24 August 2001

TOBEEORNOTTOBEE?

Even fancied the idea of keeping bees, but dismissed it

as too complex or dangerous? A solution could be at

hand, as Tom Montgomery reports

ESTIMATES show almost half of bee-keepers have given up the practice in the past 10 years, with varroa mite problems making traditional honey bee-keeping in hives more expensive and labour-intensive.

But the honey bee is not the only worker of field and garden blossoms. Britain has over 250 species of native bees, many equally as efficient, though a quarter are now endangered.

One of these natives is the Red Mason bee, which has great potential to complement the honey bee as a managed pollinator, especially for fruit.

Research has shown that one Red Mason will do the pollinating work of 150 honey bees and is not affected by varroa. It leads a solitary life, is docile, safe with children and pets, does not swarm and because it does not have huge stores of honey or larvae to defend it rarely stings, unless roughly handled. And compared with, say, a wasp its venom is puny.

Entomologist Chris OToole, head of the Bee Systematics and Biology Unit at Oxford – a leading research centre in the study of bees – has devised a simple idea to make every farmer and gardener his own bee-keeper.

He has designed a special nest box kit for the Red Mason and founded a business, the Oxford Bee Company, to market them. The nest boxes mimic the natural nest sites of the bees, which are usually beetle borings in dead wood or hollow plant stems. Each box has an outer plastic canister filled with cardboard tubes, like a packet of cigarettes.

When placed in a sunny, sheltered, south-facing position they will attract nest-seeking females in early spring. When the eggs hatch into larvae they will feed on a mixture of pollen and nectar and eventually pupate over the winter. The new adults will emerge the following year. Because they tend to nest close by, they will re-use the tubes, so building up numbers. As these grow more nest boxes can be added.

Eventually there should be a self-sustaining, permanent colony, a rise of three to five-fold in bee numbers in a couple of years is possible. No work is required, as the bees will look after themselves and do the pollinating. The nest boxes could also encourage other natives bees such as the Blue Mason and Leafcutter.

It has been estimated that 200 Red Mason bees will fertilise a one-acre apple orchard. The same area would need two hives containing 40,000 honeybees.

"We hope that a number of people who may have previously dismissed bee-keeping as too complex or dangerous will now consider it as a hobby, which will give them improved fruit yields and the pleasure of watching interesting bees doing interesting things," says Mr OToole.

To contact the Oxford Bee Company, telephone 01509 261654 or visit the website at www.oxbeeco.com. Small bee boxes are £9.95, large ones £19.95.

fold in bee numbers in a couple of years is possible. No work is required, as the bees will look after themselves and do the pollinating. The nest boxes could also encourage other natives bees such as the Blue Mason and Leafcutter.

It has been estimated that 200 Red Mason bees will fertilise a 1-acre apple orchard. The same area would need two hives containing 40,000 honeybees.

"We hope that a number of people who may have previously dismissed bee-keeping as too complex or dangerous will now consider it as a hobby, which will give them improved fruit yields and the pleasure of watching interesting bees doing interesting things," says Mr OToole.

To contact the Oxford Bee Company, telephone 01509 261654 or visit the website at www.oxbeeco.com. Small bee boxes are £9.95, large ones £19.95.