Adventures of an Amateur Mason Bee Keeper – Part 1

Installment One – Spring – Tuesday April 25th

After a disastrous experience in 2016* I was determined to do things right in 2017. BSWCD asked if I would blog about this year’s journey for their newsletter, so please follow along and hopefully we’ll learn together. (And for the bees’ sake – wish me luck!) I hope to make a couple seasonal installments: In this spring post I’ll talk about my bee-box design, placement, and early stages of the process (cocoon deployment, hatching, etc). In summer I’ll report on how things went up until my bringing in of the tubes once the females have laid all their eggs and died (to keep their progeny safe from predatory wasps). If all goes well, hopefully I’ll have a third report sometime in October that covers cocoon harvesting and storage. After that, maybe a short next-spring follow-up, so as to come full circle? We’ll see…

Let’s start with what we know already (a review, to be sure we’re all on the same page). Obviously mason bees can (and do) go it on their own in wild habitat everywhere, so it’s not like we’re saving them from extinction; they will survive without our help. What we are doing (when we deploy nesting boxes and such for them) is stewardship: we’re trying to enhance their existence so that they will thrive and multiply – and of course pollinate their little butts off for us. So if we can aid and accelerate their proliferation, we all benefit! What’s not to like?
How do we help them along? We make sure they have access to the things they need – pollen, nectar, water, mud and a place to lay eggs; protection from the elements, pesticides, predators and mites; and safe overwintering so they can hatch in spring, pollinate for us, and start the cycle over again.
Most of us now know the basics of mason-bee keeping so I won’t go into those details here except to mention them in context. If you’re new to all this and compelled to learn more, there’s a lot of great info on BSWCD’s website.

Bee Box Design

I guess you could say I am an artist; I love to make things – in particular, things of both beauty and function. I love to work with found objects and things from nature, to use my hands, senses and tools at hand as much as possible. So I couldn’t just go out and buy a bee box… I had to make my own.

Excited about her new bee box design, Debbie brings it to the Native Plant Sale in February to show Jerry Paul and other BSWCD folks.

One interesting thing I learned from Jerry Paul (BSWCD mason bee maven) is that visual variation of the nesting tube ends helps the females navigate to their own tubes for egg-laying (more on this later). He also showed me how store-bought nesting tubes aren’t the only way to go — that any natural tubelike hollow about 6-inches long and approximately the diameter of a drinking straw works as long as it’s breathable (so that the moisture from the tiny mud cell walls they build between eggs can evaporate and the mud can dry), and as long as they are easy to split open somehow when it comes time to harvest cocoons. Teasel was a prime candidate material, and since it seems to be in abundance (once you start looking, you see it everywhere!) I chose to use that, in combination with some store-bought tubes. It will be interesting to see if the bees have a preference for one over the other! (I’ll let you know what I find out in my next blog post.)
Because of my traumatic experience last year where my nesting tubes got all wet I was pretty keen on making sure that THAT mistake would not be repeated. I thought about several different roofing materials, but of course we have to be cognizant of the bees’ sensibilities; I was all set to use a water seal-type coating on the wood of the roof until I learned that the chemicals in it were not bee-safe. In the end I left the wood plain and provided plenty of overhang plus a small ‘ridge cap’ to keep water out at the apex.

Note wet roof but nice dry nesting tubes.
Lots of roof overhang!

To house cocoons — you can actually buy them now; it’s a great way to jump-start your bee box. Ideally you only need to buy them your first season, as thereafter you’ll be harvesting and using your own — I used a short length of PVC tube with caps on both ends (no glue, just friction fit), drilling a 5/16” hole in the exposed end so the hatchlings would see the light and know where to emerge. I cut some old packing foam to fit snugly in the triangular space above the nesting tubes then a round hole in that to hold the cocoon tube. My idea was to support it so it wouldn’t rattle around, but mainly I wanted to block earwigs and spiders and such from setting up shop in there where I couldn’t get at them to brush them away.

Foam insert around PVC cocoon tube in upper compartment.

The teasel tubes were a bit of work, but well worth it in the end. They look so cool! Finding ones that were not only the right interior diameter but also long enough between leaf joints to meet that 6-inch length requirement — where the leaf comes off the stem there is a solid bit which provides a natural tube ‘end cap’ — was tricky though. Lots of teasel were too narrow, too fat or had segments too short. Eventually I got a feel for which were the right size. As it was very wet this February when I was gathering them, I also had to dry them out before using. Whittling off their prickery skin was easier when they were still damp though, so I did that first, then spread them out in front of the wood stove to dry.

In the final assembly, with Jerry Paul’s comment in mind (about making the tube openings visually distinct from one another), I chose to vary their lengths (always at least 6 inches though) and intermix teasel and paper tubes, adding small branch segments as needed in-between to fill out the gaps and make them all fit snugly together in the box. (I used some rubber bands too.) Another advantage to the branch segment “fill” is that (I’m thinking positively here) in subsequent years I can remove the sticks and replace them with tubes as my bee population increases, without having to build a new bee box. Room to grow, as it were!

Location, location, location

In the end I built two nest boxes – one for up by the house (to pollinate the garden and plantings nearby) and another for down in our small orchard (to pollen— yeah, duh).

Bee box in orchard, March 1st.

The house one faces almost due south; the orchard one faces ESE (you want the face of the box to have nice morning sun exposure, if possible). There was ample access to water and mud in both locations (especially this year – jeez!), and lots of potential blooming things; in addition to the orchard there is lots of Oregon grape around, and wild plum and bitter cherry… but I tell you I have been on tenterhooks, fretting over whether there will be enough things blooming when they hatch to provide for them! It has been so rainy and windy and cold… my plants are blooming a good month later than last year; the poor bees! They’re pretty tough and resilient though as compared to honey bees, so I’m trusting they’ll be okay…

Box and cocoon deployment, bee activity

I set both boxes out the end of February, so as to capture any potential early wild mason bees looking for a home (I don’t think there were any). It snowed March 6th. Deployed half the cocoons (a quarter in each bee box) mid-March (3/12), and the rest late March (3/26), then was given some “bonus” cocoons by Jerry in early April (4/7) which I put out immediately because the males were already starting to emerge!

Speaking of emerging bees, my husband was the first to spot males hatching — wild ones, out of the tiny gap between the tongue-and-groove log-ends of our house**!

Check out the two little guys peeking out of the crack!

This was on March 28th. I knew they were males because of the tiny white noses. It’s how you tell them from the females. The males are smaller, hatch first, and have white noses, so that’s how I identify them. And their only job is to fertilize the females, so they more or less hang out waiting for them to hatch. I’ve seen them lurking inside some of the nesting tubes (again: white nose = dead giveaway).

Males biding their time, waiting for females to hatch.

Sometimes they lose patience; I watched as a male repeatedly went in and out of the cocoon tube, then did a little abdomen-waggling song-and-dance outside the opening, then went in again/out again followed by more waggling. Then he chased off another male that flew too close, and finally repeatedly flew at and banged on the tube end! Literally. You could hear it. Knock-knock ladies! I await your lovely presence! Time is of the essence!
I saw my first female on April 14. How did I know it was a female? Because Mister Lurking Nearby tackled her the moment she emerged and it was wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am right there on the ledge of the bee box, after which they both flew off. Whew, that was fast!

I have been going out daily to check both boxes for activity, and am finally able to confirm, here in late April, that females are beginning to lay eggs. When it’s not too windy or rainy, I see them coming and going in the tubes (not “lurking” like the males did), so can only presume that they are getting down to business. If I watch closely, I’ll see a female go in head first (presumably to install the little ball of pollen/nectar she has gathered), then she’ll back out, turn around and go back in backwards (presumably to lay an egg). Fascinating! I will rest easier when I start seeing tubes being capped with mud, signifying they have been filled to capacity with eggs. Hopefully activity will pick up here shortly, as by the end of the week it looks like that shy, mysterious yellow orb in the sky is finally going to show its face!
Debbie Palmer
Soap Creek Valley

*worst bee-mom ever!!

Didn’t properly protect the nesting tubes from the rain so they got wet; when I opened the tubes to harvest cocoons in late fall, every last one of them was moldy… waah!!; a complete and total loss. It was a horrible, horrible feeling, one I hope never to repeat! Jump back to top of this post.

**nesting in cracks

Because of the fiasco with the nesting tubes getting wet last year, there were all these females (who wouldn’t use the tubes after they got wet, and smartly so) frantically flying around looking for anyplace to lay eggs! They went into cracks and crevices wherever they could find them… including the gaps between logs in our house, it turns out. Jump back up to where you were reading.