My family roots are in farming and agriculture; my grand parents on my father’s side were subsistence farmers in central Pennsylvania and in my heart, that is where I came from. My Dad was a county agricultural agent; my observation is that his maximum comfort zone was in a field or a barn in touch with farming and animals and the earth.
On my Mom’s side, you could give Grandma Martin a dead branch in the morning and by the end of the day, there would be blue birds nesting amongst its blossoms. The gardens around her home were magical places in my childhood and they existed to a large extent because of the love she poured into them from her heart.
As a technical person, I have always felt that I sort of fell short of the mark that was set by my ancestors in terms of being in touch with the earth and the cycle of life that they depended on to survive. But of late, I have become a Mason Bee and Leaf Cutter Bee farmer, an experience that has meant a lot to me and which I feel has helped me connect with my past. So, the purpose of this post is to share that with you.
Unlike honeybees, Mason Bees are solitary bees, meaning they don’t all live together and work together as a society in a hive. Instead, after the male has fertilized the female, she spends her life building nests and laying eggs on her own. She may do that side by side with other bees of her type, but she works independently.
The bees I have are native to North America and the particular species is native to my area (Portland, Oregon). They are actually better pollinators than honeybees by several orders of magnitude and they are adapted to the native plants and climate. Honeybees are pretty adapted too but were introduced from Europe. If you want to see some really amazing pictures of honeybees, then you should visit Eric Tourneret’s web site.
I have one of his large format books, which is in French so I can’t read it, but I bought it for the pictures; the pictures are causing me to want to learn French. Meaning I have typed paragraphs from the book into the Google translator to see what they say since Eric talks a lot about the life cycle, etc. of the bees he is photographing
What follows are my Mason Bee pictures, which are in no way as spectacular as Eric’s, but still will give you a sense for the bees. The little guy in the picture that follows was one of the first to emerge a couple of years ago. He is a male (you can tell because of the longer antenna and the shorter jaws) and once he has fertilized a female, is role is pretty much done.
Mason Bees are very docile and I have them land on me all of the time when I am watching them, especially if it is getting cold and they are slowing down for the day.
The females will spend their lives building in the little nesting tubes you see in the background of the first picture. They build a little mud stopper at the back, then put in pollen, then lay an egg, then more pollen, then another mud wall and repeat the process. When you watch them, they are constantly buzzing back and forth from the nesting tubes to flowers or to a source of mud, pretty much working tirelessly. They lay about 6 eggs per tube and about 36 eggs total, about one cell (one egg) a day.
The female can control the sex of the egg and lays about 1-2 female eggs for every 4-6 male eggs. She puts them in the middle of the tube to protect them and to ensure that it will be likely that males have already emerged before a female and that males will also emerge after the female.
The picture on the left is a formation of three about to land in their respective tubes and do some work. The photo to the right is a shot down one of the tubes where you can see the pollen being built up (it’s the yellow stuff) and the start of the next mud wall in front of it (the brown ring around the tube). In the tube just to the right and below the one with the pollen, you can see a different bee working a way; a little fuzzy because it’s hard to focus on things To give you a sense of scale, the inside diameter of the tube is about 1/4 inch.
In the next photo below it, you can see Mom working on the mud plug at the very end of the tube. A lot of times, the Mom’s seem to make a double plug at the end of the tube, I am guessing to better protect next year’s generation. The tubes with mud plugs in the end of them are full, probably with six or seven cocoons at least based on what I see when I harvest them. More on that in a minute.
The photo to the right shows what a Mason Bee house looks like towards the end of the season, when most of the tubes are filled. You can see pollen in some of the tubes towards the top. This is the house we have on the front porch in front of the porch swing so we can watch it while we sit and drink wine and watch the sunset, which is Kathy’s and my routine every day when I am home, and a very special time for us and something I would highly recommend.
It has to be above about 50°F for Mason Bees to fly, so on colder days and mornings, they are dormant. But even if I space out putting my cocoons out so the bees can emerge until late in the spring, by the beginning to middle of June, they will have lived their lives and the little tubes will be full of next year’s generation. What that means is that this little creature basically spends 30-60 days with us and dies of exhaustion at the end of that period of time. If she and others like her did not do what they do, life would cease. It’s always a very moving thing for me to watch.
In terms of the details of what is going on in the tubes, the eggs become larva and then the larva spin cocoons inside the cells created by the mud plugs. By fall, there is a fully developed bee in each cell, ready to emerge in the spring.
In the wild, Mason Bees tend to emerge from the front to the back because emergence is triggered by warm weather (temperatures above 50°F for most of the day) so the cocoons closer to the front will tend to emerge first. If one further back happens to emerge first, they seem to chew their way through the tube or just crawl over the ones in front to get out.
That said if you are trying to raise the bees, most people harvest the cocoons and clean them up sometime during the early spring months. I have started doing that the past couple of years because it gets rid of some of the parasites and the bees generally seem more successful. Here is what it looks like when you unravel one of the nesting tubes.
The actual cocoons are the little oval shaped brown things. You can see a couple of the mud plugs sitting on the paper at either end of the tube. The tiny yellow specs you see on the cocoon to the right are mites, a parasite that it is best to get rid of if you can although they are not generally lethal to the bees.
The little tiny black things are the larva “poops”. One of the ways you can tell one of the more lethal parasite cocoons (different from the mites and with a cocoon that looks a lot like a Mason Bee) from a Mason Bee cocoon is that the parasite “poops” will be curly.
Once you get the cocoons out of the tubes, you can clean them up. There are a number of ways to do that, but I have been using sand. Basically, I just put them in a container of sand and swirl them around for a while, and then strain them back out. Here are the cocoons from the tube above after I got done with that process.
The large one is the female and the others are likely males. If you look closely, you can sort of see the form of the bees through the cocoon because at this point, it’s kind of translucent.
I learned most of what I know, aside from just working with the bees, by reading Brian Griffin’s book The Orchard Mason Bee: The Life History, Biology, Propagation, and Use of a North American Native Bee. He wrote a really good book about Bumble Bees called Humblebee Bumblebee. The links take you to them on the Amazon site. The Mason Bee book is available in the Kindle format if you like e-books. There is also a book called Attracting Native Pollinators that is broader in scope that I really enjoyed and find useful for identifying various pollinators, plants, etc.
In terms of where to get stuff like tubes, liners, more cocoons, etc. they are becoming more and more common at garden centers. I originally ordered my stuff from Knox Cellars, which is the business that Brian Griffin started as he became more interested in the bees. I have not been successful in contacting them as of late so I wonder if they are no longer selling although they still have a web site.
Lately, I have ordered things from Crown Bees. They seem to be very responsive and responsible about how they run their business, publish a regular newsletter, etc. They also have other native bee types like leaf cutter bees, which I tried last year and am going to try again this year (they fly in warmer weather, so July – September). Instead of mud, they cut tiny pieces from the leaves of roses, and other plants and build their nesting cells that way.
So that is what it’s like to be a Mason Bee keeper. Its something Kathy and I really enjoy and I think most people would find it interesting. Plus, its a way to counter-act the current decline in the honey bee population, which, would be a disaster for life as we know it if were they to become extinct.