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Into the Garden: Not all wood-nesting bees are destructive

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I love to learn from my gardening mistakes -- and I'm the first to admit those lessons are frequent! My wonderful friend Cat Wright gave me a new tool for my garden: a mason bee house. Well, I didn't want to hurt my young friend's feelings, but I was a bit confused by the gift.

Here's why. I grew up in a house with a lot of redwood -- soffits, fascia and siding were all redwood. I have a distinct picture in my head of my father lying prostrate on our home's flat roof, 2 1/2 stories above the concrete driveway, leaning out over the edge and swatting bees with a pingpong paddle. They were carpenter bees, and they were boring holes in the wood as fast as he could swing.

Fast-forward to today. My home has a lot of cedar -- soffits, fascia and shakes are all cedar. The carpenter bees are a constant threat to the integrity of our house with their hole-boring habits.

When Cat gave me the bee house, I immediately thought about carpenter bees and wasn't sure if the house was such a great idea.

I was wrong!

According to the agriculture department at the University of Arizona, orchard mason bees are not the same as the destructive carpenter bees.

"Orchard mason bees occur naturally throughout the United States. In nature they nest in beetle galleries in wood. Unlike carpenter bees, mason bees are never destructive to homes or other wooden structures because they do not excavate nest holes themselves. But this means that nest holes may be in short supply. To encourage mason bees you can provide a bee house, the insect equivalent of a birdhouse."

The informative folks at the University of Arizona praise the little orchard mason bee.

"If you have developed an interest in bees, but aren't ready or able to keep honey bees, you might want to try encouraging local native bees as pollinators. Orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria and related species) are native bees that are becoming popular with gardeners and farmers. Mason bees are slightly smaller than honey bees, and are shiny dark blue, almost black in color. These gentle bees are not likely to sting, although they will defend themselves if stepped on or trapped under clothing."

You can buy bee houses or purchase kits from:

  • Knox Cellars, 1607 Knox Ave., Bellingham, WA 98225, 206-733-3283.
  • Insect Lore, P.O. Box 1535, Shafter, CA 93263, 800-LIVE-BUG.
  • To build your own bee house, drill a series of holes 3/8 inches in diameter (smaller-diameter holes will be used by leafcutter bees) 3 to 6 inches deep in pine or fir 4-by-4s or glued-up boards. Space the holes about 3/4 inch apart; the number and design are up to you. Paint and decorate as you wish. Mount the house firmly to fixed surface (the bees don't like to swing), where it will get morning sun. Mason bees are active in the spring, so provide houses from early spring through August. Holes that are being used will be plugged with mud.

    Bee houses of this type will not attract Africanized honeybees or other social bees because honeybees need a softball-size cavity or larger to build their honeycomb in.

    The British Columbia Ministry of Agriculture says orchard mason bees occur in woodlands and forest edges. They appear in early spring when the first bushes and trees bloom. Cherry, pear and apple are particularly attractive, but other nectar and pollen sources include quince, laburnum and blueberry. Osmia bees are fast fliers and display a high bloom visitation rate. Its high activity, even under poor weather conditions, makes this insect pollinator particularly attractive for early blooming crops.

    I've installed mine! Thank you, Cat. You've taught me a new gardening trick!

    Growing blog

    Torula Chanlett-Avery and her husband, Chris, own the charming Groundworks Nursery in Hinton. Torula is writing a very informative blog, "What's Growing On" (http://groundworksnursery.blogspot.com/), highlighting "tried-and-true plants that keep growing on past the hype-and-shine of all the new branded plants."

    She notes that a few of the new and exciting plants will find their praises sung on the blog, but "we're on the lookout for the backbone plants that keep giving back long after your initial efforts."

    On March 15, she focused on what she calls her "Tennessee Spirea," which came to West Virginia with them when they moved from central Tennessee in the mid-'70s. I'm looking forward to reading about their other "favorites" in the future.

    Groundworks Nursery is along W.Va. 3 in Hinton. For directions, visit www.groundworksnursery.com or call 304-466-4440.

    This week in the garden

    According to the WVU Extension Service garden calendar, it's time to apply crabgrass control, and to plant potatoes, raspberries, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, blackberries, peas, fruit trees and collards. It's also time to seed kale, onions, beets, radishes, carrots, leaf lettuce and parsnips. It's time to start a compost pile, and to refresh the mulch in landscape beds. Also, apply pre-emergent landscape weed control. Later this month, seed new lawns and plant summer-flowering bulbs. The early spring has allowed us to move up many tasks we typically did in May.

    Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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