Wildflower seeds were planted last fall in hopes of having blooms in early spring to support mason bee populations on our building rooftop. While plants sprouted shortly after last frost, growth stalled for several weeks and only now are we seeing any actual blooms. This may be part of the reason that bee appearances seem to have dropped off given their only options for the past several weeks have been dandelions, strawberry flowers and currant, blueberry and gooseberry blooms. Not a terrible set I guess, but not enough to compete with streets lined with cherry blossoms at street level.
We’re mid-May now and things have started to look up. The first California poppy bloom is out, a few wild roses and an explosion of lupines have added to the flower options at elevation. Additionally what I believe is Euphorbia cotinifolia (Caribbean Copper Plant) is threatening to bloom and despite its tiny flowers seems to attract bees of various types.
Fingers crossed this year won’t be a mason bee bust… but only time will tell.
Our mason bees have mostly emerged and unfortunately our rooftop is almost devoid of flowers. With the exception of a large rosemary plant, and some heather there is very little to keep the bees around right now. At ground level the cherry blossoms are out, so hopefully that vertical distance isn’t too much to prevent them from returning over the next little while.
On the upside, our berry bushes are showing leaves and FAR more flower buds than we saw over the past two years. Red currants, black currants, gooseberries and blueberries have started flowering over the past week and while the flowers aren’t the bright pinks and reds of some other plants, it looks like they’ll be available in abundance. If we’re lucky there are still enough mason bees around to pollinate them as we have yet to see any volume of honey bees or bumblebees.
Here’s hoping that the combination of warmer weather and more abundant berry blossoms will do the trick.
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.
Takeaway? This year’s cardboard and paper tube (Canadians can find cardboard tubes here) 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cardboard for rolling (toilet paper tubes, cereal boxes, etc)
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.
Next up is the beer can mason bee house.
Beer cans (473mL tall style)
Cardboard for rolling
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.
Finally, Pringles can mason bee house.
Tall Pringles can
Cardboard for rolling OR longer cardboard pre-fab tubes
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.
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.
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.
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.
Just like that we’re (hopefully) through the worst of winter here in the Pacific Northwest. We’re into March in a month, which means it’s time to ready your bee homes, and the residents they’ll house.
While there aren’t any blooms out at this point, other than a handful of crocus’ providing a splash of colour, the various berry bushes have produced buds, with the gooseberries showing the first hint of leaves. It won’t be long now, and previous years have taught me that without the mason bees, we’ll be lucky to get fruit from the gooseberries, blueberries and currants.
My chief learnings from the last year would be the following, along with mitigation ideas for this time around.
Angle the bee houses slightly forward. Last year, despite facing the tube openings eastward there were a few days with heavy wind and rain that saw moisture enter the bee home. This year I’ll be tethering the homes more securely to their anchors to prevent even the slightest shifting in wind, and I’ll be angling them slightly forward so that any liquid that enters has a natural path out.
Reconsider wooden bee houses. My wooden houses are in rough shape after only two seasons. This year I’m thinking of trying to repurpose something like plastic milk jugs or 2L soda bottles to form the shell of the bee home. Benefits I’m hoping for are that it allows reuse of an existing material, is impermeable to water, can be cut to the necessary dimensions including an overhang to limit water ingress, and won’t break down under the stresses of Vancouver weather. The test will be securing the bee tubes side the slick plastic shell.
Finally, if you’re looking for a source of good quality, well-priced mason bee tubes here are the ones I’m testing this year. I’ll be comparing them to the drilled bamboo tubes I used last year.
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.
What’s the problem with pollinators? There aren’t enough of them… and they sleep in.
My second year, I added berry bushes to the roof, and added to the count this past season. What I found is that the berries bud and flower much sooner than vegetables in this climate, and apparently much sooner than bumblebees and honeybees surface to help with pollination. As a result, I’ve had very limited fruit production, though this past year I was able to get some improvement by manually making the effort.
I don’t know if the issue is that local pollinators aren’t emerging at the same time, or whether the location, and relatively limited flower options means they don’t visit until blooms are more abundant. Regardless, it’s a problem that I’m trying to deal with on a couple levels in 2019.
First, I scattered wildflower seeds in some beds reserved for non-edibles in hopes that they will emerge and flower to provide additional options for any pollinators that do emerge and visit early in the year.
Second, I’ve purchased a number of solitary bee homes and will be seeding them with mason bees in March, in hopes that the early-emerging mason bees will bridge the time between early flower emergence and the arrival of the pollinators that service the broader pool of fruit and vegetable plants.
If anyone has other ideas I’m all ears, as I’d like nothing more than to have bushes loaded with berries through the spring/summer of 2019.