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50 Degrees and Bees

By Linda Zielinski

posted March 1, 2024

March is upon us, and possibly you've spotted a bee or two in your garden. Here in midtown Anacortes, I haven't seen a bee. The twelve mason bee nests created last summer in my little mason bee hotel are still quiet. I'm hoping the bees aren't dead but just slumbering. (More on bee hotels to follow. . .)

What does it take for queen bumble bees to arise from diapause? And the other native bees who've spent winter metamorphosing underground in tunnel nest cells, or in dead stems of berry bushes and elderberry...what cues them to make their grand appearances?  

Well, Oh Gardener, what temperature creates your own need to start fiddling with a shovel, a trowel, a seed packet of peas or spinach?? That's right! 50 degrees! Preferably with some sun, no rain, and little wind!  

Just as I might grab a single 50-degree day and decide to plant but then find all chance of germination lost to sodden soil from a predicted five days of rain, or dipping temperatures, so too bees are looking for three (or better, ten) 50-degree days. Then, they stand a chance of digging their way out of their tunnels and stems, mating, and getting on with their short but productive lives. 

A queen bumblebee can crawl out of her long slumber in a litter of leaves on a 50-degree day, do a little nectar foraging, and begin her search for a nest site.  If the weather turns, she'll go back into protection and wait it out. I like to think that she's an adult bee, with a little street sense, and will figure it out.  I worry about the other native bees, who've never seen the light of day. Once they break through the protective leaf or clay layer and crawl out of their tunnels and stems, there's no turning back. 

Will these bees find forage, so early in the year?  What's blooming in my yard right now that bees can use? I've got tall Oregon grape and flowering red currant just beginning to bloom, Indian plum, Cornelian cherry, hellebore, cyclamen, wind anemone, grape hyacinth, snow drops, arabis, vinca, and crocus ('twas on a blue crocus, last year when I focused and saw a bumblebee queen in her glory!)

Blooming now, but not usable by bees: forsythia, and most daffodils (most, not all, are overbred and lacking nectar and pollen). 

More on bee hotels... I can feel my interest fading in my little hotels for mason bees, but I'll give it one more year because it's fun to see if and when they are used.  Last year I bought a couple of decent, take-apartable (and therefore cleanable) hotels, and decided to let my garden supply the bees, rather than ordering bee cocoons. Twelve mama bees took me up on my invitation. They set the table for some baby bee production by forming brood cells, gathering pollen and nectar, laying eggs, and capping each cell with clay.  I brought them into a cold garage for the winter and now they're outside facing south, and only they can know when those 50-degree days are kicking in to their liking.  I feel that these hotels make easy pickings for much in one place!  If left to their own way of doing things, the mason bees nest here and there, and aren't such a target.  If I had an orchard, I might well feel differently, though, as they are admirable pollinators, these mason bees.

Meanwhile, my snow peas are not planted outside. I shall wait until those new mason bees make their appearance! 

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