Mary Knott was the hostess for a regular meeting of the Willow Springs Tuesday Study Club at the Willow Springs Senior Center on Feb. 18, 2020. Following the business meeting, Jean Biehl gave a presentation on beekeeping.
Many people, especially those with fruit trees to pollinate, want to keep both mason bees and honeybees in the same yard. But is that good for the bees? Will they harm each other or compete for resources? How close is too close?
In order to understand the answers to these questions, it helps to know something about the biology of both types of bees. honeybees are great pollinators, but they have some drawbacks when it comes to fruit tree pollination. Originally, honeybees evolved in warm climates, but they gradually spread further and further north as people fell in love with their honey. They eventually made their way to Northern Europe and, later, they were shipped to the New World.
Even though most of this migration was in the distant past, honeybees have retained their preference for warmth. They do not fly on cold days nor on cloudy mornings. As a result, they are often useless for pollinating fruit trees and other early flowering plants. Mason bees are often used for fruit tree pollination because they are early bees that nest in cavities such as reeds and straws. Mason bees are efficient pollinators that can be easily propagated, moved, and stored.
The mason bees’ indifference to cold and cloudy weather means they forage earlier in the morning and later in the evening than honeybees. In addition, they forage on those cold, overcast days when the honeybees refuse to go outside. This adds up to many, many hours, especially in the early spring when fruit trees need attention.
A second major difference between honeybees and mason bees is their taste for sugar. Since honeybees must make honey, they seek out nectar that is very high in sugar. For example, nectar can be 60% sugar (some canola varieties) or as low as 4% sugar (some pear varieties). What that means to the orchardist is that even on a warm day, the honeybees will probably ignore your pear trees. Mason bees, on the other hand, don’t make honey. Since they use nectar solely for drinking, they are perfectly happy with a low-sugar beverage as they collect pollen for their young.
The third major difference is life span. Adult mason bees and honeybees both live about 4 to 6 weeks in the spring and summer months. But after that period, the adult masons die and their brood overwinters in a cocoon until spring. The honey bee colony, however, keeps producing new bees to replace the old ones, so the colony remains active all season.
These three differences — cold tolerance, taste for sugar, and active period — explains why your mason bees and honeybees may not actively compete with each other. In cold years, the mason bees can complete their adult phase before the honeybees even begin their work for the year. In warm years, the honeybees will most likely ignore some of the fruit trees, leaving plenty for the masons. Remember, the best plants for mason bees may not necessarily be the best plants for honeybees.
However, not all fruit tree nectar is low in sugar. Most honeybees are happy to pollinate cherry and apple trees, in which case there might very well be competition. This is offset somewhat by the fact that mason bees start foraging earlier in the day, which gives them an advantage in the cool morning hours. In cases where you have warm weather and high-sugar nectar, the honeybees will probably outcompete the mason bees.
To lend your bees a hand, it helps to look at another difference between mason bees and honeybees: foraging distance. Honeybees can easily forage for food in a two- or three-mile radius of their hives. On the other hand, mason bees usually forage in a much shorter radius, 200 to 300 feet, at most. Distance to the food source is a much bigger issue for the mason bees than the honeybees.
In addition, mason bees need to be near a source of water and a supply of mud. To help your masons, place their nesting tubes as close to the crop as possible. Conversely, locate your honeybees’ hives further away. The honeybees can still get to the trees, but the mason bees have an advantage because they don’t have to waste time traveling to and fro.