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.
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.
I begin every bee season with a list of try-its. A try-it is something that seems like a good idea, but it’s something I haven’t actually done. It’s a term I picked up from a long-ago skating coach who used try-its on me when he couldn’t get the results he wanted with standard teaching methods.
Writing about techniques without having tried them is a bad thing, I think. So in order to have lots to write about, I need lots of experiments. This post is a summary of the season so far. I plan to expand on some of these in future posts as the experiments wrap up for the year.
This year I changed from using prepackaged swarm lures (the kind that come in little plastic vials) to Swarm Commander, a product that comes in a two-ounce spray bottle. For me, Swarm Commander was an overwhelming success, and I won’t go back to the other product. Each bait hive I sprayed quickly filled with a swarm. If I had more bee equipment, I’m sure I could have gotten more swarms, but I was totally out of space by the end of May.
Straw bale gardens
My plan here was to make pollinator gardens from straw bales because the bales are said to have many advantages. They are touted as being weed free, slug free, and water retentive, among other things. I realize I should have conditioned them longer than three weeks; still, my bales turned instantly into hairy green bricks (they are made of wheat straw, after all), I couldn’t give them enough water (for about two months all the plants—except the wheat—wilted every afternoon). Worse, the slugs seemed to love to get their bellies tickled as they slimed up between all the mushrooms that popped out of the straw.
Once they established though, the pollinator plants thrived in them and they are a nice height for taking bee portraits. Then too, I often found mason bees sunning themselves on the sides of the bales.
For now, I remain equivocal about straw bales but I plan to try again next year. Next time, I will buy them in the fall and let them condition over winter.
This year, I tried many of the pollinator plants that beekeepers recommended last fall. True to form, some worked in my local climate and some did not. Most disappointing so far has been the sea holly (Eryngium), which didn’t attract anything. Agastache, which in the past was inundated with honey bees, didn’t attract a thing either.
The sunflowers did well but I was disappointed that they only attracted bumble bees—black bumble bees on a dark brown center are hard to photograph, especially when they are all substantially overhead. I do like the way the flowers look, though, and will probably plant them again. I intend to branch out and try to find those varieties with lighter-colored centers.
Also, every source I’ve read says wool carder bees love to gather wool from lamb’s ear (Stachys). I have a wealth of both wool carders and lamb’s ear, but I can’t get the two to connect. I even placed a female on a leaf, and she just flew away in a huff. How can I get a photo of a wool carder carding wool, if she won’t cooperate? Is there something else she might like?
Those plants that brought in the most bees were the California lilac, catmint, oregano, lemon balm, cosmos, and phacelia.
I planted two different pollinator seed mixes, not in straw bales but in raised planter boxes. I always have an insurmountable weed problem, so this year I tried lining the bottom of the planters with flattened cardboard boxes. This is a technique I read about on Pinterest and the reasoning seemed sound: the cardboard suppresses weeds long enough to get your plants started, at which point the ground is shaded enough to discourage the weeds and the cardboard disintegrates.
The cardboard mulch exceeded all my expectations, and I’ve hardly pulled a weed all summer from those boxes. Suddenly I see large swaths of cardboard not as a disposal problem but as a resource.
Pollinator seed mixes
Of the two seed mixes I planted, one was free from the state of Washington called Bee-U-Tify and the second one, called Encap Honey Bee Pollinator Mix Seed Packet, was one I purchased. I have to say, I was impressed with both. The Washington mix contained 18 species and the Encap mix had 13. Only four species were found in both. I got many, many flowers from each set and they are, indeed, attractive to bees.
I’ve tried pollinator mixes before with little success. But in the book A Sting in the Tale by Dave Goulson, I read that soil that has been fertilized for crops or lawns is not wildflower friendly because the grasses use the residual fertilizer and can easily out-compete the wildflowers. The wildflowers can out-complete the grasses if fertility is low, but it can take years to deplete the added amendments. By suppressing the grasses with the cardboard mulch, I had much better results with the pollinator mixes.
Before bee season I purchased multiple packages of paper drinking straws of various diameters to line mason bees tubes. By using straws inside of straws I was able to vary the dimensions of the holes and still have liners. This is an experiment that won’t be proven until next spring, but the bees certainly liked them. They filled about three times as many tubes as they have in the past. I realize there may be multiple reasons for the increase, but it’s clear the bees had no objections to the multicolor paper straws.
I’ve transferred the full spring straws to the coolest part of my garden shed where they will overwinter out of the rain. Some of the straws are still being filled, primarily by summer leafcutting bees.
I tried three new comb honey supers this year. Two of these were supers I planned for last year but I didn’t get a chance to use them due to a pesticide kill that weakened many of my colonies. But this year, I stacked them up with various degrees of success.
Last year Nick Nickelson of Kent, Washington designed a comb honey super for me. I wanted to make square combs using a standard honey super rather than odd-sized equipment. Nick, an exacting woodworker, went to great effort to make a prototype design and gave me three supers to test. I will detail the design in a future post, but of the three new comb honey supers, this worked the best. It produced nice squares of honeycomb, four squares to a standard shallow frame, and ten frames to a box. Very cool.
I also tried a 26-frame cedar comb super from Eco Bee Box of Utah. In two weeks, this shallow box filled with more comb honey than I have ever seen in one place. In fact, I needed help to move it since I couldn’t begin to lift it. The design of this box is awesome to see with the frames set at right angles to the brood frames beneath. The problem was that the whole thing was cemented together with burr comb. All 26 frames and the space between were connected into one large jigsaw puzzle of honeycomb and every last cell was filled honey. It’s safe to say the bees love this design, but what a mess. It was a delicious mess, but this super needs some serious tinkering. More later.
The third try-it was the glass jar honey super I built last year. As it turns out, the bees built comb in the jars. Yay! But they didn’t fill the cells. Also, the jars developed a film on the inside—probably a combination of dirty feet, wax, and propolis that isn’t all that attractive. I think the super may have been too hot, among other things, and I don’t see how to ventilate the jars since they are . . . well . . . jars. I may or may not try this one again.
Honey bee waterer
The marble-filled flower pot saucer was a success and was visited by bees all summer. It was also popular with wasps, dragonflies, flies, and things I don’t have names for. I don’t actually need a waterer here, but it was fun to watch. The down side was that it needed to be filled all the time, partly due to the super-dry and hot summer we had.
In the past, I’ve always used yellowjacket pheromone lures by Rescue, but everyone keeps telling me it’s better (i.e. cheaper) to make my own. So this year I tried recipe after recipe containing secret ingredients such as smoked turkey, fresh chicken, tuna fish, vinegar, cat food, root beer, and bananas. I tried traps in the trees, hanging from vines, sitting on the ground. I tried traps made out of jars and bottles and boxes. For all my effort, I caught not one of the rapacious little bee-eaters. Meanwhile, my Rescue traps are full. No, please do not send me your secret recipe—I’m done collecting rotting meat from the shrubbery.
I was given the opportunity to test some new feeders from Bee Smart Designs. The feeders come in two types, a in-hive feeder and an external hive-top model that is used with a special hive cover that supports the feeder. I’ve never used an external hive-top feeder and I was convinced I wouldn’t like it . . . but I love it. The cover itself is white and so light that I ended up using them all summer, even after I was done with the feeders. The feeders are easy to attach, secured tightly, easy to fill, and easy to change. I will say more about these feeders in a future post.
Raising bees in a swarm trap
This was not a planned experiment, but as soon as I discovered an established colony in one of my flower-pot shaped swarm traps last summer, everyone everywhere warned me to cut it out immediately. Well, that did it. I decided to leave it in place to see what happened. Never in my life have I seen a colony overwinter so easily, and they were raring to go come spring. There’s more to the story, but that is for another day.
Nocturnal pollination is something I seldom think about, but this fascinating article by Paul Manning at Poky Ecology describes a host of nighttime pollinators in lowbush blueberry. Really, I had no idea how busy a berry bush in the dark could be.
In a series of experiments, researchers found that as much as one-third of the lowbush blueberry crop may have been pollinated by nocturnal visitors, a population that does not include bees. The research provides another indicator that bees—and particularly honey bees—get credit for a lot of work done by others.
The post also details some of the limitations of honey bees as pollinators, one of my favorite subjects. Since honey bees do not like cold, fog, mist, overcast, wind, or darkness, they are often holed up watching re-runs while everyone else is out working. Still, honey bees remain the darlings of modern agriculture. I often think they have us fooled.
In his post Paul asks, “How can agricultural systems be optimally managed, if we don’t even know the entirety of species acting as pollinators?” My question is similar: If application rates for pesticides are set by using the honey bee as the test insect, how do we know the effects of these chemicals on other insects? In fact, we don’t.
This blog post is well worth a read, and it may very well give you a new perspective on crop pollination . . . and creatures of the night.
Except for natural bamboo tubes, it seems that most commercial tunnels sold for pollinator housing have an inside diameter of about 7 to 8 mm for orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria), 6 mm for blueberry bees (Osmia ribifloris), and 5 mm for both alfalfa leafcutting bees (Megachile rotundata) and raspberry bees (Osmia aglaia).
I don’t know where these numbers came from originallyand that is what makes me suspicious of them. Everyone who cites these measurements got them from someone else, who got them from someone else. Much like that statistic that claims one-third of our food is pollinated by bees, everyone says it but no one can confirm it.
All I know for sure is this: when I give my Osmia lignaria a variety of tunnel sizes, they pick ones that are smaller than the recommended sizes. For example, they always choose a 5 or 6 mm hole over the much larger 7 or 8 mm holes. The summer masons and leafcutters seem to prefer a hole smaller than the recommended 5 mm, generally choosing a 4 mm hole.
If you’ve been around honey bee keepers for a while, you know there is heated debate about the size of artificial foundation. On average, the cells in most foundation are quite a bit larger than the cells found in natural combs, and larger foundation produces larger bees. Many people, myself included, think that a natural cell size is best for overall honey bee health.
Now I’m wondering if we are creating artificially large Osmia and alfalfa leafcutting bees by providing housing that is a little bit wider than that found in nature. Furthermore, we know that wild species raised in artificial nests are falling victim to ever more diseases and parasites, just like honey bees. Are any of these ailments more apt to appear in larger bees raised in larger tunnels?
Just as an experiment, I purchased a pair of these: Kinsman Giant Solitary Bee Nester with 60 Tubes. The tubes inside are about 7 mm in diameter. Next I bought a supply of Paper Straws ranging from about 4.5 to 7 mm inside diameter. I made collars for the paper straws so they wouldn’t float around inside the larger tubes.
When that was done, I set the first Kinsman nest on top of another pollinator unit behind my house, just to get an idea of how to fasten them together. I went to get some hardware, but by the time I got back, the mason bees were already investigating the smaller holes. I decided it was too late to move it, so I just tied it on with survey tape. I will set out the second nest in about six weeks when the summer masons and leafcutters are flying.
My plan is to remove the cocoons in the fall and look for differences between those in large tubes vs those in smaller tubes: pollen mites, mummies, parasites, whatever I can find. This is by no means a controlled experiment, but just a look-see to decide if there is something to study in the future. I will keep you posted.
Straw bale gardens are unique. They fit anywhere, support your plants, provide ample space for roots, suppress weeds, and raise your garden up off the ground where it is easier to reach. Plus, if you have bad things in your garden soil, like nematodes or potato scab, straw bales can provide a clean slate. And all of this comes without the expense of potting soil or an enormous planter.
In addition, things like slugs and snails don’t like crawling up the sides of a straw bale, cats are unlikely to mistake them for a litter box, and moles don’t excavate through them. And I repeat: weeds are almost nonexistent. Yay. I’ve even covered the soggy part of my garden with straw bales: the water seeps up, the roots go down, everyone is happy.
Last week I learned more about syringes than I ever wanted to know. Similarly, when I started researching straw bale gardens, I learned a heap about bales. Although I’ve been buying straw for twenty years, until last week I had no idea bales have a cut side and folded side. If you don’t operate a baler, how would you know?
Anyway, I became fascinated by the vegetables people are growing in straw and thought, why not a pollinator garden? So here I’m going to share what I know about straw bale gardening, and throughout the spring and summer I will post photos of my bee garden . . . assuming it all works. If anyone tries this, be sure to send photos of your garden and bugs along with photos of your sunflowers.
Buying the bales
First, make sure you buy straw and not hay. Hay is full of seeds, and seeds are not good for your garden. Most often, straw is composed of fully-ripened wheat stems. The grains have already been harvested and the straw is a by-product.
Straw bales vary in weight and size according to the baler that was used, but generally they are heavy. I can’t lift a 90-pound bale, but I can lift one end and usually unload my truck and get them where they need to be. It’s a matter of leveraging, dragging, pushing, and swearing. Better yet, snag a friend to help.
Positioning the bales
It is tempting to place the bales in a way that yields the greatest surface area, but you must resist. You should arrange the bales so that the baling twine runs parallel to the ground.
However, before you do step 1, you need to examine the two sides that are not tied. One side will have folded stems and one side will have cut stems. The cut side goes up.
Do not cut the baling twine.
If you are placing the bales in an area where vigorous perennials may push their way through the straw, arrange a layer or two of cardboard under the bales. Cardboard acts as a weed barrier long enough to discourage the perennials, but it will eventually compost and disappear.
Conditioning the bales
Straw bales must be conditioned before they can be used. If you plant directly into a new bale, the straw will begin to compost as soon as it gets wet and the heat will kill anything you plant.
The easiest way to condition is to buy bales in the fall and let them sit outside all winter.
If you’re in a hurry (like me) you can condition them in a couple of weeks by sprinkling them with a high-nitrogen fertilizer and watering it in. Organic gardeners can use blood meal or feather meal.
Simply sprinkle the fertilizer over the cut surface of the bale. The fertilizer will work its way down through the bale, in and between the hollow stems.
The nitrogen encourages the growth of soil organisms which hastens the composting of the straw. In no time, the bales will get extremely hot. If you want, you can stick a thermometer into the bale to monitor the temperature. Once the temperature drops to ambient, you can begin planting.
Planting the bales
Straw, even if fully composted, may be lacking in nutrients. Many gardeners sprinkle a layer of compost or potting mix over the bale and work it in a little, although others do not.
Alternatively (or in addition) you can dig holes in the straw and fill the holes with compost before planting your seeds or seedlings. (Digging holes is much easier if you remembered to place the cut side up.)
The plants you select will depend on your local area, but remember heirlooms usually provide the most pollen and nectar, and bees love blue, white, and yellow blooms. You can plant seeds or starts.
Make sure any plants you purchase have not been treated with pesticide.
Go heavy on late summer and fall flowering plants: these are the ones in short supply.
Check the HBS Plant Lists to see what plants have been successful for other bee lovers in your area.
Provide a water source with stepping stones for the bees: marbles in a shallow pie dish works great.
Watch them grow
Water the garden as necessary. You will find that the bales retain moisture while providing good drainage—perfect conditions for healthy roots.
Provide compost or fertilizer as needed.
Have your camera ready.
My plan is to make a two-bale pollinator garden right beside the lemon queen sunflowers. For those of you who use straw bales for windbreaks around your winter hives, you are almost there. All you have to do is plant.