Blue Orchard Mason Bees and Their Condo in Kensington Park

Blue bees were a great surprise to me when I first discovered them. I had always thought of bees as yellow, orange, and black insects until that moment. It was lovely to see the beautiful flashes of metallic blue created by blue orchard mason bees as they explored flowers.

The city where I live is currently encouraging people to care for bee condos designed to house the mason bee, which is a very helpful pollinator. A “bee condo” is an artificial structure that provides a suitable place for bees to lay their eggs. There’s a condo in a park near my home. Pollinators are facing a range of problems today and need our support. 

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Blue orchard mason bee; photo by Robert Webster, CC BY SA 4.0 license

The Blue Orchard Mason Bee

The blue orchard mason bee has the scientific name Osmia lignaria. The scientific name is useful to identify the bee when it’s being discussed. Since the common name of the insect is quite a mouthful, it’s often abbreviated. The insect is sometimes called the blue orchard bee, for example.

The insect is found in both Canada and the United States. Mason bees are solitary insects that get their name from the nest that they build for themselves. They use mud, clay, or grit to build the nest. They are also known as orchard bees because they are excellent pollinators of fruit trees. According to the University of Florida, Osmia lignaria is also valued for pollinating blueberry bushes.

Blue orchard mason bees are solitary insects and don’t live in a hive. They don’t produce beeswax or honey, either. They are capable of stinging but rarely do. They carry pollen on the underside of their body instead of on their legs.

The females create their nest in tubular cavities that they find, such as a hole in a tree trunk, a crack in a stone, or even a piece of a hose or a section of a pipe. Although the animals are solitary, in a bee condo they readily build their nest in an individual compartment surrounded by the compartments of other bees.

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A magnified view of the back of Osmia lignaria; photo from USDA, public domain license

Life Cycle

The insect’s life cycle begins with the emergence of the new females and males from their cocoons. A male mates with a female and soon dies. The female then looks for a roughly tubular cavity in which she can lay her eggs.

Once she’s found a good spot to create her nest, the female builds a layer of mud at the back of the tube. She then collects pollen and nectar, which she deposits on top of the mud layer. She presses the materials into a ball to support the egg that she lays. The ball provides food for the developing bee. The female seals the egg in the cavity with a mud wall while leaving space for the larva to develop. The wall acts as the back of the next chamber. The bee then repeats the process, laying one egg after another in a chain of chambers. The final egg is sealed in the nest with a thick covering of mud.

The females die before the winter arrives. The eggs develop into larvae and eventually adults within the chambers. In the following spring, the new adults break through the mud wall that covers them and emerge from the nest. The cycle then continues.

Researchers have discovered that the eggs in the back part of the nest produce females and the ones in the front produce males. This allows the males to emerge first in the spring and to be ready to mate with a female as soon as she appears. It has been suggested that it’s also a protective mechanism for the population. If a predator attacks the nest, they will reach the males first and may not get to the females. Although some males are needed for fertilization, the females are more important to the population because they lay the eggs that produce the next generation.

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Blue orchard mason bee larvae in their chambers; photo by USDA, public domain license

The Importance of Pollinators

The USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) says that “three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about 35 percent of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce”. Bees are by far the most common of the animal pollinators in the world.

According to the USDA, while honeybees are very important for pollinating commercial crops in North America, native bees such as the blue orchard mason bee are better for pollinating our native plants. (Honeybees are not native to the continent.) Blue orchard mason bees are bred in captivity and sold to farmers for their pollination abilities.

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A bee condo in Kensington Park

Kensington Park and Its Bee Condo

Kensington Park is an enjoyable place for the people in my area to visit. It offers multiple attractions, including a pitch and putt golf course, an ice skating rink, an outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, a running track, and a children’s play area.

My favourite part of the park is the large area of grass to the north of the facilities. This contains scattered picnic tables and trees as well as a section containing cultivated plant beds. This section is located near a main road and is where the bee condo has been erected. The traffic doesn’t seem to deter the bees. Commercial fruit growers may create similar structures in their orchards in order to house their bees. The structures can also be bought in some stores or can be handmade.

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A close-up view of the bee condo

The “condo” is a box filled with tubes placed at the top of a tall pole. Similar condos are found in other parks in the area as well and seem to be successful. At the start of winter, the tubes are removed and cleaned. They contain cocoons, each of which contains an adult bee. The adults don’t emerge from the cocoons until the spring, however. The cocoons are removed from the tubes and stored until spring begins. The cleaned tubes are eventually returned to the box that acts as their enclosure.

I took the photos of the condo in this article, but I had to use other people’s photos of the bees. I do have my own photos, but they are too blurred to use. I’m determined to get a good photograph of the insects this summer, assuming the bees appear again. I very much hope that they do, not only for my sake but also for the sake of the plants that they pollinate.

References

Wolverines in British Columbia: Facts and Research

I think that wolverines are intriguing animals that are worth studying. They are the largest member of the weasel family, but they’re so big and have such long and thick fur that they look more liked a small bear than a weasel. Though the animals have a wide range in British Columbia, they aren’t common anywhere. This assumption may be wrong due to our lack of knowledge, however.

Wolverines are reclusive creatures that are rarely seen and aren’t widely studied. They live deep in the forest at high elevations that are often covered with snow. The animal is listed as a “species of concern” in the province.

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Wolverine photo by William F. Wood, CC BY-SA 4.0 license

The scientific name of the wolverine is Gulo gulo. “Gulo” means glutton in Latin. The name was likely given to the animal because of its habit of devouring much of its food source, including the bones.

Physical Features of a Wolverine

Wolverines are generally about as big as a medium-sized dog. They are stocky and muscular animals with a wide head, a pointed muzzle, small eyes, and small and rounded ears. Their legs are short and their claws are semi-retractable. Unlike a dog, wolverines are plantigrade, which means they walk with the sole of their foot on the ground.

A wolverine’s fur is mainly dark brown. Two lighter strips start at the nape of the neck and travel along each side of the body. The stripes are often light brown but are occasionally cream. White or orange patches may be present on the chest and/or throat. The animal’s coat is oily and hydrophobic (water repellant). These properties are useful in a frosty or snowy environment.

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A wolverine in Sweden; photo by Jonathan Othén, CC BY-SA 4.0 license

Diet

The wolverines in British Columbia are primarily scavengers, though they sometimes hunt animals as large as caribou. The animals have a reputation for being ferocious, but researchers say that this is not always deserved. Wolverines are social when with their companions and are timid when humans are around. They have an excellent sense of smell and hearing, but their eyesight is not as good. The animals can smell the bodies of dead animals under the snow.

Wolverines travel long distances every day in order to find food. I’ve read claims that they journey anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five miles in a single day. They climb trees with ease and swim when necessary. The pads on their feet act like snowshoes, enabling the animals to travel well over snow. Their long and curved claws enable them to grab hold of icy surfaces.

Wolverines depend on snow in important ways. The animals don’t hibernate. The female builds a den in the snow in which to produce her kits, or young. The animals also preserve food by freezing it. Eating frozen food is no problem for them. Their strong jaws and sharp teeth enable them to easily chew the solid food.

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Distribution of the wolverine according to IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) data; public domain image

Behaviour

The animals are sometimes said to be nocturnal. It would be more appropriate to call them cathemeral, as can be seen from the daytime photos of the animal. A cathemeral animal is active at any time during the day and night. It often alternates short periods of sleep with short periods of activity.

Wolverines are solitary in the sense that they don’t gather in large groups to hunt. They are less solitary than was once thought, however. Once the kits are born, the youngsters stay with their mother for as long as a year. In addition, researchers have discovered that in at least some cases the father periodically returns to the group.

As in other members of the weasel family (the Mustelidae), the anal glands of wolverines produce a secretion that smells very unpleasant to humans. The animals are sometimes known as skunk bears. The secretion is used to mark their territories.

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A wolverine in a zoo; photo by Birgit Fostervold, CC BY 2.0 license

Reproduction

Wolverines mate in summer, but the resulting embryo doesn’t implant in the lining of the uterus until early winter. This interesting phenomenon is known as delayed implantation. After a gestation period of thirty to fifty days, two or three kits are born in February or March. The fur of the newborns is white.

The lifespan of the animals seems to be highly variable. They are said to have lived up to seventeen years in captivity. In the wild, they may not survive beyond eight years.

Research Techniques

A group of BC scientists has recently expressed renewed interest in wolverines. They are planning to set up bait areas and camera traps so that they can study and photograph the animals without permanently harming them.

Researchers in other areas have enticed the animals into cages with bait. Their aim is for the animal to leave some of its hair on the wire of the cage wall as it tries to escape. The animal is eventually released. The hairs and any attached cells are then examined in order to analyze any DNA that’s found. The process is obviously stressful for the animal, but it provides information without killing the wolverine. It’s possible that stress or injury in the cage may harm the wolverine, though. I don’t know whether the “bait areas” set up by British Columbian scientists will use the same strategy.

Camera traps are areas where a camera is automatically triggered to take a photo when an animal moves in front of it. Various detection methods are used to trigger the camera. A researcher periodically visits the area to see what photos have been taken. They put the camera setup in places where the animals that they are studying are likely to visit. Studying wolverines in this way can sometimes be difficult, however, because their population has a low density and the animals have a large home range. These factors make it hard for researchers to find them.

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Face of a wolverine; photo by Wildfaces, CC0 public domain license

Research Goals in British Columbia

BC scientists are interested in determining how the creation of transportation networks for humans is affecting the animals. They are also concerned about the influence of  climate change on wolverines. The animals are physically and behaviourally adapted for life in a snowy environment in multiple ways. A decrease or loss of snow may have major effects on their lives.

Wolverine Watch is a research group that is asking the public to report evidence of the animal’s presence in the province. Two goals of the group are to conserve the area where the wolverines live as well as the animals themselves. The group is asking people not to follow or disturb the animals if they are discovered but to notice and record what they are doing and in what direction they are travelling.

The latest information that has been gathered suggests that the total number of animals in the southwestern part of the province is good, but the groups are widely separated and vulnerable. Hopefully all of the research that is being done will reveal enough details for us to significantly increase our knowledge of wolverines in British Columbia, assess any problems that they may face, and create solutions for these problems.

References