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Mason bees actually sting, kind of

Yesterday I got my first sting of the season. That would not be remarkable except for one detail: the culprit was a mason bee. A mason bee! I have never before been stung by such a creature.

I’ve been keeping mason bees for about seven years, and during early spring the area around my patio is black with them. With all the carrying on they do, you wouldn’t even notice I have honey bees. Honey bees are always on a distant mission and they fly up and out. I only ever see them at the hive entrance. Mason bees, on the other hand, have an abbreviated foraging distance and do most of their work within several yards of their birthplace.

Overly-friendly bees

Not only are there lots of them in a small area, but they are quite chummy. By that, I mean they have no issues about being close to humans, very close, and they will often investigate your nose and ears as potential nesting sites. Talk about irritating.

Several species of mason bee live in my area and appear at different times of the year. The ones active now are the so-called orchard masons, Osmia lignaria. They appear about the same time as the orchard tree blossoms in the northern states and are quite content to pollinate them. But they are generalists and can also be seen on all types of flowers, including dandelions and flowering shrubs.

The sting of a mason bee

Yesterday I was on the patio cutting more paper straws to fill more cans. It seems I’ve been doing this every few days because as fast as I put up new ones, they get filled. I was measuring straws and cutting when I felt something on my wrist. I looked down to see a mason caught between my wristwatch and my sleeve. I pulled back my sleeve and she flew away.

For a while I wondered if she stung me. What I felt wasn’t really a sting but more like a little pinch. I couldn’t see anything, so I shrugged it off, thinking maybe I felt her feet while she was struggling to free herself.

But about five minutes later I noticed a typical sting mark: a raised white welt about a quarter-inch in diameter surrounded by a red patch about two inches across. So she had stung me! But seriously, it was something that would never pass for a sting in a honey bee’s bag of tricks.

I’ve been stung by alkali bees and alfalfa leafcutters, and they are less than 10% of a honey bee’s sting. But this sting was less than 10% of leafcutter sting. If I hadn’t actually seen the mark, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Attracting mason bees with paper straws

Over the years I’ve changed my nesting box set up. Now I use paper straws cut to fit the length of a metal can. I spray-paint the cans, although it’s not necessary, and simply fill them with straws of various diameters. When I started doing this seven years ago, about ten bees nested in my straws. Now it’s ridiculous how many live here, many hundreds.

In the autumn I put the cans of straws in my garden shed to keep them out of the rain. And then, in the spring, I put the straws in a hatching box. A hatching box is just a box with a tiny hole at the bottom. If you put the hatching box near a new set of straws, the bees will leave the hatching box and use the straws for their nests. By using new straws every year, you can reduce the number of parasites the bees have to contend with.

When the straws are full, your home will do

Even though I keep installing more straws, I have mason bees living in the drain holes of all our windows, nesting in the edges of the sliding patio door, tucked under the eaves and behind the fascia, squeezed in the siding, and folded into the outdoor chairs.

The orchard masons are just beginning to wind down for the year, but soon the green berry bees, Osmia aglaia, will start making their appearance. For now, they are still in the hatching boxes and waiting for warmer weather.

If you want to know where to find paper straws, everything I know about them is on a separate page called “Paper straws for native bee nests.”

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Preparing mason bee housing
Preparing pollinator housing with empty cans and paper straws. © Rusty Burlew.
Full-native-bee-straws
The straws get filled in just a few days. © Rusty Burlew.
hatching box
Hatching boxes. Just lay the straws inside. © Rusty Burlew.

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Comments

Elisabeth
Reply

I love the idea of using paper straws! Your site has so much valuable information on it, I just want to say thank you for all that you do to help the bees and fellow beekeepers you truly are a godsend.

Carol Nelson
Reply

I purchased my first 4 resin cans with nesting tubes and have set them out! Last year I had Mason bees nesting in my greenhouse in the tunnels under the flats of plants but, unfortunately, didn’t know they were there until I moved the flats and broke the lovely little tunnels to pieces. I am trying to do better this year. From your photo it looks like some of the paper straws are inside the heavier cardboard tubes. Is that correct? I have the cardboard tubes in the deep cans (it was a kit) but the replacement tubes are a bit pricey, even in bulk. Am I correct in thinking I can reuse the heavy cardboard tubes by putting in fresh paper straws as liners or can I use the paper straws by themselves also? I may have to do some looking for paper straws since most of what I have seen are plastic. Can you give up your source for paper straws?

You KNOW I adore your site!

Peg
Reply

This is great! I was thinking of trying this this year. Thanks, Rusty!

TD McFall
Reply

Rusty,
I cannot find paper straws anywhere. Only plastic and vinyl. Your source? Many thanks!!
Terry McFall

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Welcome to an elite club. Took me over 15 years to get my first sting. It is more of an “oh” than an “ow”.

Where do you get PAPER straws? I hope folk realize that plastic straws should not be used.

The scenario you describe is what led me to become a cold-hearted person who no longer cares if my mason bees run out of housing — they could easily increase five-fold every year if I’d cooperate. At some point — why should I? I’ve also became a cheapskate and started making my own straws as well as using “natural” materials such as teasel, rather than buying.

Glen

Anna
Reply

Several questions I now have after reading this and seeing something this weekend:

1. The different size tubes are used by the same type of bee? I would think the same species would use the same size tube.

2. How can you tell which bee is using the tubes?

3. Are the hatching boxes set outside?

4. I have a bee who has started depositing pollen into the folds of my son’s deflated snow tube. This happened previously with a tarp that was left out for some time. It appears to be chunkier, darker version of a honey bee, it’s also fuzzy and the same size as my honey bees. I cannot ID it and have had a devil of a time getting a picture. I’m guessing it’s a digger or some kind of mason bee. I could swear I’ve seen full pollen baskets but when I perused the images online, it was very likely pollen on the underbelly that extended up the sides. I hate to move her nest, but can I just change the orientation of it? It’s currently perpendicular with our patio slider and about 3″ away and I would like to turn it so that we aren’t in each other’s path.

Rusty
Reply

Anna,

1. The different size tubes may be used by the same species or different species. As I explained in my Straws page, since holes in nature don’t come in standard sizes, the bees are adaptable to a range of sizes.

2. You have to look at the bee to identify it.

3. The hatching boxes are outside and placed as close to the nesting tubes as possible.

4. Bees carry pollen on their legs, on their abdomens, on the back edge of the thorax, or in pollen baskets, depending on the species. Only honey bees and bumble bees have pollen baskets but many, many species have hairy patches on their legs called tibial scopae that from a distance may look like pollen baskets. She may be able to find it, if you rotate it. Or you can wait till she’s done with it (probably any day now) and move it with no harm.

Travis
Reply

Can you recommend where to get the straws and also what sizes they like?

Rusty
Reply

Henry,

Yes! Several folks have sent me this link. Is that awesome or what?

Jack Mark
Reply

Wow! I really admire the valuable idea of using straws. Very helpful idea for mason bees. We are passionate about your success.

Karla Sidorakis
Reply

Do you cut both ends of the cab off or just on end and leave the other intact? I am fascinated by all of this!!! I’ve got birds and butterflies covered, bees must be next!! 🙂

Rusty
Reply

Karla,

Cab?

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