Let's Get Bzzzy!
Last year was my first year as a real, honest to goodness beekeeper. Maybe not honeybees, but I started my first colony of mason bees and I had a nest of big native bumblebees move in shortly afterward. One day I would LOVE to have a honeybee hive, but I am happy with my mason bees and bumblebees in the interim.
Not only are mason bees non-aggressive and they have no stringer, they are a pretty bee to watch coming an going in the garden. They are a dark, almost black, iridescent blue. Don't expect to see the usual stripey bee zooming around the garden.
I purchased several mason bee cocoons from a local nursery early last year and kept them in the fridge until there was a reliable food source for them. We have a few large fruit trees in our yard and were hoping that they would help with pollination. We weren't disappointed! And who doesn't love the company of a bee? It was wonderful to watch them come and go from their little tube homes. I purchased a set of cardboard tubes to start me off on the right foot last year. The bees started to fill them with mud right away to protect next year's cocoons. Having never raised or handled bees before, I went to a workshop on how to keep mason bees. This gave me the confidence to open the tubes up at the end of the season , pull out the cocoons and clean and store them for setting out this year. It was actually easier than I expected.
Starting my colony (2019):
1) Purchase bee cocoons early spring. Keep them refrigerated until they are ready to be set out. It should be when there are plenty of blossoms opening or *just* beforehand.
2) Create a place where they can nest. I used a large coffee tin with a small coffee tin nestled inside. I place my cardboard tubes in the small tin. This set up was EAST FACING, which apparently is important. It must be warm but protected from being overexposed to the elements. You can see the arranged cans in the picture below that shows the white painted tin; I've reused the same set up this year which was great.
3) Place the container in or around your new bee house when their food source is ready to flower. Make sure that the container that they came in is protected from the elements. Mine came in an empty perscription bottle which I set inside the large coffee tin.
4) Wait for your bees to emerge from their slumber. They will chew their way out of the cocoon and get right to work. There's really nothing else that you need to do. They will make an source their own mud, you don't need to buy any gimmicky (and expensive!) mud for them to use.
5) Late in the season when they have gone dormant, but before the harsh winter sets in, you might want to consider bringing in your bees for their own safety. This will prevent any critters from eating them, mites or pests from invading the tubes, or extreme weather from harming them. Although in many areas they are native bees, they are now your friends and garden pets, so you'll probably want to give them some extra TLC. In October, open up the tubes and remove the cocoons. Proceed to the next step immediately.
NOTE: If you see something that looks like little grubs in your mason bee tubes, DON'T PANIC like I did. I thought whatever little creatures they were, that they were surely going to devour my precious mason bees. Well, after some internet sleuthing, it turns out that they were actually resin bees, which are also a solitary bee. If you can leave them where they are and minimally disturb their portion of the nest, that will help them to overwinter in place.
6) You will want to sanitize your mason bee cocoons with a mild bleach/water mixture. Soak them for five to ten minutes, then rinse them thoroughly. I very gently massaged each cocoon between my thumb and index finger as was recommended to me in my class for removing debris. Leave them to dry on a paper towel.
7) Store them in a sealed container in your fridge. Again, an old prescription container should do the trick.
8) Return to step 1 and bring them out in the spring when the timing is right!
You may get as many as 10 mason bees for each one that you initially start with. If you take care of your bees, your colony is going to grow. You may consider selling or sharing your bees year-to-year with others. Bees nee all the help they can get!
Buying mason bee supplies can be expensive, but you don't actually need anything fancy to help them feel at home. I purchased a clearance end-of-season plastic bee house to use every year which is easy to clean and remove cocoons since I plan on storing them in my fridge every year. Those little cardboard tubes are another product which is a popular and easy solution, but they are WAY more expensive than they should be. I have used large coffee tins screwed to the posts of our deck with the housing inside. Instead of cardboard tubes, this year I have rolled half pieces of used computer paper around a pencil to make a long tube, and then fold it in half. It is important to have one end of any tube closed for them, whether it is a pre-formed nest, a cardboard tube, or a paper tube. The paper tube solution was recommended by our local nature conservation organization, so I look forward to seeing what sort of results I will get this year.
I can already see that the bees are emerging and they are actively using my new plastic bee tube house. I will update you to let you know which worked best!
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A zone 8a gardening enthusiast!