question.

The honey bee is the pollinator dejour today, the pollinator of today. It’s not a great pollinator. It’s purpose is to collect as much pollen as it can for the honey and the 30,000 bees in its little honey-making factory that it’s got.

As it grabs that pollen, it puts it on its back legs. Sticky and hardly anything falls off.

If you ever look at bees, bumble bees are the same way. If you see pollen on that back pocket, that says it’s a wonderful pollen gatherer. It’s a poor pollinator.

The mason bee, a little different, they’re horrible at gathering pollen. They’ve got a real hairy chest.

They kind of belly flop into a flower. They’re getting a little nectar and they’re just rubbing their abdomen as best they can in that pollen to get it stuck on her fur.

  Mason Bee                                                                                                             Honey Bee

Off to the next flower, the same thing, cramming her belly into the next flower and pollen is just falling off everywhere.

By the time she’s got enough jammed into her abdomen, now she’s flying back to her little hole and dust it all off.

She’s horrible at gathering pollen but because of this path, she’s an awesome pollinator.

When we’re looking into an orchard, it’s about, now I’m going to take a full acre of cherries.

You need about 30,000 bees for hives, of honeys and 400 mason bees.

David: That is a big difference.

Dave Hunter: A huge difference.  The other part that is real interesting is a honey bee … You’ve heard they do little wiggle dances?

David: Yes.

Dave Hunter: They’ll tell you exactly where the pollen’s at.  As I head for my hive, out to that spot.

I find that spot. I work on it. I go up and down the branch, get all the pollen. I might go back to the hive but I go right back to that same tree and maybe even that last branch I just left.

That’s how honey bees work.

A mason bee, they’re kind of more ADD. I hit this tree. I go into a little thing and fling, off to the next tree, fling, off to the next tree.

They’re a phenomenal cross-pollinator. In fact, as we’re now working in orchards, we’re starting to put the mason bee houses in the cross-pollinator place.

Maybe every third row, every third tree, so maybe 5 percent of the trees are the cross-pollinator.

We’re putting the bees next to those things because they start their whole trip with the correct pollen.

Dave Hunter: With the honey bees, we think actually the pollination, if you missed a grain that I didn’t get on my back leg but it’s really I’m still stuck to my one tree.

We think actually the pollen grains are falling off in the hive and then someone else inadvertently picks up that pollen grain and goes to the tree they’re working on.

It’s possible the pollination is occurring in the hive and not out in the field.

The honey bee is not a great pollinator but they make up for it with all their thousands of bees that they’ve got running.

David: I can definitely see commercial aspects, but …

Dave Hunter: Now back to your backyard garden, okay?

David: Well, I’m thinking of a backyard garden, types of flowers and those types.

Dave Hunter: What we continually find with the backyard gardeners, when the mason bees are nesting, people have branches that are breaking on their trees.

I just left a meeting when some guy ran up and said, “Man, Dave, you know those bees you gave me last year?” Yeah, I gave him a bed.

He goes, “I’ve got so many cherries falling off my trees right now my cars are just sticky. And thanks for the bees. You owe me a car wash.”

We find that continually.

People constantly have more apples, more plums, more peaches, more cherries than they’ve ever had before because the bees are just great pollinators.

View Urban Farm Lifestyle Magazine and read about the tips that Dave gives.

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End of Part 1

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