Mason bees are powerful little pollinators. Native to North America, these wonder bugs visit an average of 1,600 plants a day and pollinate almost every flower they contact. Mason bees are solitary insects, meaning they have no queen and no colony to speak of. Each female finds her own nesting hole, collects nectar and pollen, and lays her eggs. The insects are also non-aggressive and will not sting like other bees.
All of these characteristics make it easy to raise mason bees at your library. With a few supplies, a suitable environment with easy access to pollen-producing plants, and some tender love and care, your library can offer this sustainable experiential learning opportunity to patrons.
Building buzz at the library
The idea of keeping mason bees at West Vancouver Memorial Library (WVML) started when Circulation staff member Taren Urquhart, who raises mason bees at home, pitched the idea to the library’s Youth Department.
“We are keen to incorporate the unique skills and individual passions of our staff in any project we undertake,” explains Head of Youth Services Shannon Ozirny. “When Taren approached me, I was excited for the experiential learning opportunities the bees could bring. The bees presented an opportunity for patrons of all ages to learn through observation about this little-understood native species. The project promotes being stewards of our environment and opens the door for great educational programming for kids and adults alike.”
A bee’s hole is its castle
A balcony adjoined to WVML’s youth programming space provided the perfect environment to raise the bees: windows and a glass door give the bees privacy while being observed and the balcony’s proximity to a park full of flowering plants provides the bees with a readily abundant food source. Patrons are not permitted to use this balcony, so the bees are undisturbed.
With a location in place, the next step was to build a bee house. Since a major driver behind the bees was the promotion of sustainable initiatives and environmental stewardship, the library’s Maintenance Supervisor Chad Arsenault searched for recycled materials, including:
- A Douglas fir log salvaged from the West Vancouver Operations Centre, which became the bees’ home base
- An old library paperback spinner, which provided the structure for standing the log up
- Decorative flowers forged from copper left over from a roof replacement project
- More salvaged red and yellow cedar, cut into handmade shingles, which formed the roof
Once built, Arsenault drilled four large holes into the log, fitted each with a tin can, and filled the holes with hundreds of cardboard tubes specially designed to house mason bees. All that was missing were the bees!
Bring on the bees!
In the spring, Urquhart brought the inaugural mason bees wrapped up tight in their protective cocoons. They can also be purchased at most garden stores and cost approximately $1 per bee. These stores also sell the cardboard tubes in which the bees will lay their eggs. For $200, the library purchased enough tubes to supply the bees for the next couple years.
In the spring, the cocoons were placed next to the log, inside a box with two holes cut in the roof. Once the outside temperature reached 12-13 degrees Celsius, the bees emerged from the box to go about their business of foraging and mating. Since then, larval bees have formed cocoons inside the cardboard tubes and are waiting until next spring to hatch as fully developed mason bees.
Keeping mason bees is straightforward. The costs are low and the bees are essentially self-sufficient. Aside from the time and resources to build their home, there is a small amount of maintenance required to maintain healthy populations. Before placing the box of cocoons outside, each cocoon needs to be removed from its cardboard tube, washed under a faucet, and then dipped in a heavily diluted water/bleach mixture—removing any problematic pollen mites from the cocoons.
As part of WVML’s April Earth Month programming, the library ran two bee-themed events to raise awareness about these vital insects. Author Mark Winston, a 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award-winner, discussed his critically acclaimed book, Bee Time, and provided an insightful discussion about the important role that bees play in our lives. This highly successful event increased awareness about the serious challenges facing global bee populations and the implications to our food supply in a world without bees.
The library also held a program for 5-9 year-olds called Bee Aware that focused on experiential learning and got kids excited about raising bees of their own. Participants built homemade bee houses, learned bee facts, and officially welcomed the library’s mason bees to their new home. Library staff are excited to plan more bee programming in the months ahead.
To bee continued…
Many library systems in BC hold sustainability and their local environment as a key institutional value. If you would like more information on the logistics of incorporating mason bees into your library’s service model, Taren Urquhart would be happy to discuss the details with you. Contact her at [email protected].
Let’s get people buzzing about mason bees!
David Carson is the Communications Coordinator at West Vancouver Memorial Library.