In the world of insects, honey bees and mason bees are both known as valuable pollinators. However, even these closely related members of the insect family have similarities and differences. As beekeepers, we learn to appreciate each one for their valuable contribution to our gardens and orchards. Honey bee vs Mason bee – which is the best? Any opinions?
In any group of insects, you will find lifestyle variations. Even the breeds or types of honey bees have some diversity within daily colony life. So, it is not surprising to learn that the lives of similar but not exactly the same bee families intertwine.
Comparing the Differences – Honey Bee vs Mason Bee
If you think “bee” – an image of a honey bee is one of the first things that comes to mind for many of us. Known scientifically as Apis mellifiera, honey bees are the cornerstone of the beekeeping world.
Another insect that is sometimes mistaken for a honey bee is the mason bee. They too are well-known pollinators. There are many types of mason bees that belong to various species within the Osmia genus.
Both honey bees and mason bees are beneficial to our ecosystem due to the pollination services they provide.
Characteristics and Appearance
Believe it or not, it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between a honey bee and a mason bee. They share many physical characteristics including 6 legs, 4 wings and 5 eyes. Coloring and size can be difficult to determine when you only have a quick fly-by glance.
Honey bees are approximately 1/2 inch in length and often have a well-defined black and yellow striped body. However, not all honey bees are the same color – some are lighter or darker in color. The striping can be bright or muted.
Mason bees are very similar in appearance to the honey bee. They are slightly smaller -some similar to a house fly – size ranges from 1/4 to 3/4 of an inch- and the body has a rounder appearance.
The easiest method to identify a mason bee is to look for the metallic tint. They come in colors of red, blue, black or green. Also, they lack any distinctive striping.
One of the most interesting features of mason bees is in the way they carry pollen. Unlike the honey bee that has special structures on the hind legs – most mason bees carry pollen on the undersides of their fuzzy abdomens. With a larger surface area, this makes them efficient and effective pollinators.
Lifespan and Social Structure
Both honey bees and mason bees go through the 4 insect life stages – egg, larva, pupa, adult. However the longevity and social structure within each bee family is quite different.
Honey bees do not live very long. Workers live for several weeks during Summer – while drones (males) live a few months. The queen honey bee does have a slightly longer life span- a couple of years.
One thing that truly sets honey bees apart from other insects is their highly organized social life. They live in large colonies with tens of thousands of individuals.
Within this large family there is a hierarchy and clearly defined division of labor. The queen honey bee is the only egg-laying female capable of mating. Her ability to lay fertilized bee eggs assures continuation of the colony.
The majority of individuals in the hive are sterile females. These worker bees do all the various tasks needed to support the hive.
During the warm months, some males (drone bees) are found in the hive. Their sole purpose is mating with new queens – they do no work.
Mason bees have an even shorter lifespan than honey bees. Adults only live a few weeks. There are many difference species of mason bees so expect to find some differences.
Unlike our highly social honey bees, solitary mason bees may seem to be a bit of a party pooper. But seriously, these solitary bees do not rely on any complex social structure or family to survive.
Each female mason bee is responsible for searching for food and laying her eggs. There is no work force to share in caring for young. In fact, the mother mason bee usually never meets her young.
Both honey bees and mason bees create a nest or place to rear young for the next generation. However, the social honey bee have nests that are used continuously for years. For the mason bee, the nesting structure is found – not made and only used temporarily.
Honey Bee Nests
Honey bees build homes inside cavities such as a beehive provided by a beekeeper – or maybe the hollow truck of a tree.
Here they store food, rear young and cluster together to keep warm. Unlike some insects, honey bees do not hibernate during Winter. They cluster inside the hive on cold days surviving on stored honey.
While not every individual lives to see Spring, some members of the colony do live to carry on the colony in the new year. The nest is used year after year unless the colonies dies or the bees abscond or leave for some reason.
Nests of Mason Bees
Mason bees get their name from their interesting nesting behavior. They use existing cavities – such as hollow plant stems, holes in wood (even human-made nesting boxes) as their home.
To protect their developing young, female mason bees build individual cells within these cavities using mud or other materials to seal each cell. This sealing process is what give them their title “mason”.
Female mason bees lay a egg inside a pollen ball in each brood cell. When the egg hatches, the larva receives nutrition from the pollen ball.
Then, it spins a cocoon in which to hibernate until Spring. Mason bees do not have a queen; each female is responsible for her own reproduction.
In order to have food to store or provide for growing young, bees must go out into the world and gather pollen and nectar. This is called foraging. Resources are brought back to the nests where they will be used.
The foraging behavior of honey bees is that of a generalist. They readily visit a wide variety of flowering plants.
It is not unusual for honey bees to travel several miles for food. Workers are able to communicate the location of food sources to other foragers using special dances.
Nectar is collected and converted into honey for storage. Pollen is used to feed developing young and some is stored for later as bee bread.
Honey bees are known for their dual role as pollinators and honey producers. Millions of flowers are visited to collect nectar that bees use to make honey.
Honey is the primary food source for the colony during Winter. It is stored inside wax honeycomb cells in the hive. The excess – beyond what the bees need – is available for the beekeeper to collect and use.
Some species of mason bees practice more specialize foraging than the honey bee. They focus more on certain early-blooming spring flowers and fruit trees.
This sometimes make them superior pollinators for certain crops. However, the distance mason bees fly for nectar or pollen is shorter than that of honey bees.
Mason bees rely on nectar for their dietary needs. Pollen is used as food for their offspring in the tubes with eggs.
They do not store food for long term use because they do not overwinter as a family. Instead, they hibernate inside cocoons in the nest. Mason bees do not produce honey or make beeswax.
Honey bees are good pollinators for a wide variety of plants and crops. They are able to carry large quantities of pollen on their specialized pollen baskets.
Living in large families, they are able to be moved by migratory beekeepers to crop fields. This make them useful for large fields that all bloom at the same time.
In some ways, mason bees are better pollinators than honey bees – especially for certain crops like apple and cherry trees.
Their unusual way of carrying pollen makes them very efficient at moving pollen from flower to flower. They also practice buzz pollination to vibrate pollen loose from the flowers.
It is not uncommon for gardeners or orchardists to set up mason bee houses in an attempt to boost crop yields.
Maintenance and Management
There is a reason we use the word – “beekeeper”. Keeping colonies of honey bees requires regular hive management including, hive inspections, disease prevention and more. Beekeepers work hard to maintain healthy productive colonies.
Mason bees are relatively low maintenance. Once nesting sites are in place, little human intervention is required.
Honey bees are social insects that live in organized colonies. They are important pollinators and produce honey and beeswax.
Mason bees are solitary insects that nest in pre-existing cavities. They are excellent pollinators for some plants and trees.
There are many varieties that belong to the mason bee family: blue orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria), the blueberry bee (Osmia. ribifloris) and the hornfaced bee (Osmia. cornifrons).
Worker honey bees live only about 6 weeks – 6 months while the drones (males) can live a few months. The queen bee make live for a couple of years.
Mason bees have a much shorter lifespan with their adults living only a few weeks.
A honey bee colony includes a queen, worker bees and drones. Each bee in the hive has a special role to fulfill. The mated queens lay eggs, workers perform various tasks and drones mate with new queens.
No, Mason bees are solitary insects. Each female builds her nest and provide food for her offspring.
No, mason bees do not make honey. They do not need to store food for Winter. They focus solely on pollination and reproduction.
Yes, they can but mason bees are usually very docile and you are not likely to be stung by their smooth stinger.
Both important pollinator insects fulfill roles in our ecosystem. Understanding the differences between honey bee vs mason bees is essential for beekeepers or gardeners looking to optimize pollination of the gardens or orchards. Which one is best for your situation?