Come spring, we can all become dutiful landlords with only a mug and 124 straws plugged in, effectively helping to boost our food supply and our planet.

That’s the hope of Emily Huffstetler, a Maryville High School senior who has worked on her Gold Award for Girl Scouts, the equivalent of the Boy Scout Eagle. Her project involves teaching us how to construct homes for mason bees and hanging them in our backyards. The native bees then will lay their eggs in them, with adult bees later emerging and pollinating all the trees, flowers and vegetables they possibly can.

All it takes are coffee mugs and straws, Emily explained. She put out a request last year at America Recycles Day for donated mugs and got hundreds, enough to get started. The bee house constrution is to then place 124 straws into the mugs, so the straws are snug and won’t fall out. Once that’s done, all that’s left is to hang the structure about 3 feet off the ground, preferably facing southeast, this Girl Scout said.

Bees on a mission

Mason bees will find the manmade homes and lay their eggs in the cavities of the straws. They are native bees, quite common throughout the U.S. They are smaller than honeybees.

These bees get their names due to their habit of using mud or other masonry products to construct their nests, which are made in naturally occurring gaps. Some prefer cracks between stones or the hollow stems or holes in wood made by wood-boring insects. But they also will come to your backyard for the mug design, which Huffstelter came up with on her own.

Once she got her design worked out, Emily began holding workshops to help others build their own mason bee houses. Mason bees are native bees, and although they don’t produce honey, are excellent pollinators.

It was while researching bees that Emily came to understand the importance of that process. The bee population in the U.S. was depleted by 33% in just one year. This past winter saw the most U.S. honeybee colony losses in more than a decade, according to the nonprofit Bee Informed. Most plants rely on pollinator, like bees, to reproduce.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has noted that pollinators, most often honeybees, are responsible for one in every three bites of food we eat.

So far, Emily has participated in Knoxville’s Earth Fest, where she conducted a mason bee house workshop.

“At that event, 122 mason bee houses were made.” she said. “I talked to a lot more people than that. I ran out of supplies. It was a dreary day and I was impressed to see all of these people out there who care about the Earth.”

In addition to these mug houses, Emily also has made homes for mason bees by boring holes in blocks of wood to also hang up. She has two of those designs at Maryville College — one next to Crawford House and the other in the MC orchard. The one at Crawford House is attached to a bat house.

Despite getting many mugs donated to her, Emily quickly realized there would be a cost of the straws as she went place to place with her project. She applied for and received a grant through the Girl Scouts for $500.

Plastic straws are best, this homebuider said. Recycled ones will work. They must be halved in order to fit inside the mugs. Because plastic lasts forever, these homes will have years of use. Paper straws also can be used, Emily said, but they are harder to work with and must be replaced every two years.

Good tenants to have

“Mason bees are creatures of habit so they come back time and time again,” Emily said.

Female mason bees emerge in early spring and immediately begin to forage for pollen and nectar, which they collect from fruit trees, berries, flowers and vegetables. They pack the food into the far end of each straw cavity, enough to feed a young bee. Once she lays an egg in there, she seals up the hole with mud or other natural material. The pollen collecting and egg laying will continue for six weeks, after which the bee will die.

The eggs hatch in just a few days. The larva spins a cocoon and pupates. They remain in the cocoons throughout winter, making their appearance in early spring.

Erin Huffstetler, Emily’s mom, said her family initially did research on bees after they had an apricot tree bloom and there were no bees to pollinate. This happened in February, she said. That’s when this family learned that mason bees are busy earlier in the season than honeybees.

This family has made a pledge to do more with less. They grow some of their own food and shop thirft stores and yard sales. They sell many products they make from recycled goods and natural products on their website, They also offer tips for others to do the same.

Numbers don’t lie

One Girl Scout in Blount County is having a profound effect on crop pollination. As she explained it, she has built 222 houses by herself and through workshops. Each house has 124 straws, with the female mason bee laying about 15 eggs per hole. That’s support for 412,920 mason bees, Emily said.

Other benefits to raising mason bees versus honeybees is the non-aggressiveness of the mason bees, Emily pointed out. The males don’t have stingers and the females rarely sting. The cost is much lower than maintaining hives for honeybees and because mason bees are solitary, they aren’t susceptible to colony diseases.

Erin said her daughter had a beekeeper who mentored her through this process. He decided to put up two mason bee houses.

“He didn’t even hang them up,” Erin said. “He just put them on his porch. All the holes were filled up.”

Emily will continue to educate the community on the benefits of mason bees and hold workshops for building the structures. She has done so at a local nursing home and at school. She also has a website where more information is available.

“I wanted to make this easy for all ages,” Emily said. “I want to do whatever I can to help bees.”

Melanie joined The Daily Times in the early 90s and has served as the Life section editor since 1993. A William Blount and UT alum, Melanie is generally the early arriver who turns on the lights in the newsroom.

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