Washington-based Rent Mason Bees is on a mission to deliver solitary bees—the latest trend in organic gardening—to farmers and gardeners across the country.
Forget everything you think you know about bees—Thyra McKelvie wants to shatter your misconceptions and take the sting out of any fear, all in the hope that spreading some education will result in a healthier, more abundant planet.
McKelvie oversees the pollination program at the Bothell, Washington-based Rent Mason Bees, located roughly 25 minutes northeast of Seattle. Rent Mason Bees is the only program of its kind in the U.S., connecting home gardeners and large-scale farmers alike with solitary bees, which are lesser known to the mainstream public than honeybees, though they’re far friendlier, heartier, and more productive. “Solitary bees pollinate 95 percent of the flowers they land on, while honeybees pollinate only five percent,” McKelvie explained. “Three or four mason bees can pollinate 2,000 blossoms each in a day—that’s an entire apple tree.”
Solitary bees—mason and leafcutter are among the most common varieties—are so named because, unlike honeybees, they don’t live together in a hive, nor do they produce wax or that sweet substance made from a flower’s nectar. But their mission is just as vital, and perhaps more so, McKelvie said. “We call them super pollinators, and they’re critical to food production all over the U.S. Consider that one in every three bites of food you consume was made by a pollinator, and you start to understand the role of solitary bees in our ecosystem.”
Mason bees are also quite simply adorable, she added. “The little hairs on which they collect pollen are located on their abdomens, so when they land on a blossom, they sort of belly flop onto it,” McKelvie said. “They’re really just the sweetest, friendliest little bees. The males don’t have stingers, and they’re not protecting a hive or a queen, so you can simply watch them work. The females have a stinger, but it’s the tiniest pinch, and for the most part they leave you alone. If you get stung, it’s most likely because you stepped on one by mistake.”
And make no mistake: solitary bees like masons or leafcutters are enjoying an incredible surge of interest. Between the always increasing demand for farm-to-table dining concepts, the rise of restaurant kitchen gardens, and the explosion of home gardening that sprouted during the COVID-19 pandemic, super pollinators are in high demand. “They’ve been waiting to have their moment, and I think their moment has finally arrived,” McKelvie said.
Whether you’re someone who maintains a container garden on a balcony, you’re a chef who prefers to harvest his or her own microgreens grown in a greenhouse space, or you’re a farmer whose organic products stock restaurants and grocery stores, the presence of solitary bees can only help you. That’s why McKelvie’s family-owned company created Rent Mason Bees, to make the process virtually effortless. Rather than owning a bee house that requires regular maintenance to ensure that predators and other elements don’t cause more harm than good, Rent Mason Bees provides a kit in the spring that allows the renter—also known as “the host”—to hang the provided nesting block, which contains a tube of cocoons, in a south-facing location. The bees soon emerge from their cocoons and embark on their summer duties, which not only include pollination, but also laying eggs to create the next generation.
In the fall, both the house and nesting block are returned to Rent Mason Bees, where employees extract the new cocoons, heat-treat and wash the nesting blocks to kill pollen mites and other predators, and finally place the cocoons in cold storage for their winter hibernation. “We want to make it as easy as possible, but by doing so, we’re also ensuring the next generation of solitary bees has the best chance for success,” McKelvie said.
No garden or farm is too big or small to participate. McKelvie lives on Bainbridge Island, just west of Seattle in Puget Sound, and says the company has donated more than 60,000 bees to the island farmers that supply food to local restaurants. “We also work with Select Harvest U.S.A., one of the world’s largest almond manufacturers; they use our mason bees to pollinate,” McKelvie noted of the Turlock, California-based grower. “Almonds, apples, blueberries, pears, cherries—that’s just the start of where you’ll find our bees.” A program also has been rolled out to cater to the growing number of schools that maintain gardens, McKelvie added. “We’ve created workbooks and worksheets, and we love the idea that we’re creating a generation of backyard scientists who care about bees.”
Ultimately Rent Mason Bees participants aren’t only ensuring healthy pollination for their individual gardens or crops, they’re also directly involved in enriching the overall environment. And chances are good they’re also spreading the word about the power of solitary bees. “We consider our hosts not only essential to the process, they’re also our advocates,” McKelvie asserted. “Everybody can have a voice and teach others; in any campaign, any movement, the success comes when voices get louder.” But there’s one statement that resonates above all others, she said—“Our bees make your food.”