Why we raise Mason Bees

This article first appeared in the Island Word in spring, 2012.

It’s late March, and the kitchen table has been taken over once again by bee houses. There are containers of small black cocoons crowding the refrigerator. We hope no one mistakes them for beans. Here at the table we gently pry bee cocoons from the tunnels that they share with mites and predators in our wooden Mason bee houses.

When things start blooming, we will put cocoons in a small cardboard box with a quarter-inch hole for the new bees to emerge from, and we will put this atop a nesting box with clean tunnels for the females to return to. The newly hatched female bees will close off the back of each tunnel with mud, then bring pollen and nectar supply and then lay an egg, then a mud wall to form a cell for beginning another new bee. Another pollen and nectar plug, an egg, more mud. Another pollen supply, and egg, a mud wall…until the tunnel is full. Over the summer the eggs will hatch, the larvae will eat and grow, and by September new cocoons will be spun with next year’s bees inside.

Mason bees are one of thousands of species of pollinating insects that are wild and native to Canada. They don’t make honey, sting, or work cooperatively in hives. Where honey bees are valued for their long and versatile pollinating season, native pollinators are equally important for their very efficient and intense work of pollinating, each species covering a shorter and more specific season of blooms. They are part of the intricate web of co-evolved, inter-dependent and mostly invisible-to-us life that sustains our own presence on this planet.

Like most smallish critters, the bees are part of the food chain and thus have a low natural survival rate. Even our coddled and protected bees cannot escape being food for predators. We control the presence of pollen mites but in some of the cells, the mites eat the pollen supply first and the mason bee larva starves. Others still fall prey to parasitic wasps before they get the chance to take wing. One year we awoke to the toc-toc-toc of an eager woodpecker mama who was systematically emptying our bee-houses of their fat larvae, while her enormous fluffy-but-incompetent youngster stood by with open beak.

This year Serena actually suggested we might pass the supplies and knowledge to someone else, and get out of the bee business. Our lives seem so crowded now with our private practice, our sandwich-generation family life, and the encroaching aches and pains of age. We have little time for human friendship, does it make sense to keep up with this one-more-thing hobby?

But our bee hobby is another kind of friendship, and it has worn its way deep into our lives. To hold a cocoon while the bee hatches, cleans itself, poops and takes to the air (all within a minute) is to witness an intimate and thrilling thing. It shows us there is more than one kind of intelligence in the world, and that feelings akin to joy and purpose may not be unique to the human animal. Survival and reproduction behaviors must just feel right and good to the animal, no matter how small, or they wouldn’t be done. And life would stop. Is it possible that joy is all that marks the difference between energy conversion machines and life forms? Perhaps our capacity toward wonder and awe is not an accident of evolution, but rather a key component that motivates us to keep life going a little bit longer; until the next generation can pick up the job. We will protect what we love.

Economists make much of productive labor, which produces a surplus of goods that can be hoarded, stolen, traded, bought, or sold. Honey bees are one of the rare animals that engage in productive labor (they can be induced to produce more honey than they actually use, and we can speculate that this innovation allows them to ‘trade’ the excess honey for the protection and care of a bee-keeper, which in turn increases their own survival success).

But most critters stick to reproductive labor, and much of that labor is wasted, so to speak, on youngsters that merely end up as food supply for some other species. Our bees just copulate, gather pollen, lay eggs and pass on; provided they don’t get eaten first. It’s a way of life that doesn’t conquer anything, build any empires, leave any monuments, or discover anything new. It goes in circles and doesn’t get anywhere. Yet there is probably something glorious about diving into a blossom full of pollen; a moment of joy in the life of a bee.

This is a difficult time in the Patterson and Grünberg home. Our much-loved son is making choices that are difficult to accept but impossible to prevent. Serena’s relationship with physical pain frustrates her passion to get out and change the world. Monika’s German Mutti, our Oma, is recovering from radical cancer surgery. Everything changes, and we never do know what next year or even next week will bring.

Because we were children of the cold war, we spent a lot of time in our youth thinking about what we’d be doing when the nuclear holocaust came. The disasters we fear now are less dramatic, more personal: a child losing its way, a parent suffering, our own eventual and inevitable deaths. Still, like gardening, making soup, comforting friends, or listening to a child’s day, protecting and raising mason bees is one of the things we’d like to be caught doing when any size of holocaust comes down.

On a day when all seems lost, Nature doesn’t say, “Write a great novel. Get famous. Build a monument to outlast your short time on earth.” Nature tells our bees to “emerge when its warm enough. Have sex. Find a nest. Collect enough pollen and nectar to feed the egg. Lay an egg. Build a little wall, and start again. Sometimes, sit in the sun and warm yourself. Our bees share this with us. Raising bees might not stave off disaster, but it does stave off depression.

To be quite honest, getting that great novel written would be a comfort, as well. Serena is a poor, impatient Buddhist at heart whose ability to accept the Zen of life only goes so far. And that is precisely why we aren’t giving away the bee boxes this year. We need the practice.