The Day The Mason Bees Emerged

Mason bees emerging in spring

As interesting as it is to see mason bees surface after a winter dormant, I was hoping they would wait another week or two as there are virtually no flowers on our roof. Crocus have left us, currants, blueberries and gooseberries all look to be about a week or two away… in fact the only flowing plant on the roof is our massive rosemary. Oh well.

It was purely by chance that I checked the bees this afternoon and noticed a few plugs opened and bees at the entrance. As I’ve mentioned previously, last year we used store-bought bee houses along with bamboo tubes. Since the tubes were nearly impossible to open, I left them in the houses and just moved them to a safe, sheltered place on a north-facing balcony. As a result, the cocoons weren’t cleaned and the temperature control was left largely to nature.

What happened? Well, I was expecting that a lot of the tubes would not emerge at all. As I said, I hadn’t cleaned them, I hadn’t controlled the temperature, they weren’t perfectly shielded from rain through the summer… but I was pleasantly surprised. Emergence happened all at once with mason bee after mason bee peeking out of their tubes and taking short hops before settling on a south-facing surface presumably to warm up.

The major issue was something I predicted in an earlier post. While all of the bees looked fat and well-fed, there were some that were absolutely plagued with mites (see the photos in this post). Others, fortunately, seemed to be completely unaffected by mites, but those that were were covered by them.

Mason bee covered in mites
Mite-infested mason bee minutes after emerging from bamboo tubes. March 2020

 

Takeaway? This year’s cardboard and paper tube test is probably warranted given the situation with mites on my mason bees. Toward summer’s end I need to remove and open the mason bee tubes, remove the cocoons and clean them before storing them in the fridge (or other suitable location) until next spring. Hopefully, IF the bees choose to use the paper tubes, and IF the babies survive to form cocoons, and IF I remove and clean them properly we should have a healthy population come next spring.

Healthy mason bee
Healthy mason bee minutes after emerging. March 2020

 

Mason bee minutes after emerging
Mason bee minutes after emerging. March 2020

The Benefits of Fennel in the Pacific Northwest Garden

2019 was my first year growing fennel. I grew both from starts (Orion I believe with the rounded bulb ), as well as from seed (Selma Fino from WestCoastSeeds). Initially I planted them out of curiosity as I do enjoy fennel in salads, and like the look of both fennel and dill plants. After year one, I recommend a fennel planting to anyone considering it, and will be planting several pockets of fennel again this year.

First, my fennel did very well, both those started from small pants and those started from seed. After a bit of a slow start, the seed fennel took off and by year’s end were massive.

Next, they were a very effective draw for pollinators and various types of wasps. Based on what I’ve read, I believe several of these were predatory wasps, which I was very happy to have around. The fennel flowers bloomed on immense heads and at any given point were covered by bees, wasps as well as ladybugs which really seemed to favor the plant.

Recommendations?

  • If you’re planning to eat them, plant extras (so you can have the benefits of the ladybugs and wasps throughout the season) and don’t wait too long to harvest. If I could do it over, I would have pulled the bulbs earlier as the ones we ate were a bit woody. According to WestCoastSeeds you should harvest the fennel bulbs before the flowers form… in which case I wasn’t even close.
  • Think about how you might stake them. I planted my fennel fairly close to some of my pepper plants (to the north and east so as not to shade them) and later in the summer the fennel started to bend over top the peppers. I tied the longer stalks back, but it wasn’t very nice to look at. This year I’ll better plan how to keep the fennel stalks and flowers from shading the peppers, while still having them close enough for the wasps and ladybugs to wander by. 
  • Don’t forget the seeds! At the end of the summer I saved a fair number of fennel seeds from one of the plants. After they’d try they served as a very nice snack over the next several months. That said, don’t leave the little ‘connector’ to the seed itself. Those things don’t fall off easily on their own, and dry into little gum-piercing spears. You’ve been warned.
  • Don’t plant too close to dill. I read this somewhere, but given that they’re closely related you want to keep them away from one another.

That’s it. I didn’t experience any real downsides to growing fennel in my garden, and observed several valuable benefits that will see fennel become a constant presence in my garden going forward.

One more thing. I didn’t fully clean out my fennel at the end of last year. On inspection this week I noticed that shoots were erupting from the older bulb / roots. I pulled the old plant and cut the base into several pieces, each with a new green shoot and placed them back in the garden bed. It’s been several days, and so far they’re showing no ill effects, so I may have found an easy way to get a head start on this year’s fennel patch.

Dealing With Pests – Grubs in the Soil, Big and Small

Buy natural grub and mite solutions – US

Buy natural grub and mite solutions – Canada

This article is a work in progress. Here in Vancouver we’re under siege by various grubs in lawns across the city. You can see yards and playing fields with tufts of sod everywhere, overturned by hungry crows looking for an easy dinner of fat grubs. Fortunately I have yet to find these big beetle grubs in the garden. Unfortunately I have regularly found smaller white grubs throughout the growing season.

Last year I decided to try one of the grub spray solutions early in the season to see what would happen. I can’t say for certain, but I do think it worked. I didn’t spray all of the planted beds, but those I did spray didn’t surface grubs through the season when I overturned the soil. Those I didn’t spray exposed those tiny white grubs when I dug around in the soil.

Application was simple. You buy a container that holds something similar to a teabag full of powder (the beneficial nematodes that will eventually kill the grubs in the soil) as well as an applicator which attaches to your hose and (one hopes) evenly distributes the solution as you spray. This stuff isn’t cheap mind you, but in light of the results I’ll be doing it again this year.

Buy natural grub and mite solutions – US

Buy natural grub and mite solutions – Canada

The Problem With Pollinators Part II – Good, Bad And The Nasty

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – US

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – Canada

It’s the middle of April, so time for my second post on native pollinators. This year I again purchased a handful of mason bee cocoons to get a jump on pollinating until the bumblebee and honey bee populations can find the roof. I should mention that last year several of the tubes in my bee houses were filled and sealed by the mason bees introduced at that time. Unfortunately I didn’t properly take care of them over the winter, though I intend to do so this year if I’m given a second chance. For anyone else in a similar situation, here’s a handy guide to harvesting your mason bee cocoons at the end of the season: https://crownbees.com/harvest-cocoons

The Good. As mentioned above, the cocoons we set out last year hatched (not all, but many of them) and were seen happily pollinating the flowers across our roof. After a few weeks I started to see a few of the tubes closed off with mud. All in all perhaps a dozen tubes were closed in this fashion.

The Bad. First, I noticed many small insects around one of my bee houses in particular, this being the one housing the leaf-cutter bee cocoons. They were almost certainly predatory wasps, and looked like this. Their presence might explain the very low hatch rate for the leaf-cutter cocoons that I’d purchased. Also, as mentioned above I didn’t properly harvest the mason bee cocoons, and instead left them outside over the winter. Fortunately for me, almost all of the plugged cocoons appear to have hatched this spring, and I’m seeing bees buzzing about the bee houses even though the newly purchased cocoons haven’t yet emerged.

The Ugly. While most of the bees I’ve seen up close this spring have looked healthy, I’ve encountered a couple that were absolutely INFESTED with mites. If you look at the photo at the top of this post, you’ll see 6 mites hitching a ride on the bee’s back. In one instance there must have been HUNDREDS of mites on the poor bee. As such, I will be absolutely sure to properly harvest the cocoons this year, and will at minimum continue to replace all tubes with new bamboo, and possibly replace the houses themselves.

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – US

Buy Mason Bee Revolution – Canada

Dealing with Pests – Cabbage Aphids (aka how I lost to cabbage aphids)

For each of the past three years I’ve planted Kale. It’s supposed to be super easy to grow, and it’s supposed to produce like crazy. Mine did… but I’m not growing Kale next year. Every bloody year I’ve become plagued by cabbage aphids, and I’ve failed repeatedly at fending them off, so this year I’m done with Kale (and cabbage, brussels sprouts and all manner of related greens).

I tried ladybugs. Released them in the garden in close proximity to these grey monstrosities, but they must find them as vile as I do because I have yet to see a ladybug feed on a cabbage aphid. Other aphids? Absolutely. The ladybugs gorged when my cape gooseberries were attacked… but not the grey ones.

I tried soapy water. It seemed to work at first, but the whole “make sure you get into all the crevices” thing meant it was doomed to failure. I’m mad lazy, and kale is nothing but crevices. Strike two.

I tried quick blasts of water. Guess what? They came back. Remember those crevices? We’ll in my experience you can’t get quick blasts of water into all the crevices without doing material damage to the plant. Maybe the water pressure was higher than it needed to be, I don’t know, but fool me once… Also, I’m gardening on a roof, so I don’t honor the whole ‘recommended spacing’ thing, which means a blast of water on plant A means a free trip to plant B. It may be that the mouth parts are ripped off etc, but I don’t like kale enough to risk it again this year.

You won this round cabbage aphids… and I’m not stepping in the ring again given how I value the reward at stake.