Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Bzzzz on Orchard Mason Bees

Chances are, you've already noticed signs of the Orchard Mason Bees (Osmia lignaria) as they emerge from their cozy winter quarters. They only rest briefly to bask in the spring sunshine as they know they've got a job to do and the clock is ticking to create cozy homes for their impending broods. These docile bees are native to most of the lower 48 states and have gained support amongst farmers and gardeners alike eager to encourage these beneficial friends and raise awareness of the devastating environmental effects plaguing pollinating bee populations. 

Orchard Mason Bees (OMBs) are approximately half the size of a true honey bee and are recognized by many names including the Blue Mason Bee describing their dark blue iridescent body color similar to that of a house fly, a common quick-glance identification mistake. They have a docile disposition common for a "solitary" bee having no need to protect a hive, therefore only when feeling imminently threatened by being handled roughly or trapped under clothing will they be forced to sting. Their sting is low in venom and more comparable to that of a mosquito bite.

Orchard Mason Bees are true Northwest troopers! During these unpredictable spring weather patterns you will find them happily buzzing about their business on even the cloudiest day and weeks ahead of their fair weather friends. True to their name, the Orchard Mason Bee is a key fruit tree pollinator but also do well foraging under the forest canopy for early blooming natives like Oregon Grape and Flowering Currant. Studies show that it takes about 250 nesting female OMBs, or 3-4 per fruit tree to pollinate a one acre orchard whereas it would take 1-2.5 honey bee hives housing thousands of honey bees to pollinate the same acreage. The pollen collected by the OMB provides food that will be stored to feed their future offspring as they emerge the following year prepared to repeat this important and short life cycle.

Resting OMB on nesting tube
Cocoons & stored pollen

Raindrop Mason Bee House from Crown Bee
Orchard Mason Bees make their homes in vacant holes left by woodpeckers and wood eating grubs and beetles. Like many of us in the northwest, they too, appreciate the rustic look of cedar shake siding and can often be found nesting peacefully underneath the overlapping gaps which provide protection from hungry birds. You can also provide homes for your local OMB population by building or purchasing nesting boxes. These nesting boxes are specifically designed with appropriately sized drilled holes that are then inserted with replaceable cardboard tubes or completely house an inventory of replaceable cardboard tubes to prevent spreading communal diseases and mites. They are best placed on a wall with an early morning sun exposure so emerging bees can bask in the spring warmth and build energy. The young bees begin to emerge in late March and early April and only live about 6-8 weeks but in that short period each female mason bee will visit upwards of 2000 flowers.

Beginning in 2006 there has been an alarming amount of evidence piling up documenting a decline in pollinating bee populations and especially in the case of the Western Honeybee, Apis mellifera. This continued mystery surrounding the disappearance of bees is being referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and possible contributing factors include infectious diseases, environmental stress and perhaps most concerning is pesticide exposure and poisoning. Many field crop producers implement the use of pesticides as a means of pest control not realizing where bee pollinators are being used this pesticide application then coats the pollen that is then collected and brought back to the hive as food subjecting the colony to this non-discriminatory chemical agent.

One way we can help reduce possible risk to the bee population, not to mention other beneficial insects, animals, ourselves and the environment we live in as a whole, is to reduce the use of pesticides. Better yet, STOP using pesticides all together. As we become more aware and educate ourselves on the dangers and hidden effects of chemicals in our environment, implementing the use of safer alternatives should always be the first approach. In the event that you feel it necessary to use pesticides (which I am in no way advocating) it is important to first educate yourself on the pesticide you are using and it's effects on both the intended target and risk it poses to other unintended targets such as birds that may be feeding on the targeted pests playing a key role in natures intended pest control. As with any organic or synthetic pesticide products, apply them early in the morning and late in the evening when our friendly pollinators are less likely to be out foraging.

To encourage healthy populations of pollinators both native and non native think about providing and encouraging nesting sites like the Orchard Mason Bee boxes mentioned above and consider gardening with plants that will provide good sources of nectar including native plants. Many of these plants double as attractors for other welcomed gardens guests too like Hummingbirds and Butterflies! I've listed some of my favorites below.

Pacific Northwest Natives include:
OMB on Oregon Grape flower
Acer circinatum, Vine Maple 
Mahonia nervosa or aquifolium, Oregon Grape
Ribes sanguineum, Red Flowering Currant
Oemlaria cerasiformis, Indian Plum
Digitalis purpurea, Foxglove
Iris tenax, Oregon Iris
Penstemon spp, Penstemon
Aquilegia formosa, Columbine
Lupinus polyphyllus, Big Leaved Lupine

Bulbs & Ornamentals:
Caryopteris buzzing with Honeybees
Rosemarinus, Rosemary
Lavandula, Lavender
Caryopteris, Bluebeard
Salvia, Sage
Solidago, Goldenrod
Nepeta, Catmint
Papaver, Poppy
Helianthus, Sunflower
Erica & Calluna, Heaths & Heathers

For a fantastic online guide with great information on pollinators and suggested plants specific to your region hosted by the NAPPC click here.

For a direct link to the planting guide they provide for the PNW click here!

And for more information on Orchard Mason Bees & the plight of the Honeybee please visit these websites below. 

Crown Bees - Orchard Mason Bee Resource for Education & Nesting Materials & Home of the Orchard Bee Association
Hunters Mason Bees - Western Washington based program partnering with gardeners to study and promote Orchard Mason Bees
"Silence of the Bees" - Link to watch the full episode aired on PBS that documents the race to solve the mysterious disappearance of bees
NAPPC - North American Pollinator Protection Campaign
USDA Ag. Research Service - Information on CCD
US Environmental Protection Agency - More info on CCD
Natural Resources Defense Council - Education & how to take action

"Bee" the change you wish to see in the world.

Friday, March 16, 2012

DIG IT! Growing Healthy Soil

The long term success of any lawn or garden starts below the surface with healthy soil. Determining the type of soil by testing the texture, structure and ph should always be the first step in your landscape planning to ensure optimal growing conditions. Testing your soil will help to determine drainage concerns, acidity and nutrient availability providing you with a road map to growing healthy soil and plants.

Join me Saturday, March 31st at 11am at the Vashon True Value where I'll dig in to the different types of native soils examining the texture and structure as well as demonstrating how to test your soil's ph. I'll also discuss the benefits of organic amendments and how to address common soil concerns. 

Once again, True Value will be offering an exclusive demo discount for soil related products and amendments to ensure that you're lawn and garden get off to a great start this spring! Hope to see you there!