It's been cold and rainy for the past week here in Indiana and the mason bees have been forced to stay in their nests. Today, the sun is out and it's 57 degrees and I spotted a few females out collecting pollen.
The female in this photo was resting on a bird feeder in the sun only a few feet away from her nesting house. I put my hand out to her and she crawled on to my finger. She was moving slowly and appeared very weak. I took her over to the forget-me-nots, which are about the only thing blooming in the yard today. I expected her to be hungry and wow, was she ever! She put her whole proboscis, or tongue, into the flower and stayed there. Eventually she moved on to another flower and another but was still weak. She allowed me to move her to another cluster of flowers and she foraged there long enough for me to go inside and get my camera.
Mason bees are typically very busy gathering pollen and wouldn't spend so much time nectaring, but this female was clearly very hungry after so many cold days in her nest. After about five minutes of slurping nectar, I moved her into a flower cluster that was getting direct sun. I wouldn't try this with most other bees, but then again, most other bees wouldn't let me. Mason bees are gentle, non-aggressive, and they don't mind being around people. She foraged there, started fluttering her wings, and flew off. Just another satisfying day as a native bee detective!
“A multitude of small delights constitutes happiness.” — Charles Baudelaire
Would you rather have a clean dog or a muddy dog jump up on your sofa? That's an easy question because no one wants a messy sofa. But in nature, messy is sometimes better. This video from last year's garden shows one reason some wild bees, such as mason bees and leafcutter bees, are more efficient pollinators than honey bees. Notice how the leafcutter bee's abdomen and legs are covered in yellow pollen?
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For comparison, I searched for video of a honey bee foraging on the same type of flower. This pretty footage of a Western honey bee from Dr. Mark Shepherd does a great job. Notice how neat and tidy the honey bee's body is?
The honey bee collects pollen on its body hairs then moistens the particles with nectar and brushes them down into pollen baskets on its legs. Honey bees are excellent pollen collectors. The leafcutter bee, by comparison, has no pollen baskets and carries the dry pollen back to her nest on her body hairs without moistening it. Leafcutter bees are excellent pollen spreaders. This is one reason research shows wild bees to be 2 to 3 times better pollinators than honey bees.
If we can increase the number of wild bees in our communities, there can be more of them to pollinate our crops. Better-pollinated crops generally produce more and larger fruit. And more fruit equals fewer hungry people!
Ask me how you can become part of this equation by raising these gentle, valuable pollinators this summer in your own backyard.