When I purchased our mason bees last winter, I was worried I would kill them before they ever had a chance to live. I had never raised mason bees before and thought they were high maintenance, due to the fact that the cocoons had to be stored in the refrigerator with just the right amount of moisture and put out at just the right time of year in just the right place with enough sunlight to warm them up.
Plus, I didn’t have a very good track record when it came to keeping beneficial creatures alive. I failed at worm composting a few years ago when I didn’t monitor the acidity level closely enough and I killed the worms. I was too afraid to try again.
Luckily the mason bees did not die under my care. In fact, we started the season with 20 bees and ended it with more than 60 of them!
Watching the mason bees do their thing this summer was, dare I say, exciting? I saw one emerge from his cocoon and caught a few of the females cap ping their tubes with mud. I realize it sounds a bit strange to talk about how fun it was to watch bees, but it really is! Nature is fascinating to watch, especially in your own backyard.
Mason bees are very low maintenance until you start harvesting the cocoons at the end of the summer, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Over the winter you have to check on them periodically to make sure the sponge keeping the bag they are in moist, but that’s all the attention they need. Then, when spring comes and its time to put them outside all you have to do is make sure they have a nearby water so when they emerge they can hydrate, and a mud source for the females to cap their tubes with. Well, that and a house to live in, of course.
When it comes time to harvest the cocoons at the end of the summer, however, that’s where the work begins. I bought the cardboard tubes so first I had to untwist all of them in order to access the cocoons. Then I had to separate the cocoons from the other things in the tubes, like mud plugs (good), bits of pollen (bad) and anything else I might find, like mites (also bad) or bee feces (just gross). Once they were separated, I sorted the bad from the good cocoons and stored the viable ones in the crisper drawer. From start to finish the process took me about 2.5 hours, but that was partly due to the fact that I was stopping a lot to take pictures and make notes about what I found so I could report back to you!
Let me tell you, this is a dirty and gross job. But it’s also fascinating and worth it, because guys, it’s nature! How often do we get up close and personal with nature just to observe? I got to see the work of a mason bee up close – see how it packed the end of a tube with mud, laid a bed of pollen, then an egg on top, capped it with mud and repeated the process as many times as it could. Then I got to see how the larvae developed and formed a cocoon around itself.
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to track how our bees do every year so I compiled some stats. Here they are for 2015, our very first group of bees:
20: The number of cocoons I started with at the beginning of the summer (10 female, 10 male)
0: The number of plants in my garden I actually saw a mason bee pollinate (that’s okay, it’s not like I was following them)
0.5: The number of hours I sat outside in the garden waiting to see if I could catch a mason bee in the act
14: The number of tubes filled and capped at the end of the season
2: The number of tubes capped but were empty of cocoons (both had pollen and mud though)
6.06: The average number of cocoons in a tube (lowest was 0 and highest was 14)
97: The number of cocoons formed
1: The number of larvae found but that didn’t form a cocoon
1,000,000,000+ (approximately): The number of bee feces I found (you can see what I mean in the photos above. All of the tiny dark spots on the newspaper are their poop)
30: The number of bees lost to mites (in the photos you can see which ones these were by the small pin-sized holes)
68: The number of cocoons saved for next year (2/3 look like they may be male)
So now that you’ve heard about my mason bee experience over the course of a full year, what do you think? Are you ready to get your very own mason bees? Or did my talk about larvae, dirt, poop and mites totally gross you out and now you never want to read another one of my blog posts again?