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The Most Fascinating Facts About Mason Bees

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Photo:kitkaphotogirl/Flickr/Creative Commons License

See our California Matters with Mark Bittman segment on native pollinators here.

Paul Wheaton is a bit of a legend in the permaculture community. He runs the world's biggest permaculture website community over at Permie.com. His YouTube channel, which features instructional videos for sustainable agricultural techniques, has logged over 6,000,000 views. And he's even been given the moniker "The Duke of Permaculture" by Geoff Lawton, another legend in the field.

Dude's a big deal, is the point. So when he releases anything on just about any topic, it's worth taking a look at. And his latest "micro-documentary," focusing on the life of the mason bee, is certainly no exception.

While honey bees tend to get all the headlines regarding colony collapse disorder -- which makes sense, seeing as they produce delicious honey, and there's no better way to get people's attention than saying a food they love may disappear -- mason bees are also heavily affected by CCD. And this is worrying not just because mason bees are super cute -- just look at that photo above again and tell me I'm wrong -- but because they're amazing at pollinating. In fact, a single mason bee can pollinate as much as 100 honey bees can, because of how they kind of hilariously sloppily flop right onto flowers. Their clumsiness is nature's gain.

That's a fact I picked up from Wheaton's short film. The whole thing runs 7:48, which doesn't seem like a lot on the surface, but in this day and age of our increasingly short attention spans, it might be a stretch to ask you to sit through it. Here it is for those who can:

But as a service to those pressed for time, or who just can't sit still for seven minutes in front of their computer, here are the most fascinating bits from the micro-doc:

10. They are "solitary," meaning that every female mason bee is a queen. There's no worker bees, meaning every queen makes her own nest.

9. Their nests are round, hollow shelters roughly the diameter of a pencil. When found, the female gathers pollen, brings it back, stuffs it in the nest, lays an egg, gathers some mud (this is where they get the "mason" part of their name), and packs that inside. Then, she repeats this process with more eggs.

8. The female's whole life span is 6 weeks.

7. The male, meanwhile, only sticks around for 2 weeks. Once their "job" is done, if you catch my drift, that's that. (Bonus fact: You can tell the male because they have a white nose.)

6. During the female's life span, she lays about 15 to 20 eggs in two tubes.

5. By August of each year, the next generation of mason bees are fully grown, but hibernate through the winter.

4. When the temperature gets warm enough in the spring, they come out and the new generation of bees begins the process all over again.

3. There are 130 species of mason bees throughout North America.

2. They very, very, very, very rarely use their stinger. As this article states, they have "all the pollination benefits, no sting." If you do get stung, it feels roughly as painful as a mosquito bite.

1. It's super easy to keep mason bees.

This last one, well, it's probably best to go into detail a bit about it.

A quick Google search for "mason bee nest kits" reveals you can purchase a nest for less than 420. It's also easy to construct your own nest using discarded material, if you don't want to spend the cash. According to this instructional site about mason bees, you want to place your nest as close as possible to areas that need pollinating in an area outside of your home that gets the most sun. Also, make sure food is available within 300 feet of their nest, as that's as far as they'll travel. Mud should also be on hand, for obvious reasons. Once that's all set, place your materials out in the spring and wait for the bees to show. It's really that simple!

Which is all to say: If you've been thinking about trying beekeeping, but are understandably intimidated by the price of obtaining all that equipment (and also, you know, the possibility of being stung), this may be the best way to dip your toes in.

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