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Birding Business September 2015 : Bee Whiz

Bee Whiz

BY MICHAEL ANDERSON | Contributing Editor

Loss of Bees Creates a Buzz

WE HEAR THE PLEAS OF naturalists. The media is taking notice. Educators are teaching kids about it.  There’s a pollination crisis going on and wild bird stores and birding departments can help. They can take the lead and champion the cause in their communities.

Bees pollinate the fruit, vegetable, and seed crops that we rely on to survive. So what’s the buzz about? Bees, crucial to the reproduction and diversity of flowering plants, are dying at an alarming rate.

Just Bee Cause
“It’s much worse than we initially thought even a few years ago”, says Martin Parkins, an Apiary Inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “It’s been given a name, CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder, the phenomenon where social bees suddenly, mysteriously, and completely disappear from their hives.”

“In the U.S., some farmers are desperately turning to human hands equipped with pollination wands and swabs as a means to guarantee crop yields,” says Noah Wilson-Rich in his recent book The Bee – A Natural History, (Princeton University Press).

“Bees are dying at such a rapid rate that there are no longer enough hives to pollinate our nation’s commercial crops,” adds Alethea Morrison in her book Homegrown Bees (Storey Publishing).  “Now is a great time to take a part in providing a backyard bee habitat to protect our future one bee at a time.”

Birds and the Bees?
More people are hearing about CCD, but why would wild bird stores mix it up with anything “bee”?   
Most specialty wild bird retailers stock multiple product lines these days, developing niche markets that mesh with their birding/nature emphasis.

“We’re always looking for different and unique products,” says Terry Allen, Owner of For The Birds in Salem, SC. “If we can be the ones to educate customers on this bee crisis and provide them with specialty products and resources, the word-of-mouth within our community will take over and more people will come in”.

Bees Will Be Bees
At this point, you might be thinking Bees? Seriously? For my store?  You are likely visualizing bee keepers wearing white suits with netted hats sliding drawers of honey combs in and out of large boxed hive furniture covered by militant worker bees with locked-and-loaded stingers.  Forget those images. This article’s objective is: we need pollination boosters (not more honey) and wild bird stores and birding departments can help.

Indeed, honey bees pollinate, but other bees pollinate too --and do a better job of it.  Enter our hero--the Mason bee; the Ant Man of 2015--coming to save the day.

Johnny Bee Good
There are about 20,000 species of bees and only 7 are honey bees. The remainder—the biggest group of all—are the solitary bees.  Of the solitary bees, about 130 species of Mason bees live in North America. Popular family members include the Blueberry bee and the Orchard bee.

Unlike social honey bees, every Mason bee female is fertile and makes her own nest. Mason bees produce neither honey nor beeswax. Considered “super pollinators”, as few as 250 female mason bees can pollinate an acre of apple trees, compared to a colony of honey bees numbering 40,000.

The bees emerge from their cocoons in the spring, with males coming out first. The males remain near the nests waiting for the females. When the females emerge, they mate. The males die, and the females begin caring for their nests. In six to eight weeks the life cycle is over. Each Mason bee, however, has a pollinating potential of 100 times more than a honey bee.

In the wild, Mason bees nest in tree holes often made by woodpeckers and sapsuckers. They build their homes using mud (hence the name Mason). To invite them to stay around your garden, you only need to provide food for them (pollen sources).

Mason bees go about their daily business alone. They are gentle, non-aggressive, non-territorial, non-swarming, and native to North America.

“Masons are the perfect urban pollinator,” according to Brian L. Griffin, author of The Orchard Mason Bee. “They simply will not attack, singly or en-masse.  You won’t even know they’re around unless you stand and watch a nesting block. They’re easy to keep in your yard from year to year. They propagate in the smallest of back yards, and they’re fun and fascinating to watch.”

Mason bees nest most readily in straws; stiff paper tubes placed 3-6 feet above the ground.  The mated female prepares her nest by lining it with pellets of soft mud which she carries in her jaws. She uses her horns to smooth the mud into the tunnel walls. She then provisions the cell with pollen, kneading it into a paste. Each completed cell is sealed with mud.  She lays 4-6 eggs. The young bees hatch, and during the rest of the summer and through the winter, develop inside their nest cells for the rest of the summer and over winter into fully-formed bees in brown silken cocoons. They eat their way out and become active in early spring.  

To Bee or Not to Bee
Some stores are seeing an increase in their customers’ interest in bees.

“The customers are aware of the problem,” says David Peterson, Owner, Wild Bird Center of John’s Creek, Suwanee, GA. “The subject is coming up  more this year than last. Also, I have started promoting the issue by re-tweeting any article I see on the subject. Earlier this year I brought in Mason Bee Nest Kits. The customer who buys these knows of the problems. I would be open to carrying additional items.”

“We have seen a lot of interest in the bee problem here in the twin cities area,” comment Le Braun and Pam Kaufenberg, Co-Owners, Cardinal Corner, St. Paul, MN. “We started last summer selling Mason bee houses and offering information about protecting bees. We have expanded our lines of bee houses this year along with offering actual Mason bees to purchase. Some people are really stepping up and doing what they can for bees.”

“Our customers seem to have an awareness of the importance of bees and their impact on the environment,” adds Rob Blackhurst, Co-Owner, Backyard Birds, Salt Lake City, UT. “We’ve noticed that more people are telling us about the nesting boxes they’ve set up in their yards. We’ve sold Mason bee lodges for several years now. Each year, we have more people buying them.  Our customers appreciate nature and enjoy their gardens. Most of them welcome butterflies, ladybugs, and any beneficial insects to their yards.”

“Customers are starting to be aware of a shortage,” says Deborah Early, Owner, Wild Birds Unlimited of Tulsa. “We carry bee products like bee guards and mason bee houses.  There has been an increase of bee guard sales to keep them out of the hummingbird feeders and from drowning in them (resulting in fewer pollinating bees).”

Bee Fear Factor to BFF
“We have seen a significant increase in customer inquiries about bees, with a focus on Mason bees,” says Paul Oliver, Partner, Urban Nature Stores, Toronto, Canada. “In many cases, it is the kids that are aware of the problem and potential solutions because they have learned about our declining bee population in school. When customers get over their concern about bees stinging and find out that mason bees are non-aggressive and non-colony bees, then they become very interested in doing ‘their part’ to help protect and rebuild our critical pollinator population.”

Mason Meets a Mason Bee is a newly released book for children (and adults) by author Dawn Pape that helps people overcome myths about bees stinging. In the book, Mason conquers his fear of bees and is empowered to be like a superhero to help protect them.

Selling Bees
Similar to a store offering live mealworms for sale, stores can purchase Mason bees from several wholesales vendors. Only buy bees when they are dormant and in their hard-shell cocoons (November 1st - March 1st).

“We definitely do well with mason bee houses and also sell the cocoons in Feb/March,” says Linda Marzocco, Buyer, Backyard Bird Shops, Portland, OR. “We even offer classes in Mason bee housing, cleaning, etc. and they fill up fast. We have been selling mason bees and supplies for at least 5 + years. We’ve seen a steady interest in them in the Northwest and that translates into sales for sure.”

Some stores refrigerate the Mason bee cocoons to ensure a steady temperature. In the wild, a freak warm winter day could prompt the bees to emerge before there are any flowers. Not good.

The Bees Knees
If your store or birding department is ready to grab the bee by the horns, you can offer several products in the birding marketplace to help you to easily become the bee destination store.

Many ready-made houses/shelters for Mason bees can be purchased for re-sale. Look for a model built from non-treated wood with hollow tubes about 6” long and 5/16” in diameter (Bees will move in by themselves). Other consumer-desirable features include clean-out traps, roof overhangs, and predator guards.  Several books are available too.

Birding is our passion, but sharing with our customers about the bee crisis and offering customers books, nesting boxes, and other products to help with pollination could help ensure birding retailers are the ‘go-to’ places for all backyard nature products and expertise.