You might have heard the bad news about bees. About one third of honey bee colonies died off last winter, according to a study by the Bee Informed Partnership. A report by the USDA and EPA says the trend of honey bee disappearance began in 2006, and the shortage is affecting crop production, since crops are normally pollinated by honey bees.
Dave Hunter, the owner of Woodinville-based Crown Bees, has a solution.
He sells gentle mason bees, which can be 100 times more effective at pollinating than honey bees.
When a mason bee approaches a flower, "she bellyflops in there and gets covered with pollen," Hunter said. As she flies from flower to flower, dropping pollen, "virtually every flower she touches is pollinated."
Another perk: mason bees almost never sting. Honey bees — like bumble bees, wasps and hornets — are social bees, which means they live in a hive and protect the queen bee. But mason bees are solitary bees, which means that every female is the queen of her own hive, and the bees don’t have to sting to protect each other.Hunter emphasized that he’s not trying to replace the honey bee; he just wants to offer an alternative.
Most recently, he started a bee buyback program, which lets gardeners donate their extra bee cocoons, sell them, or trade them in for beekeeping supplies. "A backyard typically needs 150 to 200 cocoons, max," Hunter said. "A lot of the people around here in Woodinville, Bothell, they have a boatload more than that."
He said it’s easy to harvest dormant mason bee cocoons, which are brown or tan and roughly raisin-sized, in the fall and winter. Mailing instructions and a form to sell or exchange the bees can be found at crownbees.com/bee-buy-back-program.
After gardeners sell or trade their cocoons to Crown Bees for about $0.25 per cocoon,
Crown Bees sells them to regional orchards and nurseries such as Molbak’s.
Joanne Horn, a member of the Woodinville Garden Club, was among the first volunteers that Hunter enlisted to help raise mason bees. She and other gardeners pick up mason bees from Hunter in March and let the bees pollinate their plants for several months, then Hunter collects them again in June, Horn said.
"For me, it just increases the pollination that goes on," said Horn, who has an orchard, raspberries, blueberries, grapes, shrubs and flowers. "I’ve had an amazing amount of fruit production in the past few years since I’ve been using mason bees."
Penn Bell, another Woodinville gardener, has borrowed mason bees from Hunter for the past three years to use in her orchard and her vegetable garden.
"I used to keep honey bees [when I lived] in a different state," Bell explained. "Honey bees, right now, isn’t something I would want to take the time to do, but mason bees are quite easy to keep."
"The honey bee is a wonderful, wonderful bee, but we’re putting a lot of pressure on it," Hunter explained. Over-managing the honey bee is causing diseases, but he thinks part of the "bee scare" is just "marketing hype."
Hunter founded Crown Bees, now the world’s largest bee company, in 2008, but bees have been his "backyard hobby" for almost 20 years. After talking to scientists and farmers, he realized he could turn his hobby into an industry. He helped start the Orchard Bee Association and is working with the USDA to find native bees to augment the honey bee.
Using mason bees is also environmentally friendly, he said, because people usually use fewer chemicals with mason bees.
"If you want to be a good bee steward, plant one native plant. Grow one piece of food.
Throw away one chemical. Try raising solitary bees," he advised.