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Mar 15, 2021

Mason bees make spring extra special

Photos by Bruce MacGregor

Article by Courtney Beckel

It is almost spring! And one thing that really got me through last spring was…mason bees! Naturally, I wanted to share a bit about these bees with you. I’m no entomologist but I do know we have a huge variety of bees in Oregon — not just the European honeybee, we have more like 600! One third of all our food is pollinated by bees! If you want to learn more but missed our webinar, check out the recording of a presentation from the Oregon Bee Atlas at our youtube page HERE.

I remember picking up some veggies at Zenger farm once and lollygagging about, and noticed a tiny tiny black bee fly into some holes in a wooden fence post. These bees came again and again, little bees about the size of an ant. Or I had friends who lived in a house where the front yard was just covered in ground nesting bee holes. It was awesome, you could watch them go in and out all summer, hundreds of them!!! What is going on here? Those last two types weren’t mason bees looking back, but some other types of native bee, it’s a wild and diverse world out there!

But back to the mason bees, I knew these stingless peaceful bees were good pollinators and … come to think of it, the first grant I ever was awarded was to install a beehive on Redwood Roots farm in Humboldt County, California in 2004. Bees on the brain! Somehow my friends are cool and also like bees, and last winter my buddy (and also Creek Crew leader Dave P) invited me to hang with his partner Tessa for breakfast to learn all things mason bees. Talk about my ideal breakfast date! Sweet friends, educational, bees, and nettle pancakes to boot, what a cozy day. 

By the end of it, I had so much information, and a handful of their baby bees! I was brimming with excitement. I made a very tiny and simple bee box, bought some special bee straws at the local garden store, and later in the spring, I took the bees out of the fridge, set them in the sun, and I watched these adorable babies chew their way out of their cocoons. From there, they pretty much immediately started mating, and making trips to grab dirt and pollen food packs from my garden to pack between their eggs in the straws. I was hooked. HOW COOL IS THIS?

Photos above by Courtney Beckel

This whole process was really easy and satisfying, so I wanted to share a bit more from the most expert mason bee keepers that I know, Bill and Michele, also Creek Crew leaders 🙂 (Shameless plug, all the cool people are obviously Creek Crew, so get your buns ready to train up to lead and live the Creek Crew life with us next January!!) 

Here’s an interview from Bill and Michele! 

Q: How did you first get into mason bees?

Michele’s answer: We noticed them crawling into some recessed screw holes on the furnace exhaust cover on the front of the house, & a few days later the holes were packed with mud. Hey, look, mason bees! We put out some cardboard tubes in a section of PVC & they filled those too. We put out many more tubes the next year & those all got filled. We started making wood trays so we could clean & reuse them. The increase in cocoons was just exponential – from 100-200 the 1st year to around 9,000 last year.

Q: What does your regular year of keeping mason bees look like?

Michele’s answer: We put the loose cocoons out in hatch boxes in spring, when daytime temps are consistently (well semi-consistently, it IS the PNW) over 50° & the red flowering currant & Oregon grape are close to blooming. In late summer (ideally – sometimes more like fall or winter) we remove the cocoons from the nesting trays & store them for next year. Then we clean the trays (some years the day before we put the cocoons out in spring), just removing the loose mud & pests. That’s it….very easy. We used to bleach the trays but that warped them, & we didn’t see any increase in disease when we stopped bleaching.

Bill’s answer: To add to that, we wait hopefully not too long for the males with their little mustaches to crawl out of the hatch boxes and make their little poops and wait for the females. Males have a shorter life span, about 2 weeks, they die soon after mating and may not even eat. The female has a longer lifespan, 4-8 weeks.  After that, we enjoy watching them fly in and out of the chosen holes with their loads of pollen or mud. Spring progresses and we wait for the first full tube and then are amazed at how fast they fill the remaining tubes. After a week, the mass number of bees flying in and out makes a loud buzzing that sometimes I think I hear inside the house. When we no longer see any bees flying around it is time to wait for the fall to extract the cocoons and store them for the winter.

Q: What do you love most about them? 

Michele’s answer: They’re adorable. The males have white mustaches, like they’ve just had a big drink of milk. They’re so gentle if one gets in the house we catch it in our hands & take it outside, unless the cats get it first. They don’t sting (well maybe the cats now & then). I don’t know, they’re just so fun to watch.

Bill’s answer: Watching how some females fly in and out of the tubes looking the right tube and others find it the first time.

Q: What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve experienced in the world of mason bees?

Michele’s answer: The astonishing places they will nest! In an electrical outlet, in the gaps between the siding & the window trim, in toy matchbox cars on our porch, in the fuel line of a neighbor’s motorcycle…..any gap or crevice they can plug with mud is fair game.

Another thing that surprised me is how amazingly sturdy the cocoons are. We’ve learned the easiest way to remove them from the trays is to scrape them out with a screwdriver! (You don’t want them to get wet or squashed while they’re in storage, of course, but they can take a good bit of abuse. We also washed the cocoons in bleach water the 1st few years but decided it wasn’t necessary. It was also hard to get them dry & some mildewed.)

Q: What are the top 3 things you want people to know if they are considering getting mason bees for their yard?

Michele’s answer: 

1. You need something with pollen blooming in your yard by mid-March or whenever you put the cocoons out. Even weeds…..when the bees are at their peak activity I often let weeds – even dandelions – bloom, just for extra pollen. Our neighbor has a cherry tree which helps.

2. You need mud – preferably clay-ish soil. They especially like to collect mud from vertical surfaces, so I just dig a couple holes near the nesting trays/tubes & keep them damp.

3. There’s really no right or wrong method – they manage just fine in the wild without any help at all. But providing them a place to nest concentrates the activity & lets you watch them up close. Harvesting cocoons & cleaning the houses or trays, or buying new tubes, helps reduce disease & pests.

It’s all about how involved you want to get! Read about them online, get a library book, talk to the folks at Birds & Bees or Portland Nursery, watch some YouTube videos. Crownbees.com is an excellent resource with lots of articles online. Buy or build a bee house – use cardboard tubes or reeds or wood trays – make up your own version – just do it!!

Bill’s answer: 

  1. Mason bees can sting but in the many years we have cared for them we have never been stung. They will often land on us and crawl around on our hands if we are standing by the hutch.
  1. The time it takes to care for them is minimal compared to the amount of work they perform in the world.
  1. When you concentrate Bees in one place, you also concentrate their pests and you must clean up their nests.

Q: Do you have any other advice for a newbie mason beekeeper?

Michele’s answer: Houses or whatever you put tubes or trays in should be:

1. Mounted securely – where they can’t be jostled or blown down or whatever. Don’t move them til late summer.

2. Somewhere they’ll stay dry.

3. Facing east.

Harvested cocoons should be stored somewhere cool & dry like a garage. They also need to be in a container mice & rats can’t get into. Some people don’t harvest them at all & just leave the tubes/trays/houses out for the bees to emerge the following year, as they would in the wild.

Photos above by Bruce MacGregor

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What you can do to get the bees into your life 

It’s pretty dang easy, and exciting! 

Here are a few scenarios for you to consider.

  1. I have a few hours to devote to this project and would also be willing to spend some money:

-Buy the straws and build/make a house 

-Bring them inside before the rain, store in a breathable container in the fridge, then sometime in the winter clean the house in bleach water, let re-emerge in the spring.

  1. I have some time but I don’t want to spend money on this

Gather hollow stems and make them available, you can stack them up in various ways to make your own bee hotel out of stuff you have lying around. See if you notice any bees using them! That’s the way they’d do it in nature!

  1. I have money but maybe not a lot of time.

Buy 2 houses that are already made, there are several types to choose from. Order some bees, release them, let them lay all their eggs in the first house. No time to do the cleaning process? Let them stay in the yard all year. In the spring, while the bees from the first house are hatching, put out the second house for the new babies to use. That will give you a little time to sanitize the first house whenever you are available, to use again the following year. 

Hopefully that’s inspiring- here are some links for you to do some deeper dives. 

*** ONE MORE THING*** 

Bill and Michele are putting together a mason bee package for our silent auction in May…you could win a handmade mason bee house from the experts!!!  Stay tuned for that!

Hope you will join us in the love of the mason bee!

http://olypollinators.blogspot.com/p/mason-bee-life-cycle_04.html

https://crownbees.com/faq-central/post/setting-out-spring-mason-bee-cocoons.html

https://www.opb.org/news/article/native-oregon-mysterious-mason-bee-fruit-growers-gardeners/