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

Testing Fabric Grow Bags To Focus Soil Quality For Super Hot Peppers and Tomatoes

As written in earlier posts the “soil” in our rooftop garden is miserable, made up of sand, lava rock and who-knows-what else presumably to keep it light given the volume up there. I’ve had reasonable success growing in this medium with limited use of compost / worm castings and fertilizer, but my compost bin is limited and the soil volume is substantial.

This year I’m considering fabric grow pots / bags (Amazon Canada has Vivosun grow bags here) for some of the more demanding produce so I can supplement the soil more deliberately through the season, and recover that soil at year’s end rather than have to remember where supplementation occurred for the next year.

From what I’ve read, the 5 gallon fabric grow bags should do for my needs, in particular for use with some of my super hot peppers. I’ll continue to grow most of them in the main planters, but intend to use 3 or for grow bags for comparison this season. I’m assuming the 5 gallon size would suffice for tomatoes as well, and so I’ll likely consider a comparison there as well.

If anyone has any experience using these I’d love to hear about it. I’m particularly curious how well they stand up to weather… can you really expect to get 5 to 7 seasons out of a single bag?

DIY Mason Bee(r) Hive – Howe Sound Installation

Mason Bees Mating on the Road

A number of the DIY beer can-based mason bee hives were “installed” this week at various locations on an island in Howe Sound. During a visit last summer, I noticed mason bees coming and going behind cedar shingles on a cabin, and saw them in abundance in a friend’s fruit orchard, so I figured it would be interesting to see if they would take advantage of my low budget mason bee houses.

While this past week has been quite warm between 11am and 2pm, outside those windows it remains uncomfortably cold. As such I saw VERY little bee activity. This may be due in part to the only flowers observed being  daffodils, rosemary (introduced) and skunk cabbage (do bees even like skunk cabbage?).

In terms of pollinators, we observed various types of bee flies, bumblebees, honeybees, a single wasp and a pair of mason bees mating in the middle of the road. That single pair suggests the masses are just around the corner, so hopefully the needed flowers hurry up and bloom. Presently there are barely buds on many of the needed trees.

The mason bee(r) houses were placed in several locations across 2 properties on the island. One on the water, and one inland. In both cases the bee houses face south / east and are angled slightly downward to reduce the likelihood of water ingress and pooling. Hopefully our next visit will find hundreds of tubes capped with mud and ready for eventual cleaning.

If these homebrew mason bee houses aren’t your thing, you can of course purchase ready-made mason bee houses on Amazon and elsewhere. For those of you in the US, you can find many mason bee house models here, and if you’re in Canada, then these are the bee houses you’re looking for.

Beer can mason bee house in a wood pile.
Beer can mason bee house placed in a wood pile.

 

DIY mason bee house in a woodshed
Pringles can mason bee house mounted on a woodshed.

2020 Super Hot Pepper Preparations – March 20 Update

So I’ve been away since the 15th and left my seedlings to fend for themselves under a full spectrum lamp, and a plastic cover. I have to admit, I was assuming I’d come home to dead peppers… but I’m pleasantly surprised. The pepper seedlings are a bit leggy, so I’ll have to work on correcting that, but they look pretty good given my shameless neglect. Here’s where we sit:

Variety (Planted Date) Germination Rate
Yellow Brain Strain (2/28) 100%
Yellow Reaper (2/28) 100%
Trinidad 7 Pot Douglah (2/28) 25%
Thai Dragon (2/28) 100%
Moruga Scorpion (3/4) 100%
Naga Viper (3/4) 100%
Yellow Reaper – source 1 (3/10)
Brain Strain – source 2 (3/10)

Covid-19, Sourcing Seedlings, and Vancouver 2020 Garden Plans

Perhaps not top of mind for most, but I’m wondering how things will play out for the local gardener.

Growing your own should be appealing in this time of social distancing, but with our relatively short growing season, starting from seed isn’t always the most reliable option. While I typically try seeds, I often find myself falling back to garden center purchased plant starts when hardening off fails, or crows take their toll.

Whether or not garden centres are open, their suppliers must surely be continuing to care for their various plants… So this weekend will be about locating sources of plants starts, and contacting them for timing and purchase process. If anything, this may provide a broader selection to choose from, and help keep us out of the stores (eventually) in order to add fresh food to our basics. 

DIY Mason Bee(r) Hive

Photo of beer can-based mason bee house

This one is a bit of a do it yourself mason bee house experiment. I’m going 100% DIY this year after seeing my store-bought houses disintegrate over the winter while last year’s milk carton-based creations look as good as new (and will only require a quick wipe-down with dilute bleach solution before I reuse them this year). Last week I posted a few examples of the house styles I was playing around with, and since then I’m up to 20 individual bee homes of various shapes and sizes.

This post is about an experiment for this year. I went looking for chicken wire this afternoon to fashion a guard at the entrance of each house and was unable to find any at all. It seems toilet paper isn’t the only item sold-out in these days of coronavirus stockpiling, though I struggle to think what the chicken wire is for. When I got home I realized that several of my native bee homes use beer cans for the main housing, with the tops cut off. Given a beer can has a small (too small for most birds to pass through) hole, I thought maybe they could be reattached to the base once the various tubes were packed in, creating a bee home protected from both rain, birds and squirrels alike.

I give you, the Mason Bee(r) House TM

I’m sure there are some issues with this approach… like moisture entering as mist with no easy way to exit given the can walls aren’t permeable… or maybe excessive heating depending where it’s placed, and I’d love to hear them, but I’m definitely going to give these a shot.

I would sell plans laid out in exhaustive detail, but as you’ll see in the photo there was little in the way of planning, and the details are the furthest thing from exhaustive.

Enjoy 🙂

Foundation for the mason beer house.
Step 1. Cut the can and insert your tubes.

 

Mason beer house with top set back on.
Step 2. Smooth the edges, remove the tab and return the top to the full bee house.

 

Tape the top on the bee house and you're done.
Step 3. I taped the top back on the beer can base and voila!

2020 Super Hot Pepper Preparations – March 13 Update

Just a quick update on the super-hot seeds planted recently. Frankly I’m surprised at how many have already sprouted given past experience. All were planted in seeding mix, on a heat mat. There is a single grow light over the seedlings as they sprout (and they are sitting at a south-facing window).

Variety (Planted Date) Germination Rate
Yellow Brain Strain (2/28) 100%
Yellow Reaper (2/28) 50%
Trinidad 7 Pot Douglah (2/28)
Thai Dragon (2/28) 100%
Moruga Scorpion (3/4) 75%
Naga Viper (3/4) 25%
Yellow Reaper – source 1 (3/10)
Brain Strain – source 2 (3/10)

Do It Yourself Mason and Leafcutter Bee Houses. DIY Bee Houses!

Do it yourself mason bee homes

The following outlines my attempts to create a few low budget mason and leafcutter bee houses to spread around the property. Houses I won’t be overly concerned about should weather or other factors damage them during the hear. They are NOT pretty, so if you’re looking for mason bee houses to improve the appearance of your garden consider one of the following (but remember to take them in over winter else you’ll be buying again next year.

Mason bee houses shipped from Canada

Mason bee houses shipped from the US

My mason bee houses are in bad shape. Really bad shape. Being the fool that I am I forgot to bring them in and left them to the elements on the roof through a very wet, very cold winter. Rather than spend for new, nicely designed houses I’ve decided to get scrappy and go the DIY route. 

What do I have so far? A whole lot of ugly, but ugly that just might work if placed in the right locations. I wanted something light, that wouldn’t break if dropped, and that required as little work as possible. I used cardboard from the recycle bin (toilet paper rolls, cereal and cracker boxes etc) to make the mason bee tubes, rolling the cardboard around a pencil and taping them once rolled using masking tape. Pay attention to which direction the cardboard ‘wants’ to roll and it will make your life much easier. Last year I used dollar store bamboo and did a pass with a cordless drill to open up any tubes that weren’t fully accessible. These worked, but opening the bamboo was a real challenge. I’m hoping the cardboard will be much easier to open in the fall in order to recover and clean the cocoons.

Also, I’m considering placing some kind of mesh at the entrance to prevent larger animals (birds, squirrels etc) from ruining things, and giving the bees some measure of protection while they work. 

The three ‘designs’ I’ve tried so far start with the milk carton mason bee house:

  • Milk carton. 1L size, to cut off.
  • Duct tape
  • Cardboard for rolling (toilet paper tubes, cereal boxes, etc)
  • Paper straws
  • Masking tape

I used the duct tape to ‘waterproof’ the paper milk carton, including about 2 inches inside the lip of the carton to both protect the exposed cardboard from the initial cut, and to provide some texture for the tubes to catch against. I used a blend of tubes (different cardboard sources and slightly different lengths) an also included a few smaller, paper straw tubes in case other bee types show up. All tubes were pushed against the back of the carton, and I kept adding until I could add no more.

Milk carton mason bee house
Milk carton mason bee house version 1

 

Next up is the beer can mason bee house.

  • Beer cans (473mL tall style)
  • Duct tape
  • Cardboard for rolling
  • Paper straws
  • Masking tape

Basically the same as the milk carton, expect I had to cut the tops off the beer cans. I just used a serrated knife, but use whatever you like, and be careful. Once off, cleaned and dried I used duct tape around the cut edge to smooth them. From there it was the same as with the cartons.

Beer can mason bee house
Beer can mason bee house

 

Finally, Pringles can mason bee house.

  • Tall Pringles can
  • Duct tape
  • Cardboard for rolling OR longer cardboard pre-fab tubes
  • Paper straws
  • Masking tape

Pringles can was similar to the milk carton, but is my least favorite as despite washing the inside, the sides remained slippery. The tape isn’t sticking as well as the others, so we’ll see how these ones perform.

Pringles can mason bee house
Pringles can mason bee house

 

Over the next several days I’ll be placing these mason bee houses around the property here, as well as a few other locations I saw frequented by mason bees last year. As always, I’ll be positioning the bee houses facing southeast, and to the extent possible under cover to limit the risk of water ingress.

Thoughts?

Seasoning Peppers – A New Challenge For 2020

Granada Seasoning Pepper Seeds

This might be a new one for many of you, but Seasoning Peppers (Tobago Seasoning Peppers, Granada Seasoning Peppers, Trinidad Pimento Peppers and other names) are peppers that look and smell very similar to Habanero Peppers and some of the super hots, sharing some taste, but don’t have the heat.

I’ve never tried growing these before, but I’ve used them in cooking anytime I can find them in Caribbean specialty shops (which isn’t often). I’ve been coming across more and more recipes calling for Trinidad Pimento peppers, so I figured it was time to give them a try. I found some seeds on eBay and planted them earlier today, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a) they germinate and grow and b) they’re actually Seasoning Peppers (I’ve had some surprises when purchasing pepper seeds on eBay). Stay tuned.

To hold you over, here are a couple videos I found on Youtube that discuss these unusual peppers.

 

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.