If you have ever been to your local garden centre looking for mason bee supplies, you'll know that they can be quite cost prohibitive. Buying the bee cocoons themselves is generally about $20CAD for 10. Your new bees will want someplace to live after they emerge, of course. You will be tempted to buy them a fancy house with reusable or disposable tubes, but the price tags on those can be astronomical. You might be dissuaded from getting any bees at all!
Last year, I attended a mini workshop on keeping mason bees. The instructor was from a local nature conservation group and she assured us that bees are not looking for a fancy bug hotel. You can use supplies that you already have on hand!
After I shelled out too much money for cardboard tubes and a reusable bee house, I decided to try a much more economical approach to mason beekeeping.
These above pictures are my original mason bee cocoons and the container in which they came from the garden centre. I started with 12 cocoons, both male and female (I don't know how you tell them apart!). I used an old prescription container to store the new cocoons in the fall.
If mason bees are native in your area, you may not even need to buy them at all! You can build a house that would be attractive for them and see if they will nest there all on their own.
My first year (2019):
These photos are from last year. I purchased a set of cardboard tubes for about $10. That seemed quite expensive to me given the fact that they are, well, cardboard tubes. Anyhoo, I bought them in all my enthusiasm and newbie-ness.
So here's what I did (see above):
1) I bundled the tubes together with a couple of strong rubber bands.
2) I took a small coffee tin and cut a hole in the lid big enough to insert the bundle of tubes, then insert the tubes. They will be a little too long and will stick out a bit. That is ok.
3) I fastened popscicle sticks on the bottom of the tin so that it would sit elevated when nested in the large coffee tin (in the next step). You can skip this and just glue or screw them together. I decided to screw them together to permanently join them.
4) I painted a large coffee tin so that it would look nice when screwed to our deck post. This is optional. Screw or fasten the large tin in the desired location. It should be high enough to keep out curious critters and it should be EAST facing so that it is warm and protected from the elements.
5) Insert the small tin into the large tin and fasten as desired. You may want to put the tubes into place AFTER this step.
6) Place your mason bee cocoons in the large tin so that they will be encouraged to nest in this beautiful new home that you built for them. VOILA! You did it! Now sit back and admire their hard work as they pollinate your garden like you've never seen before. These little bees are pollination workhorses.
7) OPTIONAL: At the end of the main gardening season (around October in zones 7/8), remove the tubes from the house and the cocoons from the tubes. For more information on mason bee care, see my other mason bee instructional post. The last picture in the row above shows how many cocoons I got after only my first year of keeping mason bees! I can't wait to see how many I get next year!
My second year (2020):
This year, armed with more knowledge and experience, I decided I wanted to try a paper tube method of encouraging mason bee nesting that was recommended during the mason been workshop that I attended. Mason bees don't need anything fancy but they are encouraged to nest in places that have tube-/tunnel-like openings that are CLOSED on one end (this is important!). So, I took some sheets of used computer paper and cut them in half lengthwise. I rolled them around a pencil and then folded them in half. After creating a bundle of these, I put them in my old mason bee coffee tin house from last year. Now we wait and see! I will keep you updated!
At the end of last season, I bought a clearance mason been house that is made from stacking plastic trays that form tubes. At the end of the season, removal of the cocoons and cleaning of the house should be a breeze. Since I'm planning on keeping the cocoons in my refrigerator over the winter, this will make my job easier. After setting my cocoons out at the beginning of April, I can see that most (if not all) of the cocoons have hatched! You can also see mud splatter on the front of the plastic house showing that they are already hard at work. I am pleased that all of my effort and waiting have paid off. You can see in the background of the middle photo that my cherry tree is in full swing, so the bees will have lots of food. Hopefully this means that we will get lots of food too!
Now, go get bzzzy and start your own mason bee house!