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No matter how many beekeeping books you've read, you need Rosanna Mattingly's Honey-Maker to bring it all together. Honey-Maker is a handbook about the worker bee herself—what she does, how she does it, and how all her little parts work together. For less than the price of one average queen bee, you can learn the secrets of the worker in minute detail. She—and the book—are nothing short of awesome.

Putting the squeeze on mason bees


Talk about claustrophobia. Just looking at this bee gives me the heebie-jeebies. Conventional wisdom says a blue orchard mason bee (Osmia lignaria) likes a 5/16th-inch nesting hole. This hole is smaller, only 1/4 inch, drilled specifically for leafcutters. Apparently, no one in the bee world is reading my mind because the masons are eschewing the larger holes in favor of a tight fit. They remind me of women struggling into small garments—just hold your breath and sque-e-e-e-eze.

Even though they give me confined-space anxiety, I love to watch these workaholic bees. Returning from a foraging trip, the females look like big black flies with one exception: the undersides of their abdomens are painted with colorful pollen. The bees crawl into their holes head first, back legs flailing for purchase against the sides of the tunnel. After a few moments, they back out, do a quick 180, then re-enter tail-end first.

Mason bees make odd little noises while they work. Sounding a lot like bugs in glass jar, they make vibrate-y, echo-y noises that sound like distress . . . and maybe it is. Panic attacks?

When they’re not carrying pollen, the bees haul in the mud they will use to seal up each compartment until the nest is complete.

My worst mason bee problem occurs each year right here at my desk, which is near a double-paned window in a white vinyl frame. On the outside of the house the frame has two little drain holes. Every year the mason bees go into those holes and build nests. From the inside of the house I can’t see any opening at all, but somehow the bees hatch to the inside. Sometimes I find them on the windowsill or sometimes they get caught between the window and the screen. I’ve rescued five so far this year, and a sixth I found dead on the carpet.

The other odd thing has to do with pollen mites. One year I purchased mason bees from a place in Oregon and for the next two years had serious pollen mites. I never purchased bees after that. Instead, I just built housing and let the wild masons move in. Since then, I’ve seen no mites. Each afternoon I net as many bees as I can and check for mites, but for three years now, I’ve come up clean. I’m wondering if local populations have local resistance. Perhaps shipping them around the countryside is the wrong thing to do—it certainly didn’t help the honey bees or the bumble bees. Serious food for thought.


I was so much smarter then

If you are prickly, easily offended, or a second- or third-year beekeeper, please do not read this. Hey, you! Yes, you, the second-year beekeeper out there who is trying to sneak a peek! Please go away!

Wow, that was close. Anyway, for the rest of you, I have completed a one-sided, unscientific, and misguided study on the knowledge base of beekeepers correlated with the length of time they’ve been keeping bees. And this is what I found:

The beekeepers who know the least are the first years. No surprise here. Many don’t know a mite from a mouse—after all, they both live in hives—but that’s okay because they are soaking up knowledge and learning fast. They read, attend classes, ask questions. They are grateful for any help they can get.

The beekeepers who know the most, those who actually know everything there is to know, are the second- and third-years. If there is a question, they have the answer. If you have an opinion, they will let you know what they think of it—and you. They don’t read, because they could write it better. They don’t listen, because they could say it better. Trust me, there is not one thing about bees that they don’t know. If you need a fast answer and confident opinion, they are the people to see. I am happy for them as they revel in their vast knowledge.

Then, long about the fourth year, something happens—their knowledge begins to erode. It’s not that they know less, it’s that they know so much that they begin to realize how much more there is to learn. It dawns on them they’ve seen but the tip of the iceberg. They begin to see issues as complex rather than simple. They begin to see answers as multi-faceted, not smooth and round. The amount they want to learn slowly grows until it becomes infinite.

You’ve heard of the “tree of knowledge?” Well, I think of it like this: The first years are on the ground, right where the tree breaks through the soil. The second- and third-years are on the trunk where everything is smooth, well-defined, and nothing is messy. Those who’ve been at it longer are up in the limbs, branches, and twigs where every question has more than one answer and all the pathways are obscured by leaves.

Knowledgeable beekeepers start sentences with indeterminate words like, “sometimes,” “often,” or “possibly.” They read, go to lectures, search the web, and experiment. Each year that passes, as their knowledge increases in multiples, they feel they know less . . . and they want to know more. They are awed by the bees, mesmerized, humbled. They never have fast answers, only well-considered opinions that are tempered with experience and the realization that there are no easy answers—not about bees.

But, yes, the exception makes the rule. Of course there are second- and third-years who are not know-it-alls and old-timers who are. Furthermore, I don’t really think the progression from knowing nothing, to knowing everything, to knowing just a portion is bad. It’s just the way it is.

I am speaking partially from experience gathered from my website, classes I’ve taught, and lectures I’ve given, and partially from being there. I used to know way more about bees than I do now. Actually, I used to know just about everything. But once I began studying bee nutrition, pathogens, pesticide interactions, reproduction, genetics, health, hygienic behavior, flower selection, pollen composition, communication, social interaction, nest-site selection, and environmental stressors . . . well, let’s just say I know less and less every day.

‘Nuf said. Now back to the books before I lose a few more percentage points.


Where on the tree are you?