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As native bee populations fall every home gardener can do their part to help out these valuable pollinators.
Here at the bamboo nursery we also have fruit trees for our own use.
To aid in pollination we provide housing for mason bees. These bees are very different from honey bees. While mason bees don’t make honey, they have some great attributes.
They’re not aggressive. They don’t build a hive that they have to defend. They don’t have a queen and they don’t colonize.
Honey bees are meticulous and methodic in their pollinating. Mason bees go to it with reckless abandon. They belly flop into flowers – covering the entire underside of their bodies in a solid layer of pollen. It only takes one mason bee to do the pollination work of one hundred honey bees!
Mason bees have a 95% pollination rate. Honey bees have only a 5% pollination rate.
Raising mason bees is easy, but there is definitely a right way to do it.
We were dismayed with the mason bee houses offered commercially. They were more like death traps. If a mason bee chooses the wrong place to lay her eggs she might as well not have laid them at all.
Providing inadequate housing benefits them in no way and even contributes to the demise of the species because the next generation of bees will die before they pupate and ever emerge as adults.
The female mason bee gathers pollen and makes it into a ball. This pollen ball is placed with her egg in the hole. This pollen ball is the food source for her larva when it hatches.
I see too many houses made to swing wildly in the wind at the end of a string. Mason bees need a firm nest. They naturally lay their eggs in wood pecker holes in trees. These don’t typically move around.
A hanging, swinging nest of free rolling pollen balls becomes a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ scenario with poor little Indiana Mason crawling for his life in front of a pollen boulder.
Most commercially built mason bee houses also don’t have a sufficient roof overhang. If the nest gets soaked it can cause the growth of a fungus called Chalkbrood. This fungus kills bee larvae.
Another thing is that the nesting tubes in most of the mass produced houses aren’t removable. These nesting tubes should be replaced every year to maintain a healthy, sanitary environment for the next generation.
The nesting tubes are also often times either too large or too small in diameter. The holes should be 7mm – 9mm (5/16″ – 3/8″) in diameter.
In the case of commercially produced bamboo nest tubes they are often cut any which way without care. The tube should be completely open from end to end without a node diaphragm plugging the inside of the tube.
If a nesting tube is cut so that the node plugs the hole only an inch or two into the tube it doesn’t help in reproduction. Such nests produce too many males because the female mason bee controls the sex of her offspring. The eggs laid in the front 2″ of a tube will all be male.
A female mason bee lays female eggs to the back of a deep hole. She lays male eggs to the front or in shallow holes. A nest of shallow holes will only produce male offspring.
In tubes 6″ long the female mason bee lays female producing eggs to the back and male producing eggs to the front. This allows the male offspring to emerge first.
A good mason bee house fastens securely to firm surface and doesn’t blow in the wind. It keeps the rain out and is easily cleaned.
We overcame each of the above hazards of mass produced mason bee houses by designing our own.
The mason bee houses we offer for sale
• Are securely fastened by four screws to a sturdy mounting bracket that fits firmly onto a t-post.
• Have a 1.5″ overhang to help protect the nesting tubes from rain.
• Contain correctly sized nesting tubes with holes that are approximately 7mm – 9mm. We hand size and sort each and every nesting tube with sizing rods that simultaneously check for blockages in each tube. All node diaphragms are drilled through. Only the best nesting tubes pass this grading process. We discard the rest.
• Each tube is cut to 6″ long and is completely open from end to end. One house holds approximately 40 tubes. There may be some remaining velum inside the tubes. This is a natural plant material created by the bamboo that lines the inside of the culms. It’s a plant material that the bees will incorporate into their nesting.
• The nesting tubes are removable. They aren’t glued in and can be removed for replacement and house cleaning.
We prefer bamboo tubes because it’s more difficult for parasitic wasps to puncture the nesting tube with their ovipositor to parasitize the mason bee larvae.
The argument some mason bee keepers have against bamboo is that the bamboo tubes are quite difficult to open to check for mites. These people opt for paper tubes.
Our mason bee houses are compatible with paper nesting tubes from other venders if paper nesting tubes are your preference.
Here’s how we keep mason bees. –
• Position the house and emergence box on a t-post no more than 300 feet from your fruit trees or other crop. We recommend the nest and emergence box be between 4 feet to 7 feet high up off the ground. Site the house and emergence box in a location that’s sheltered from high winds. The front of the house and emergence box should face south or southwest for good sun exposure.
• The house and emergence box should be quite near each other and placed either on the same t-post or on separate posts side by side. This is important for pheromone location so that the male bees know where to find the females later on.
• In the spring the female mason bees lay eggs in the nesting tubes as they go about collecting pollen and then seal off the tubes with clay mud. You can provide them with clay mud in a dish near the bee house. It must be clay mud, as they can’t use sandy mud or mud high in organic matter. The clay mud source should be less than 25′ from the bee house; the closer the better. The clay mud source is an absolute must. Without the clay mud you will not have mason bees despite having the house.
The larvae will pupate and overwinter in the nesting tubes in the house.
• In the coming late winter before the bees from the previous spring leave the nesting tubes in the house, I first sterilize the empty emergence box with bleach water (1 to 2 teaspoons of household bleach to 1 gal of water). Wash it inside and out. Dunk it in a bucket. Brush it if necessary. Clean it good. Rinse it with non-bleached water. Let it dry completely.
• Then remove the nesting tubes from the house and place the tubes inside the freshly cleaned emergence box. The tubes should be placed into the emergence box with the same end facing the 5/16″ exit hole as was facing outward in the house. Our emergence box floor is slightly sloped to prevent the tubes from shifting and blocking the exit hole.
• After the nesting tubes are in the emergence box, give the empty house the same wash treatment as was previously done to the emergence box.
• Then place new, unused nesting tubes in the house.
• Leave the old nesting tubes in the emergence box until summer when you’re certain that all the bees have left the old tubes. At that time open the emergence box and destroy the old tubes and along with them any potential pests such as pollen mites.
• Repeat this cycle each year.
The ease and simplicity of the once a year washing and tube switch out doesn’t take much time. In return you’ll be rewarded with some of nature’s very best pollinators – potentially up to 200 of them from one of our mason bee houses. That’s enough to pollinate up to 20 average size fruit trees!
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