If you are new to beekeeping, then you might have never heard of the mason bee – and you might well disregard them as being irrelevant to your efforts when you learn that the mason bee does not produce any honey or beeswax. In fact, the mason bee produces nothing that is regularly used or consumed by humans. But here is the thing, beekeepers and gardeners alike typically encourage the flourishing of mason bees around their hives and in their gardens. But why? What are the advantages of keeping mason bees around?
Just like the honey bee, the mason bee has been a companion of humanity for centuries. In terms of behavior, they are some of the most docile and tranquil insects around, and this is certainly one the reasons they are found so often in the vicinity of properties or even honey bee hives. Mason bees will only sting if trapped or squeezed, and the male of the species has no stinger at all. Mason bees can co-exist perfectly well with honey bees as well, as they make their nests in completely different locations and do not trouble honey bee hives at all. Amateur and professional beekeepers alike frequently keep mason bees.
What Is the Mason Bee?
Easily identifiable from its trademark metallic blue or black color, mason bees are so called because they construct their nests from mud and clay, although they may also use chewed plant tissue and grit. Mason bees are very common in the United States, and they often occur in locations on their own initiative, without any human activity to coax them in. They resemble more the honey bee than the other species of bee, but they are easily distinguishable not only for their distinct color, but by being noticeably smaller as well.
There are several different species of mason bee, and, of these, the red mason bee is the one which you might possibly confuse with a honey bee, being similar in color. Masons live in much more solitary conditions than the huge colonies typical for honey bees. Every female mason bee is fertile (there is no individual queen) and makes her own nest. There are no worker bees among mason bees, and they are notably less social than most other species. Normally, mason bees seek out cracks in rocks and buildings within which to construct their nests, but they also seek out the hollow channels in wood created by wood-boring insects.
As this latter location is the most optimal, it is the design deliberately copied by most mason bee houses, which are specially designed complexes for mason bees to make their nests in. Importantly, mason bee houses are not bee hives – they may have room for several occupants but each one of these occupants will undergo the same solitary life cycle particular to the species. But before delving deeper into mason bee houses, what makes a good mason bee house and what are the best ones currently on the market? And you might well be wondering why anyone would want to keep around bees when they produce no useful products.
Advantages of Keeping Mason Bees
As it happens, mason bees do actually help with our yields of honey and other beekeeping products such as beeswax, royal jelly, and comb. They do this, however, indirectly. Mason bees are in fact incredibly efficient pollinators – more so than honey bees or bumble bees – and thus their proliferation is encouraged wherever a beekeeper – or even just a budding gardener – would like to see a garden or a bee-foraging territory in full bloom. And while mason bees live a solitary lifestyle, they like to construct their nests close to one another. So, in a sense, mason bees are usually found in numbers, but it is important to remember that they are also the most individual of bee species.
Few beekeepers – and indeed people in general – are now unaware of the global ecological plight of the honey bee. As sad as it is, honey bees are declining in numbers, but keeping mason bees is one small way of doing something about this. Mason bees do not simply pick up the pollinating slack from honey bees, their busy and efficient pollination also helps the numbers of honey bees in the vicinity by vastly expanding the flora for them themselves to pollinate. Remember, pollination is not just the act of retrieving nectar from the flowers, but also spreading that pollen, dispersing seeds, and helping more plants to grow. A single mason bee can visit as many as a thousand different blooms every day. By doing this, mason bees help to create more blooms for the honey bees to visit, boosting their numbers and, of course, getting you more honey.
So keeping mason bees is a great idea if you want to see richer yields from your honey bees – or simply more blooms in your garden.
Mason Bee Houses
So, if you want to encourage mason bees to set up nests in your area, a mason bee house is the best product to invest in. Mason bee houses can come in a diverse range of shapes and sizes, but all follow the same basic design, aping the elongated hollow spaces which wood-boring insects create in nature. Of course, a mason bee house will optimize the space for the bees and will encourage as many as possible to nest close to one another. A mason bee house typically contains many more spaces for bee nests than would ever be found in nature.
Mason bee houses usually consist of an outside frame, normally in the charming shape of an actual house, but it could take any form. Inside this is the congregation of small wooden tubes, often made from hollowed out bamboo, which is where each individual mason bee female will lay her eggs and breed the next generation. Because they offer more living space than is typically found in a single location in nature, a mason bee house is sure to increase the numbers of mason bees visiting a particular area.
Mason bees will mate in the open before returning to their nest to lay the eggs. Multiple eggs are laid inside each tube, and they are separated by a small deposit of nectar and pollen upon which the larvae feed upon. After the pollen and nectar have been supplied, the mason bee will cap the end of each tube with a mud plug. At this point, her work is done, and she will fly off to die.
In the spring, the mature mason bees emerge from the tubes. Males always emerge first because female eggs are placed deeper within the tube to ensure their protection and an abundant female population to keep the species going. Such is the remarkable life cycle of the mason bee and the great population-boosting potential of investing in a mason bee house.
Mason bee houses also have to be cleaned after the emergence of the new generation of bees. The goal is not only to remove the empty cocoons, but also to clear out any other debris such as residual nectar or the remains of perished larvae. Some mason bee houses can be opened up for this purpose, but most simply ensure the tubes are not too small to facilitate cleaning.
Where to Place Your Mason Bee House
A mason bee house should be placed against a flat surface and in an area protected from high winds. A mason bee house should also be placed in a favorable position relative to the sun, with the openings facing south or south-west in order to keep the larvae warm during the winter. A mason bee house should also ideally be placed six to seven feet off the ground and preferably under the protective eaves of a house or garden shed. As mentioned, mason bees very rarely sting, do not congregate in any numbers and, as such, will present no danger even if you place the nest very close to your home.
Buying Mason Bees
If you want to get a population of mason bees going in your area, but do not have naturally occurring bees, then it is possible to buy mason bees. The fact that these non-honey producing bees are available for sale is testament to the value of every other service they provide. Releasing the bees within the vicinity of your mason bee house and then taking proper care going forward is the best way to get the numbers going.
Top 12 Mason Bee Houses
So, setting aside the possibility of building your own mason bee house, what are the best ones on the market right now and what should you look for when selecting a mason bee house?
The best mason bee houses should offer ample space for the bees but also a series of tube openings which vary in size. Mason bee houses with uniform openings are not optimal. This is not only because these less adeptly imitate the natural habit of mason bees, but also because the bees might have various preferences depending on their size and species. For the same reason of imitating nature, it is best if your mason bee house is made of wood, as this material will be affected by the sun and weather in just the same way as a natural nest created by a mason bee.
Beyond this important consideration, personal taste comes into the equation. As mentioned, mason bee houses can be in almost any shape or size and can hold varying numbers of bees. Depending on the area where your honey bees forage or the size of your back yard, this might be an important consideration. Some might be styled in such a way to suit your tastes and others might even have additional features such as butterfly houses. There are certainly indicators of quality but selecting the right mason bee house will also depend on what is right for you.
So, what are the top mason bee houses on the market right now? Here follows my countdown list:
Charmingly dubbed a mason bee “barn” and featuring a solid wooden frame and bamboo tubes, this is a pretty little mason bee house that could also double up as a fine garden ornament. With bamboo tubes of varying sizes and a sturdy flat back, this house can be easily hanged almost anywhere and is perfect for gardens and small beekeeping enterprises. Some of the holes are a little too big for most mason bees (they will require more material and energy to nest in these) but that is only a very minor drawback.
The term “bee hotel” does not really denote anything different from a mason bee house. It is important then not to be misled that this otherwise excellent product from Camas is bigger than it is. Nevertheless, this “bee hotel” is kitted out to provide accommodation also for butterflies and lady bugs and provides plenty of space for mason bees. Handmade from elderberry wood, it has an organic charm. Suspended by a string, however, it could fall down in high winds, so make sure you put it in a spot with adequate protection.
Shaped like hexagonal cells, which mason bees do not create, this mason bee house is nevertheless an excellent home for any mason bees you can expect to appear around your garden or beekeeping area. Giving all its space over to tubes of varying sizes, it is designed solely for mason bees and has more than enough room for back yards or smaller beekeeping enterprises. The tubes are composed of bamboo, which is good for preventing mold, in turn reducing the chances of your bees getting sick or the eggs and larvae being damaged.
This next hexagonal (seemingly a popular shape for mason bee houses!) offering comes from Pollibee and has both some great stand-out features and a notable drawback. To get the bad news out of the way first, these bamboo tubes (which are excellent quality) are unfortunately all a uniform size. While the size which has been chosen is a good average diameter that should be able to accommodate most mason bees, it is better to have openings of varying sizes. However, setting that aside, this mason bee house comes coated with wax, which will afford a long life free from mold. It will also protect against bee diseases. The house does not open up, but it is no trouble to remove the cocoons after the new bees have left the nest.
One of the very best small enterprise mason bee houses out there, this model from Rivajam comes with a range of advantages and pretty much no drawbacks. Although this is another model that suffers from uniform tube size, they are again a good average diameter and should be able to accommodate all but the pickiest of mason bees. However, the great advantage of this mason bee house is that each of the tubes comes with a paper insert. When it comes time to clean out the house, these can simply be slid out and a new one inserted. Coming with ample refills and enough for several years of use, this is an excellent mason bee house. You may even wish to purchase several for larger beekeeping enterprises.
With this slightly larger mason bee house, the thinking has evidently been to blend seamlessly into a natural setting and to resist rot at the same time. The house is composed of flame-treated wood and comes with tube openings in a good variety of diameters. It is also the biggest mason bee house so far on this list and is suitable for larger forage areas you would like to see pollinated. Curiously, some of the bamboo tubes are far too big for mason bees but might attract some larger insects. This might be a drawback, but also makes for a mason bee house that can support a wider variety of insect life than most others.
This mason bee house is admirably unpretentious and seems to have been designed with “getting down to business” firmly in mind. For a very reasonable price, you can acquire this unassuming bee habitat that covers all the important bases. It is easy to clean, features a good variety of opening diameters, and has a compact shape which can effectively resist wind. This is certainly not the one to go for if you’d like a garden ornament, but it is solid and dependable.
Another unpretentious and very “handmade” looking mason bee house. This house has been designed with mason bees specifically in mind but contains a wide variety of opening diameters, meaning it could theoretically house any number of different insect and bee species. While this might be a downside in your book, its compact size means that it is not really designed with large beekeeping enterprises in mind. Instead, it is an unassuming yet attractive bee house for the garden. If you simply want to boost the pollinators in your back yard, this is the best mason bee house for you.
This affordable and compact mason bee house is the first on our list to take a simple cuboid shape and the minimum of ostentation. That simplicity does go a bit too far, as, again, we have a model without any diversity of tube opening diameters. Nevertheless, this is a hardy and cheap mason bee house that can be used in all manner of situations and will withstand years of weathering.
The clue is in the name, as this mason bee house from Gardener’s Supply is not really the right option for any large beekeeping enterprise. Instead, it is firmly one for the gardeners simply looking to boost the bloom and pollination rates in their gardens. Nevertheless, at that simple job, this mason bee house excels almost to perfection. It can house all manner of solitary insects, is versatile enough to hang anywhere, and has great resistance to weather. This mason bee house can even be hung from trees and in other slightly more exposed areas.
One of the most sturdy, versatile, and effective mason bee houses on our list, this offering is yet another for the gardeners as opposed to the serious beekeeper. Available at a remarkably affordable price and being superior to certain models at twice the price, this mason bee house is easy to clean, can be hung almost anywhere, and its low price even means that several can be purchased and strategically placed around a large area. By taking this latter option, this gardener’s bee house could even be effective for larger beekeeping operations.
Kibaga seems to have won the day on my mason bee house list, as the only company to appear twice. This second offering from Kibaga is another seemingly unassuming mason bee house, being very compact and simple in design. However, this house is another triumph of versatility and durability at a very affordable price. The smaller compact size– which still contains over 60 nesting spaces for mason bees – is the source of its strength. Able to be perfectly integrated into any natural setting, it is wind resistant and can be placed in numbers around a large area too. This makes it perfect for larger beekeeping enterprises and simple gardeners alike.
And that’s it for my list of the top mason bee houses on the market right now. As you might have noticed, durability, ease of cleaning, and versatility are the most important aspects of a great mason bee house, and those that combine these attributes with the minimum of ostentation are generally the best. Nonetheless, you should always consider your own needs before investing in a mason bee house, whether that be increasing pollination and bloom for your productive honey bees or simply creating a space that bursts into life every spring. Mason bee houses are truly a product for beekeepers and general nature lovers alike.