A friend recently gave be a handful of long, skinny cardboard tubes full of bees. She said they were mason bees and would hatch out in spring. She gave me a photocopied packet of papers by way of explanation and I learned for the first time about the wonders of pollen bees. Of the over 20,000 known species of bees, only six species are honey bees; the rest are “pollen bees.”
Pollen bees, as you might guess, are pollinators. In fact, they are more efficient pollinators than honey bees. Some of them make little sonic storms by buzzing their whole body in to create a pollen cloud when visit each flower. Crops such as tomatoes and strawberries need this “buzz pollination” in order to have fully formed fruits. Pollen bees have great names: digger bees, mason bees, sweat bees, polyester bees (which actually line their nests with plastic they make), shaggy fuzzyfoot bees, and bumble bees, to name just a few.
Unlike honey bees, many pollen bees are native to our region. They aren’t as well known because they are often solitary (don’t live in colonies), nonaggressive, and don’t make honey. However, they are gaining notoriety for their pollinating skills. Native bumble bees are often preferred over honey bees for crop pollination because they carry more pollen on their bodies, they forage in cool wet weather, individuals visit more flowers, and they don’t fly into the windows and walls of greenhouses or high tunnels. It can be challenging to get sufficient pollination in enclosed spaces like high tunnels so businesses selling bumble and other pollen bees are cropping up to meet demand.
I found that you can buy a hive of bumble bees online for $100-$350 depending on the size of the area you want pollinated. That got me thinking that raising bumble bees might be a good business to get into. The USDA Agricultural Research Service published this guide to raising bumble bees.
I also came across a site that explains how to raise orchard mason bees and a site that will buy them from you. These bees seem to have very simple requirements and might be an easier place to start than bumble bees. They are dormant for 10 months.
Now that is some low-maintenance livestock!
References: NC State Extension Entomolygist, Stephen Bambara; USDA Agricultural Research Service, Suzanne Batra, Sean Adams, Dennis Senft, www.crownbees.com