Species of the month

Mason bee

When you hear about pollination, probably ‘honey bees’ come to mind, or perhaps ‘bumblebees’. These bees are indeed important pollinating agents, but, as Athayde Tonhasca explains, many other insects contribute to this vital ecological service – particularly solitary bees and hoverflies. Among these mostly overlooked pollinators, mason bees deserve to be better known for their ecological importance.

The ‘busy-bee’ bee

Some people may be surprised to know that honey bees are not that efficient as pollination goes: the pollen they collect is moistened and carried tightly packed on their corbicula (pollen baskets: the hairy cavities in the bee’s legs in which it stores the pollen (see image below)), so pollen grains are not easily dislodged. Moreover, honey bees learn quickly how to collect nectar with minimal contact with the flower’s anthers (thus reducing the chances of pollen transfer) and have high flower constancy (the trait of visiting the same type of flower over and over), which is bad news for plants that need cross-pollination between different varieties, such as apples.

Honey bee with pollen basket clearly shown

Honey bee with pollen basket clearly shown

Thus, paradoxically, honey bees’ efficiency as food collectors reduces their efficiency as pollinators. These shortcomings are offset somewhat by the huge numbers of bee workers and the fact that they are so amenable to management.

Mason bees (genus Osmia) on the other hand carry dry pollen loosely attached to their scopa (a dense mass of hairs with similar function of the corbicula; see image below). This means that more pollen grains have a greater chance of contacting the flower’s stigma. In addition, these bees collect only pollen, and have low flower constancy.

All of these traits make mason bees very efficient pollinators, so much so that over 80% of the orchard area in the main apple-producing region in Japan is pollinated by one mason bee species, Osmia cornifrons. Other related species have shown to be efficient pollinators of apples, pears, cherries, blueberries and other crops in the US, Canada and Europe, and methods to rear and manage large populations of these bees have been developed and are improving.

Red mason bee in flight carrying pollen

Red mason bee in flight carrying pollen

A welcome arrival

Here in Scotland, one species has been rapidly spreading from the south since 2006 – the red mason bee (Osmia bicornis). This is potentially good news for wild flowers and crop production, since this bee is an effective pollinator of rapeseed oil and a number of crops grown under polytunnels and glasshouses, such as strawberries and raspberries. Osmia are cavity-nesting bees; they make themselves at home in existing cracks and crevices in walls – hence the common name ‘mason bee’.

The red mason is particularly interesting for pollination purposes because it readily occupies man-made structures set up within agriculture fields for their nesting. Even better, populations can increase six-fold in one year under management if conditions are adequate, that is, the habitat is flower-rich.

Considering the significant decline of honey bee colonies in the UK and the rest of Europe, mason bees and other native species may represent an ‘insurance’ against the heavy dependency on the honey bee for pollination services.


Credits: Text by Athayde Tonhasca, image of mason bee courtesy of Jeremy Early of Nature Imaging Conservation (website at www.natureconservationimaging.com) and image of honey bee courtesy of Laurie Campbell (website at http://www.lauriecampbell.com/home.htm










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