The answer: This is an Orchard Mason Bee colony. Remember the line from the movie Field of Dreams--"If you build it they will come?" Well, I built the little "Bee Condo" as I like to call it, from a block of wood and the bees came.
Here are some links to info on Orchard Mason Bees--these links have further links at the bottom of the article too.
Actually it wasn't quite that easy. At least not the way I went about it. In fact, my wife cringes everytime I tell the story.
A great gardening friend has a yard with these "bee condos" scattered around his yard and he enjoys their benefits. I spoke with Keith, as I occasionally do when I need gardening advice, about these condos a few years back. I was intrigued but didn't do anything further about it until I happened upon a book written by a local Bellinghamster who has created quite a business around Mason Bees.
It turns out that the Orcard Mason Bee is native, unlike the honey bee, to North America. It is docile and non-aggressive but does not produce honey. However, with our current worries surrounding the dying honey bee population in the United States, the Mason Bee may just hold the answer to our problems. We can do without honey, but if our pollinating bees die off we are in big trouble where our food supply is concerned. The Mason Bee is apparently not effected by the current disease plaguing our honey bee population and because they are not the social critters the honey bee is, needing expensive hives and protective wear, they are perfect for our home garden needs.
I was at one of the local garden centers when I happened upon a display selling Orchard Mason Bees and all sorts of accesories. I decided to purchase a small colony (they are kind of expensive--$20-$25 will get you about 60 bees) and bought the bee house with the tubes the colony came in. I took it home, mounted it to the south facing side of my barn and waited for the bees to do their thing.
I had spent a couple a hundred dollars to buy a table saw and a drill press so I could make my own bee condos and to buy the initial colony of bees. I went ahead and built a condo and mounted it to the wall near where the colony had already hatched and flown off. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. After a couple of weeks I finally noticed one of the holes in my condo had been filled in. By the end of the Spring pollinating time a total of two holes had been filled in. Of the hundreds of bees that the colony should have produced only a couple of dozen new eggs had been laid for the next season. It seemed like an utter waste of money. It reminded me of the time I bought one of those netted bags full of dozens of Lady Bugs, released them in my garden and watched as they all flew off to my neighbor's garden. I didn't see another ladybug in my yard the rest of the summer.
Well, patience is a valuable virtue any gardener will tell you. Each year since, I have observed my bee condo become a little more and a little more congested. The other day I was carrying out some rinds to put in the compost bin located right below the bee condo. Out of the corner of my eye I caught some movement and looked up to see a little Orchard Bee finishing off a hole with mud. I stood watching, fascinated by the little bee working to seal up the next generation before going off to die. I have about a dozen holes filled in and I am feeling enough confidence that I may spend some time in my shop this winter creating some more bee condos.
I found out from my gardening friend Keith that I had really probably wasted my money purchasing the initial colony of Orchard Mason Bees. He said, if you had built the condo to begin with and placed it out on the fence or barn, bees already roaming the neighborhood would have eventually come to the holes and my colony would have been established. Live and learn!