Adventures of an Amateur Mason Bee Keeper – Part 2

By Debbie Palmer | July 13, 2017


And so it begins

Last we left off (see Installment One if you missed it) it was late April and and still quite cold and wet. Everything was late late late blooming, especially out here in Soap Creek Valley. But I deployed my bee boxes and cocoons, watched and waited… and females had just begun emerging at the time of my last writing.

Since it was still considerably cold and rainy when they began hatching, I pondered… where do the girls go during bad weather? And how long could they go without foraging, at least for food for themselves? Although I don’t know the answer to the second question, I did spend a lot of time watching – at least the box up by the house, where it was easy to pop out and have a quick look, which I will admit to having done several times a day! It’s just so fascinating! – and can answer the first. On cold days there was indeed no activity, but if I approached the bee box slowly and scanned it carefully I could barely see the noses of a few females, each inside their own nest tube. (I knew they were females ‘cuz of the black noses; the males’ are white, remember?). If I tried for a closer look though they’d back deeper into their recesses until I could no longer see them. Finally one afternoon the sun came out and warmed things up just enough… I watched as one girl crept to the end of her tube and poked her head out. Then she just sat there, as though to take a measure of things. It was late afternoon already; were conditions favorable enough to be worth venturing out? She sure took a long time deciding, but in the end it was “yes!”, and off she flew. Cabin fever, I expect!

May 1st – finally! The first nest tube is filled! First one in each box, actually! Hooray, it’s working!!

First filled tube!
First filled tube!

May 3rd – okay, this was totally surprising: as far as I could tell, there appeared to be some actual competition for nesting tubes? Wouldn’t have thought so, but I observed it with my own eyes. As they were coming and going, more than once I saw a female go into a nesting tube that already had another female in there; there would be a small tussle, then the late arrival would drag her competitor out and go in herself! Perhaps the first one was the interloper; there’s no way to tell.

May 10th – since I was seeing the above behavior, as well as multiple instances of bees entering tubes already occupied and simply backing out (oh! pardon me!), then trying other tubes until they either found ‘theirs’ or an unoccupied one, I thought maybe I hadn’t provided enough tubes to accommodate the number of females that hatched(?) So I whipped together an “overflow facility”, hoping that would alleviate the problem.

Comments from Bee Buddy Jerry Paul: Nesting holes should range in size from 3mm to 11mm (0.43 inches) at most. Anything larger than 11mm will force the bee to lay its egg chambers in an awkward orientation.

The overflow facility © D. Palmer
The “overflow facility” — I took a sharpie and randomly marked the edges of the paper tubes to try to create some variation, to hopefully help the bees navigate to their own tubes.

The day I deployed it though, I saw no activity at all, and was worried anew… was I too late? Could they be done already?? Was the cold spring just too much for them? It had been 38 degrees overnight (brrr!), after all. But then I took a close peek and sure enough, there they were… several little heads deep down in the recesses. Whew! They were still with us, just hunkered down. Everything was going to be all right.

May 14th – While eating breakfast I happened to look out the window because movement caught my eye — and, aargh! A woodpecker had just landed on the edge of the bee box, intent at getting the tender little protein morsels inside! I banged on the glass, “stay away from my bees!!” I yelled (scared the cat). Fortunately the bird was only there moments so I don’t believe it got any of the girls, but I knew it would remember this as a potential food source, so I had to throw up protection. Protection, unfortunately, comes in the form of ugly chicken wire, which needs to stick out at least six inches so birds can’t land and reach in. You don’t want to use mesh any smaller than chicken wire, as the bees need to be able to pass easily through it as they come and go. Alas I couldn’t come up with a more elegant ‘bird excluder’ on short notice so reluctantly I wrapped the stuff around my beautiful box. No point in having a beautiful box with no bees in it because a bird ate them all! I’ll noodle on a more aesthetic solution for next year.

Comments from Bee Buddy Jerry Paul: Protect against birds. If needed, chicken wire keeps birds out of nesting materials. Choose chicken wire with at least 1″ openings so that bee wings aren’t damaged as they buzz in and out.  Do not install the bird wire flush against the nesting materials. It may be easier on us to install the wire flat but bees would appreciate us taking the time to bubble the bird wire so that it is at least 2-3″ away from materials. The bees need space for maneuvering for landing and take-off.

Bird excluder © D. Palmer
The chicken wire bird protection. Attractive, huh?

All this time, of course, I went out daily to observe the filling-of-the-tubes. So exciting to see more capped off every day! Remember how I put both natural teasel tubes and the manufactured paper kind in the boxes? And in my first post said I would report on the bees’ preference? Well the votes are all in, and hands down the natural teasel tubes won out over the paper kind: in the upper bee box (the one by the house), out of 38 teasel tubes only three were vacant, whereas out of 35 paper tubes, 21 were vacant. Then in the box down in the orchard, out of 17 teasel tubes, only two were vacant, while of the 35 paper tubes, 22 were vacant. The ‘overflow facility’ (by the house box) was all paper tubes so no teasel option. Sure glad I set it up though, as out of 32 tubes… only two were vacant! My sense that there were not enough nesting tubes in my original box was correct. Another adjustment to note for next year!

Tubes getting filled © D. Palmer
The tubes getting progressively filled – so cool!

Phase Two – summer storage

June 1. Time to bring the tubes in, per Jerry Paul, to protect the eggs from predator wasps. But jeez, everything was so late this year, there were still bees flying around. I delayed, thinking that since it had been cold and wet so late in the season, perhaps the bees (and predator wasps) would also be running late? But no, Jerry says that although I might still be seeing some activity, the bees were by this time out of eggs and only going through the motions. They would die soon, and it was more important to protect the ones already laid from predation. So on June 7th, I reluctantly took them all in. Carefully.

The most important thing to remember at this stage is that the eggs are very fragile, each stuck on the side of a pollen ball in their little mud-walled chambers. Jostle them, and the eggs can fall off and starve, because they’ve been separated from their food source. But wait! There’s a neat trick that saves the day! When you bring the tubes in, simply store them mud-cap ends up. If they get separated from the pollen ball, they fall onto the pollen ball.

Since I wasn’t bringing in the boxes themselves, only the tubes, I had to be very mindful of this, as there was a lot of handling as I removed the tubes from the boxes, sorted and organized them for storage. I also inspected all the tubes that weren’t mud-capped, to make sure there weren’t any partially-filled ones. This is easy to do, because both teasel and paper tubes have a little hole in their back ends; just hold them up to the light and if you see light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak – ‘atsa empty tube! You can hang onto the empties and re-deploy them next year. Very glad I took the time to inspect my empties, because although I found no partially-filled ones, I did find hitch-hikers… earwigs (ick!).

Comments from Bee Buddy Jerry Paul: You may also find mason bees nest between filled tubes. This can be frustrating when pulling out tubes for summer protection… you wind up dislodging little larva from their pollen mass. The bottom line – have enough holes! Nesting tubes must have a sealed back wall that helps the bees feel safe. The mason bee carefully seals the back of the nesting hole, filling in any cracks and uneven areas to provide a slightly concave wall for the back of the first cell.

Summer storage © D. Palmer
Here’s the spot in my kitchen where I’m storing the nesting tubes until October’s cleaning.

After all my inspecting, sorting and de-earwigging, I set the filled tubes end up in containers, then closed those up inside a cardboard box for summer storage. You want to be sure they have air — don’t use a tightly sealed box (or if you do, poke ventilation holes in it). The box I used was gappy between the flaps, so I just taped a small piece of cheesecloth over the gap, to allow air in but minimize incursion by unknowns. Said box is then supposed to be stored someplace warm (but not too hot in late summer) in order for the larvae to complete development, typically a garage or shed. But our garage is way too cold (our house is inset in the side of a hill so the natural coolth of the earth keeps it chill even in the hottest days of summer). Our funky little shop is the opposite: it not only gets way too hot in the summer, but is prone to varmints (i.e. mice, wasps), so… hm, where to put them? I actually ended up storing them in a nice out of the way spot at the far end of my kitchen! Our house is sort of like a log cabin, so the ceiling is high at the pitch/no attic (see picture). They should stay comfortably warm because they’re up high and heat rises, but shouldn’t get too hot because we open up windows and skylights to ventilate as needed.

Comments from Bee Buddy Jerry Paul: Place your holes (wood trays, reeds, paper tubes) mud end up in a cardboard box or paper bag.  Place in a shed or garage or similar space that has the temperatures at roughly outside ambient  temperatures. We don’t want things too hot. These bees naturally develop in reeds and trees, which are not ovens. Do NOT place your bees in a refrigerator. You will kill them. They need warm summer temperatures to develop.



Speaking of hitch-hikers, I also checked and cleaned the release tubes (the big pvc tubes the cocoons were deployed in until they hatched)… and I’m glad I did! During the observation phase, back when the bees were still flying and filling tubes with eggs, in the box down in the orchard I’d noticed a spider looking to take up residence. So after taking the nesting tubes in I pulled the release tube out and removed the cap to see if the spider had stayed on, and — yikes!! Not a spider, but a wasp (yellow jacket?) had started a nest inside! I quickly dispatched the wasp, cleaned out the nest, and brought the release tube in and stored it in the box with the nesting tubes (just for a place to put it).

An interested predator © D. Palmer
Sorry, but I wasn’t about to try to take a photo of the wasp!!

We’re not done with the surprises; the box down in the orchard had yet more activity in it! First the bees, then the spider, then the wasp… and lastly: wrens! A pair of wrens built a nest in the tiny little triangular space at the top of the box! At first I couldn’t figure out why there were twigs up in there, but periodically I’d be down in the orchard and investigate, and sure enough, a wren would zip out of the box, perch nearby and scold me. Hard to believe they could fit in that little space, but as of today I went down and checked again, and could hear faint little peepings from inside, so babies have hatched already! Nature is amazing.

Comments from Bee Buddy Jerry Paul: If you find a lot of excess space above your holes, fill the empty space above the nesting holes or in the attic of your bee house with twigs or crumpled paper to deter birds from nesting until after you have taken out the mason bee tubes for summer storage. 

Wren nest above nest box. © D. Palmer
– How the heck do the wrens fit in that tiny little space?

Anyway, back to the bees. Now we wait. Over the summer the eggs, nourished by the pollen balls, will evolve into larvae, then spin the silk cocoons they will reside in while developing into adults over the winter. Next installment will be about harvesting and cleaning cocoons for winter storage. Stay tuned! Talk to you all again in October!

Comments from Bee Buddy Jerry Paul: While bees are in summer storage, they spin their cocoons and rest for a few weeks. Once rested, they will begin to develop from larva to bee, which takes a few months.







About the Author

Debbie Palmer

Debbie is a lifelong devotee of fresh and local foods, farms and nature in all its raw, uncompromising beauty; an occasional artist and maker, a daily cook, an introvert, she is happiest when working on something - just about anything - outdoors. She lives on her dream property in Soap Creek Valley with her husband, Ken and their cat, Isabelle Underfoot.

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