A Mason Bee Update (AKA, the Tale of Beatrice)

Around this time last year, I wrote all about our experiences in keeping orchard mason bees.  To read my original post, click here.

Insects aren’t usually my thing, but “our” mason bees are very much the exception.  I’m fairly certain that our bees are cuter and smarter than anyone else’s.

A mason bee preparing for landing at the bee house.

And since a new batch of our babies – I mean bees – will soon begin hatching from their cocoons, I thought this would be a good time to share an update on how they did last season.

But first . . .

Mason Bee Fun Facts

There is so much to know about mason bees, but here are a few fun facts:

  • Female mason bees are black and can easily be mistaken for flies.
  • Mason bees are considered solitary bees because they don’t live in a hive and don’t protect a queen.
  • We don’t need any protective gear to keep mason bees, and we never have to handle live bees – except Beatrice.  You’ll meet her later.
  • Mason bees are spring pollinators.  In our area, they start hatching from their cocoons around early April and are active only until about June.
  • Most mason bee varieties need sun and a  temperature of at least 55 degrees to fly.
  • In our garden, they lay eggs in the nesting tubes and wooden nesting blocks that we provide.
  • They fill each nesting tube with eggs, sealing each individual egg in with a mud wall to protect it.  Each nesting tube can house around six to eight eggs.
  • The eggs hatch into larvae and then spin themselves a protective cocoon where they develop into adult bees and hatch the following spring.
  • In late fall, we harvest the cocoons and keep them safe in a spare fridge until the following spring.
A mason bee at the entrance of a wooden nesting block.

Our Bee Numbers

We started the 2017 season with around 180 cocoons – 150 of which were from our own “crop” of cocoons from 2016, and 30 of which we got from Crown Bees.

By the end of the 2017 season, those bees left us with a whopping 305 new cocoons for the 2018 season.

 

What We Did Differently in 2017

2017 was a great year for our bee population.  We don’t always have that kind of success.

One thing we did differently was that, to prolong the bee season, we placed our cocoons outside in two increments:

We placed 20 cocoons outside on April 3, and we put the rest of the cocoons outside on April 8.

Chris put them in a little cardboard box with escape holes, similar to the boxes he made for this year’s cocoons, and strapped the box to the top of the bee house.

Cardboard boxes with holes for releasing cocoons.

When the little guys hatched, they could find their way out of the box and start living their busy bee lives.

In the bee house, Chris carefully arranged nesting reeds mixed with natural sticks of varying sizes.  This really appeals to the bees because the sticks serve as landmarks to help each bee find the nesting tube that she is filling with eggs.

Mason bees working their nesting tubes.

A Mishap

About a month into the 2017 bee season, most of the cocoons should have hatched – but there were still a few unhatched ones.

Chris moved the cocoons into a small clear plastic container, hoping that the extra dose of sunlight would awaken them. The container had holes drilled in the top so any hatched bees could emerge.

Then he strapped the plastic container to the bee house.

Then one day, I was outside and I noticed to my horror that the container had fallen to the ground – face down.  The top had come off, and the remaining cocoons, and one hatched bee, were trapped in the plastic bottom.

It was a sunny day, which was good for the cocoons.  I lifted off the container and watched as a few bees emerged from their cocoons, warmed their wings, and took flight.

This was a real treat since I’d never actually seen bees hatching from their cocoons before.

A newly-hatched mason been amid hatched and unhatched cocoons.
A mason bee hatching from a cocoon.

Apologies to anyone who thinks these photos are gross.  I might think the same if I didn’t know these sweet, docile bees better.  While I was sitting on the ground right next to them and taking photos, it never even crossed my mind that they would try to harm me.

 

The Tale of Beatrice

Later, Chris put all the unhatched cocoons back in the plastic container and put them on the porch to soak up the last rays of sun.

But the cocoons sat motionless – except one.  A single bee was slowly gnawing its way to freedom.  I could even hear what sounded like tiny chomping/scratching sounds.

A mason bee struggles to get out of her cocoon.

But progress was slow – too slow.  Chris carefully opened the cocoon for the bee.  It was a larger, black bee, so it was most likely a female.  She was very weak, and probably very hungry.

Chris put her on a flower to soak up some nectar.

Beatrice crashes on a flower.

I thought it would bring her luck if we gave her a name, so we called her Beatrice.  But Beatrice wasn’t doing very well.  To make things worse, it was getting late, and dark clouds were moving in.

Going on a tip that Chris had read, we soaked a cotton ball in sugar water and placed it on a small plastic lid.  Then we cut the flower that Beatrice was sitting on and put her, flower and all, on the lid with the cotton ball.  We placed the lid on top of the bee house and anchored it with a large rock.

Beatrice feeding on sugar water.

Beatrice could soak up sugar water and then, if she had the energy, find shelter in one of the bee house nesting holes.

The next day was cool and wet – and the bees were inactive.  Beatrice was still alive and clinging to the sugar-soaked cotton.  We added more sugar water.

The following day was warm and sunny.  And Beatrice flew away!

It’s not unusual to have a few cocoons that don’t hatch for various reasons.  We checked the remaining cocoons, and none of them contained live bees.

Beatrice was the last bee of the season.

A Second House

Beatrice might have been the last bee to hatch, but there were still plenty of bees around – and they were starting to run out of places to lay their eggs.

Most of the nesting reeds in the bee house were already full of eggs – with mud walls neatly sealing each entrance.

Mason bee nesting reeds almost filled to capacity.

Chris quickly built another bee house for them – a simple design but it did the trick.

Building a simple bee house.

Our Current Cocoons

We will be setting our current batch of cocoons outside soon. We are phasing out the wooden nesting block because we noticed that the bees much prefer natural nesting reeds (which are different from bamboo reeds, which we have been told by experts to stay away from) for their eggs.

Mason bee cocoons.

The variation of size always amazes me.  Females tend to be larger than males – in some cases much larger.

Mason bee cocoons.

We added a third bee house this year.

New bee house with this season’s cocoons in the cardboard container above the nesting reeds.

I can’t wait to see these little guys buzzing around our garden soon.

 

This post is for entertainment only and is not a tutorial. Mason bees are not suitable to all climates.


Resources

Disclosure:  Affiliate Links are used below.

Interested in learning more about mason bees?  Here are a few resources to get you started:

  • The Crown Bees Learning Page is packed with interesting information on the orchard mason bee and other native bees.
  • Crown Bees BeeMail Newsletters are an excellent resource for anyone currently caring for mason bees.
  • The Mason Bee Revolution, Dave Hunter and Jill Lightner.
  • The book The Orchard Mason Bee, by Brian L. Griffin, was our first resource when we began researching mason bees.  Although we have moved on from some of the advice in the book, it was an entertaining read that helped us understand these little creatures and get started.

Bee Houses and Hotels

I would love to replace our oldest bee house with something more attractive, and I’m inspired by some of the charming bee hotels and houses on Etsy.  

This one is especially cute.

If you decide to purchase a bee house, keep in mind that mason bees prefer nesting reeds that are at least six inches long.  I see many bee houses out there that are too shallow and the nesting reeds are too short.

 


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8 Replies to “A Mason Bee Update (AKA, the Tale of Beatrice)”

    1. Thanks Dawn. We have all those cocoons now from last season, and I can’t help wonder if any of them were laid by Beatrice.

    1. Angie, that would be a fun project! But I would have to find a good illustrator since I can draw anything but stick figures, LOL.

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