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The Coastal Gardener: Native pollinators can help with fruit, vegetables

February 25, 2011|By Ron Vanderhoff
  • Native mason bees are excellent pollinators of many fruits and vegetables. They do not build hives and can be attracted to a garden with a simple nesting structure homemade nesting block.
Native mason bees are excellent pollinators of many fruits…

If you're like many home gardeners, you may have added fruit trees to your garden in the past two years.

Maybe a peach or an apricot, or even a few citrus or dwarf avocado. Maybe you're more into grapes and berries. Perhaps you're more the vegetable type and started growing your own tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and others.

Did you know that all of these fruits and vegetables need to be pollinated to produce crops? You can reliably improve pollinations of all your fruits and vegetables by attracting the right insects. Non-native European honey bees are our most famous pollinator, but most gardeners can't do much to lure these into their gardens.

Ever wonder what pollinated our crops before honeybees were introduced from Europe?

Native mason bees, also known as orchard mason bees, have been pollinating plants for millennia and are still at work, even though most people aren't very aware of them. Even if you saw one, you might think it was just a funny looking honeybee.

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Honeybees don't like to leave their hives to forage on cold or rainy days, but mason bees are much more rugged and don't mind a little inclement weather, a cold spring day or a drizzle, so whether you have an orchard or just a few vegetables, mason bees will help improve your yields.

Mason bees look superficially like honey bees but differ in several ways that a home gardener may prefer. Perhaps most important, mason bees are solitary insects. Unlike honeybees, they do not build hives and do not make honey.

Another important distinction is that, since they have no queen or hive to protect, mason bees are very docile and will almost never sting. Even if you caught one in your hand and tried to provoke it to sting, the pain is quite mild, about the same feeling as being bitten by a mosquito.

To attract these beneficial insects to your property, you need to understand their nesting habits and living patterns. Mason bees need a steady source of flower nectar during their breeding season, as well as nesting sites where they can lay their eggs and where their juveniles can spend the winter. In nature, mason bees nest in narrow holes found in old trees or in hollow plant stems.

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