High noon and the passengers in the back of Paula Bondo’s van are still asleep. As the weather warms, they’ll emerge from cocoons and their non-stop work will begin. From April to June they’ll collect nectar and pollinate one of every three bites of food Americans consume.
Bondo is part of a growing movement to raise bees in backyard gardens and increase their numbers. In this case, mason bees, so named because they build their nests using dabs of mud to pack around each egg. These gentle, solitary bees are pollinating powerhouses. One mason bee can do the pollinating work of 100 honeybees.
Bondo waits at a Park and Ride in Kirkland for her charges to be picked up by bee-raising partners. “That’s it, the bees and the house.” Bondo hands a wooden tray full of cocoons to a gardener.
Most gardeners and farmers are aware of the honey bee’s plight. After all, honeybees pollinate fruit blossoms and produce sweet amber honey. Colony collapse disorder, though, has decimated their numbers, forcing growers to turn to other pollinators for solutions. Pollinators, like the mason bee, less impacted by pesticides, disease and mono-crop growing methods without shrubs, flowers or cover crops.
Dave Hunter, president of the Orchard Bee Association, is owner of Crown Bees of Woodinville. He began to introduce mason bees to gardeners four years ago. Two and a half million of these gentle pollinators have been released nationwide. His goal is four billion. To reach it, he needs backyard gardeners willing to raise bees and supply cocoons to orchards.
"One backyard gardener might have four hundred cocoons," he explains. "Those four hundred cocoons in an orchard would handle a complete acre. So you’re going to get how many tons of cherries from that one gardener’s backyard? That’s the magic of what we’re doing.”
At Hunter’s bustling home office operation, hundreds of thousands of mason bee cocoons are removed from wooden trays and placed in PVC tubes for release locally or for shipment across the country. Each tube holds fifty to one hundred bees. “We’re having the gardeners release these just a little at a time. So, #1 tube will go out in a week or so, #2 a couple of weeks into April and #3 probably in late April.”