Mason bees seen as pollination alternative as honey bees threatened
A disease that has killed off honeybees and devastated crop production along the West Coast has some Northwest farmers growing uneasy.
A Medina man is trying to do something about it before the situation stings Washington.
“We think it’s only a matter of time before it gets up here in our fields,” Steve Brustkern said of the disease, Colony Collapse Disorder. “We don’t know how bad it’s going to be, but we need a source (of pollinators).”
Several years ago, California farmers noticed a sudden decline in honeybees – vital to pollinate crops such as the state’s high-valued almond. In recent years the disease has made its way to Oregon fields and farmers fear Washington is next.
Brustkern said the disease could be stress related. It also has been linked to a virus transmitted by a mite that infests bees, as well as pesticides.
Every third bite of food has been pollinated, Brustkern said, so without the pollination, producers and consumers loose out on basic food components such as fruits, nuts and grains.
“What I’m trying to do is develop an alternative so that if honeybees continue to decline, there will be a viable alternative,” said Brustkern, who has propagated Orchard Mason bees more than 10 years.
He has 20,000 mason bees working in California almond orchards and thousands more in nesting sites around the Puget Sound, including the Bellevue Botanical Gardens. He hopes to have 500,000 mason bees by the end of next year after the bees reproduce.
It started out as a hobby for Brustkern, who does organic applications for a living. He responded to a newspaper ad regarding bee propagation and when he noticed how serious the disease was, he joined forces with Dr. Chris O’Toole, a leading bee expert from Oxford University who had the idea to test mason bees.
On a recent afternoon, Brustkern stood in the yard beside his house where he has a nesting site set up. He held up a handful of peanut-sized, live cocoons. Several bees lay outside of the cocoons, sleeping. They look like the common housefly, only with four legs instead of two.
“The nice thing about these versus honeybees is, number one, they don’t have a stinger,” he said. “The other thing is they’re only working for you – not for a queen bee like the honeybees – so all they do is pollinate.”
Indigenous to the United States, mason bees are known as “super pollinators” because they are such hard workers, he added.
This spring, when the weather starts to get into the fifties, the bees will chew their way out of the cocoon and fly off to pollinate the plants in Brustkern’s yard: fruit trees, raspberry and blackberry bushes.
They’ll pollinate for up to six weeks, before the females come back to the nesting site to lay their eggs. They’ll seal off the nest with a wall of mud and that’s where the word “mason” comes from, he explained.
At his nesting sites, the new bees will spin their own cocoons inside of paper liners in a release box that looks like a bird feeder house with small holes.
His nesting sites have garnered attention.
One woman asked him if his mason bees could help with her 20-year-old apple tree that just wasn’t getting any apples on it.
“Well they did, and now she’s got apples,” he said, noting that it’s been fun sharing that aspect with others. “I think if there’s a higher level of awareness that we’ve got a fun alternative here that’s ready to go and economically viable, that farmers will take a chance with it.”
Carrie Wood can be reached at 425-453-4290 or firstname.lastname@example.org.