Jim Watts knows mason bees and he knows what they like. Bees, all of the 4,000 varieties native to North America, like the same thing: an environment rich with pollen, free from pesticides and pollution. Each variety has its own niche in the ecosystem. “The Key Peninsula is the best place I’ve found for mason bees, which are native to the area.”
At a March 27 presentation given at the Longbranch Improvement Club, Watts described his experience installing portable mason bee housing at area farms and woodlands, free of charge. Watts is in the business of propagating bees and in the words of Longbranch resident Bernie O’Brien, who has housed the bees for the last three years, “It’s been a fantastic and fruitful exchange.”
Watts Solitary Bees, a small company based in Bothell. Watts’ father started the business 50 years ago to raise leaf cutter bees. Prolific throughout North America, leafcutters are summer bees that like it hot; 95 degrees is their optimal temperature, which is why they aren’t prolific in Western Washington’s cooler climate. Leafcutter bees pollinate seed crops, like alfalfa, canola, onion seed, carrot seeds—all the crops honeybees don’t like.
Recognizing mason bees as superior pollinators to honeybees, but unable to propagate them, the bee laboratory at United State Department of Agriculture asked Watts to experiment with mason bees using methods similar to those the company uses to raise leafcutter bees. “We bought some bees but it took about six years of trial and error until we discovered how best to propagate them for commercial use,” Watts said.
The single-largest pollination event in the world occurs annually in California’s central valley, where almonds are big business. With nearly 1.1 million acres of blossoming almond trees requiring pollination within a week or two, timing is everything. Growers pay top dollar for honeybee keepers nationwide to bring their hives to do the job.
“A good friend who owns the largest number of honeybee hives in the world described the almond pollination event in California as ‘an annual orgy for honeybees.’ In the process, they end up sharing their diseases with all the other bees and take them home and perfect them,” Watts said.
“Mason bees are a spring bee and they like it relatively cold, for a bee. Honey bees fly at about 68 degrees or so,” Watts said. “We can get mason bees to fly at 48 degrees. That’s a big advantage at an orchard.”
Watts works exclusively with organic orchardists and described an incident several years ago when he took his mason bees down to California. “The weather was beautiful, about 70 degrees, but then a cold weather snap came through the valley and the honeybees stopped flying,” Watts said. Undeterred by cooler temperatures, Watts’ mason bees proved their value.
Mason bees are solitary bees,—they don’t live in hives. Each mason bee emerges from its own cocoon. Like most native bees, they fly for six to eight weeks collecting pollen and laying eggs before the adults die.
“The females make a pollen ball, lay an egg on it and then she creates a mud partition before repeating the process, laying anywhere from one to a dozen eggs in each hole,” Watts said. “They average five eggs. Male mason bees don’t have stingers and in all the years I’ve worked with them, I’ve never been stung.”
In nature, those eggs begin to develop over the summer and by fall, there is a full grown, living and breathing adult bee inside its cocoon. The bees hibernate over winter. When the weather warms in spring, they chew their way out of their cocoon and go off to start the process all over again.
In his commercial setting, Watts takes the bee houses back to his climate-controlled facility and the constant temperature slows the bees’ metabolism down, which results in very healthy bees with high (97 percent) hatch rates.
“We make certain the bees are in good health; we can actually see their fat cells under a microscope,” Watts said. “By September when the eggs have developed to cocoon stage, we extract them from their wooden holes and carefully wash them to minimize viruses and fungal diseases. The clean cocoons continue to hibernate at about 34 degrees until they are ready to go out to organic orchards to do their pollination work.”
Watts holds back a number of them to propagate more mason bees and that’s where interested landowners on the Key Peninsula come in.
“We’re totally focused on propagating mason bees for use on organic orchards and we’re changing the way farmers farm with our bees,” Watts said.