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A mason bee condo won’t “save the bees”

If you want to save the mammals, you could adopt a pig. Although it sounds like fun, adopting a pig won’t save endangered mammals such as the polar bear, the Pacific pocket mouse, the American pika, or the Canada lynx. It’s a silly idea. Similarly, adopting an orchard mason bee won’t save the hundreds of endangered bee species that are faltering in every corner of the globe. It’s an equally silly idea.

Like the pig, the orchard mason bee is an agriculturally important species that is in no danger of extinction. In fact, orchard mason bees—like honey bees, alfalfa leafcutting bees, and some bumble bees—have been so manipulated by mankind they have more in common with livestock than with wildlife. Mason cocoons are extracted, collected, washed, rubbed, bleached, refrigerated, stored, and shipped—hardly “natural” beekeeping. Yet the idea persists that cultivating these agro-bees is somehow saving the planet.

Whenever we select and promote one species over another, we run into problems. The more intensely we manage the chosen species, the quicker the problems multiply. The reason? Nature hates a monoculture.

The danger of monoculture

I frequently write about logic-based beekeeping—the idea that you already know many things from your life experience that can make you a better beekeeper. The danger of monoculture is one of the things you already know.

Throughout recorded history, human disease has spread most quickly whenever large populations are in close quarters. Think of small pox, black plague, malaria, cholera, and typhoid. In animal populations, diseases are rampant in feedlots and overcrowded pastures. Plant disease spreads fastest in monocropped fields where each plant has the same genetic deficiencies, and insect pests bloom in large number because more food is available right next to the plant they just devoured.

In the eastern states, we planted the magnificent American elm to adorn the streets and parks. It was lovely and graceful, and the limbs were high enough not to interfere with traffic or parking. When Dutch elm disease struck, the planting pattern acting like a transmission line, guiding the disease through a conduit of trees until none were left.

The balance of nature

Nature doesn’t do things that way; nature mixes things up. In an undisturbed habitat, a variety of creatures live with a variety of plants. A series of checks and balances ensures that one species doesn’t dominate to the detriment of another.

Plants produce and animals consume. Some animals eat others, and those in turn are eaten. Things die and others decompose them. Ecologists used to call this system the “balance of nature,” a phrase that fell out of favor when we realized that systems always evolve and therefore are not perfectly balanced. Still, nature has a bead on how to do it right. When we stray too far from the natural model, some things die and some go extinct.

If you really want to save the native bees, you do not promote one species over another, and you do not raise monocultures. Fifty mason bee tubes together in a box is a monoculture that will give rise to legions of hairy-footed mites. Alfalfa leafcutting bees raised in groups will die of chalkbrood disease. Bumble bees raised for greenhouse pollination suffer from Nosema bombi, and honey bee colonies brought together for almond populations are subject to an alphabet soup of ailments they get to share.

In nature, bees are scattered. The bumble bee’s closest neighbor may be a sweat bee. On the other side of a sweat bee lives a Habropoda. Overhead, a carpenter bee may thrive, and down the hillside lives an Andrena. Since many diseases, parasites, and pathogens are species specific, the afflictions can’t run wild through the countryside. Instead the diseases show up occasionally and then disappear, sometimes for years at a time. But put too many identical organisms side-by-side and the diseases, parasites, and pathogens spread like rumors.

Viruses can’t be washed away

Worse, we like to ship these disease-infested bees all over the map. When we release those bees in a new environment, they bring all the devastation with them. With mason bees, some folks naively clean the cocoons of hairy-footed mites before they send them off. While the cleaning does indeed limit the hairy-footed mite, the viral diseases are inside the body of the developing bee. New research shows that many viral disease are spread by pollen, so when the developing larva eats its provision of pollen, it also consumes the virus—and all before it spins a cocoon.

For this reason, the gardener or bee lover should never ship bees or buy bees that have been shipped. If you want to attract mason bees, you can put up housing that will attract the ones that live near you already. Believe me, they are there and they will come.

Biodiversity: the gold standard

Secondly, any housing you install should have tunnels of mixed sizes. Multiple sizes attract multiple species and multiple species limit disease transmission. Next door to an orchard mason bee you may get a potter wasp or a wool carder. Yes, you may get some enemies that eat one another, but that’s okay. That’s part of the balance you are looking for, the hallmark of a healthy ecosystem.

Another beauty of mixed species habitat is that it is active all season. Orchard masons are one of the first, and they are active about six weeks. But as the orchard masons are winding down for the year, others begin. Not only does this make bee watching more fun, but the difference in active times also helps reduce disease transmission. Bees that are active in different seasons are unlikely to share diseases among themselves. Before you build pollinator housing, think about what you already know. Biodiversity, the variety of living things in a given area, is the key to a healthy environment.

Lastly, if you really want to help native bees—70% of which live underground and are not interested in little structures—you need only remember three things: plant more flowers, use fewer pesticides, and leave some areas undisturbed. Given that, your native bees will thrive.


One of my treatment-free mason bees. © Rusty Burlew.

When can I get honey from my Flow hive?

I always wanted to be a beekeeper and now with my complete Flow Hive I can save the bees (they need us!!!) and not disturb them when I’m taking their honey and not getting stung!!! My bees will come in a little wooden box with a screen!! And I already got the jars! I live in northern Idaho and my hive comes in December!! When can I get honey??? Do you know?! –Sadie

The Flow hive certainly drives people to excess—both in dollars $$$ and exclamations!!! You might want to save some of each for later. Sure, I have some thoughts on getting started that may help, as long as you understand I have never touched a Flow hive.

What is a Flow hive?

First, a Flow hive is like any other Langstroth hive except it has a special kind of honey super that holds the Flow frames. A honey super is a place where bees store honey. The box below it, called a brood box, is where the queen bee makes her nest and lays her eggs. It is the place where the adult bees care for the young. It also contains honey and pollen.

If the bees store extra honey in a hive—more than they need for winter—the beekeeper can harvest the surplus. You say in your e-mail you want to help save the bees. If so, you must be careful not to take too much honey from them.

When can you take the honey?

When you first start your new colony, you should leave the honey super, Flow frames, and mason jars in storage; you won’t need them anytime soon.

I don’t mean to sound discouraging, but a package of bees started on brand new woodenware in Idaho is not likely to yield surplus honey the first year. Now listen up: I didn’t say impossible, just unlikely. You may not be able to crank your Flow until the summer of 2017.

I’m not making this up. The harvest you saw in the video came from an established thriving hive. The Flow frames that were tested in both the US and Canada were placed on established thriving hives. According to Kim Flottum in his book The Backyard Beekeeper (p. 94), “Your first-year colony probably won’t have a harvestable amount of honey before late summer, if then.” Dewey Caron in Honey Bee Biology and Beekeeping (p. 166) writes, “Package bee colonies seldom produce a honey surplus the first season.”

How can that be? First of all, packages of bees are usually shipped to the northern areas in April, so they’ve already missed part of the nectar season. Your bees in a box will include a mated queen and perhaps 10,000 other bees. When you put these bees into your new hive, they won’t feel at home right away. There is no furniture nor any pictures on the wall. No cradles in the nursery nor shelves in the pantry. It’s just another wooden box, only bigger than the one they just left.

First they build a home

At first, the worker bees will start to build combs so the queen has a place to lay her eggs. They work fast, and if they have plenty to eat, the bees may have some small combs by the next day. As soon as space is available, the queen will begin to lay.

A queen can lay 2000 eggs per day, but not until she has a place to put them. She may have room for only 50 or 100 eggs on the first couple of days, more as time goes on. Assuming all goes well, these eggs will hatch into adult bees three weeks later. In the meantime, your colony is getting smaller because some of the original bees will die while doing their chores or collecting nectar. Remember, your average worker bee lives a mere four to six weeks during spring and summer.

I know this is hard to picture, but it takes a while for a package of bees to get started. Besides building the nursery area, they also have to build the storage combs and tend to the young. All this takes tremendous amounts of food, food which they have to collect.

Remember your bees arrived late in the spring, took a week or so to settle, and then waited three weeks for the first batch of new bees to hatch. Now it’s mid-May or later and your colony may still be decreasing in total numbers of bees even though the nectar flow is in full swing.

Also, even if your bees fill the entire brood box with brood, honey, and pollen, you may want to add a second brood box so your bees have enough room for winter stores. This decision is partly based on local conditions. I highly recommend you talk to beekeepers in your area to learn what works best. In Idaho, I suspect that most beekeepers use a double deep for overwintering. Ask around.

Nectar flows

Being new to this, you probably don’t know when nectar is readily available in your area. Most areas in North America have a lot of nectar in spring, a period of little or no nectar in the heat of the summer, and then another, although lesser, flow in autumn.

If the population of your hive isn’t large by the end of spring, the colony will be lucky to collect what it needs for the following winter, let alone provide any excess. Because of this, many beekeepers feed sugar syrup to their packages to get them going. Some feed packages straight through the first summer. But be warned: If you put the Flow frames on while feeding your bees, syrup—not honey—will fill the mason jars. Remember, bees cannot change syrup into honey.

Speeding up the process

If you are really eager to turn the Flow crank, you could speed up the process by buying a nuc instead of a package. A nuc is a small colony on drawn combs with a laying queen and brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae that are in the process of growing). Nucs (nucleus colonies) are often available locally from other beekeepers and they give you a head start. A nuc is more expensive than a package, but compared to the price of a complete Flow, it is trivial. You simply take the frames from the nuc and put them directly into your brood box.

You might also be able to buy an entire overwintered colony. If you join a beekeeping club, you can ask around and see if someone is willing to sell a complete hive.

Starting with a nuc or complete colony will give you a much better chance of getting honey your first year. Moving to a southern state or Hawaii may help as well. Still, with bees, there are no guarantees. Your local climate and weather, the health of your bees, swarms, diseases, and your own management decisions will all affect the outcome.

Business as usual

I’m going to stop here because this is a lot for a newbee to absorb. The point, though, is that starting a new colony in a Flow hive is no different than starting a new colony in any other hive. Sometimes we get lucky and can super a new hive and get honey the first year. Most times it doesn’t work that way, and if we harvest more than we should, our bees suffer.

Since you are eager to begin, why not start a colony this year? Buy a nuc, if you can, and a standard Langstroth hive. No you can’t use your Flow frames this year because you don’t have them yet, but with your current plan, you probably won’t be able to use them next year either.

Beekeeping is not a walk in the park: it is life changing. If you learn how to keep bees before your Flow frames arrive, the benefit to you and your bees will be enormous.


Related Posts:

Should you go with the Flow?

Final thoughts on Flow

*This post contains affiliate links.

Notice Board . . .

In case you missed it: A Song of the Bees

Homes for the underground majority

Most of us who want to attract native bees to our yards and gardens do so by providing housing in the form of tubes, straws, hollow reeds, or drilled wood. While there is nothing wrong with this, the irony is that fully 70%—or nearly three-quarters—of all bee species live underground. Above ground cavities are completely useless to most bees.

So, if we really want to attract a variety of bees, we need to prepare space for the ground-dwellers. This is not an easy task, which is why it is frequently overlooked.

Many people don’t have land available for bee habitat. Some folks live in apartments, condos, or subdivisions where it is easy to have a few drinking straws on the porch but impossible to have a patch of bare earth. Others live in areas where bare earth is considered an eyesore. Still others live where the soil is mostly covered in asphalt and concrete. Nevertheless, there are things we can do.

What the bees need

Ground-dwelling bees like sandy soil, such as sandy loam, that is damp but not wet. It should be bare—free of plants and their annoying roots. It should be gently sloped, about 30 degrees is nice, and should face south or southeast in a sunny location. In addition, it should not be covered with mulch of any type. But here is the kicker—something that’s easy to forget: it must remain undisturbed nearly all year.

Why undisturbed? Because unlike honey bees, most native bees hibernate underground for about ten months of the year. They spend this time as a pupa or an adult, depending on the individual species. If we disturb their nests by tilling, disking, or shoveling the soil, we kill the bees.

How to do it

Researchers have found that even small bare patches can be useful for bees. While some native bees nest in large aggregations containing thousands of nesting holes, others build off by themselves wherever they find a good spot.

You can build “scrapes,” which are simply patches of earth with the plant life scraped free. You can build forms out of wood or brick, and fill them with sandy loam sloped toward the sun. Or you can truck in soil and just mound it in a sunny location.

Even a flower pot can be used. So if you live in condo with a balcony, for example, you could have several pots with flowers and one with bare soil that you water occasionally. Dampness is necessary for the bee tunnels to maintain their shape; if the soil gets too dry, the tunnels may collapse.

The sandy loam should be about 50 to 70% sand. Since you are not growing plants in it, the percentages of clay, silt, and organic matter are not too important. To make loam for bees, in most cases you can just take your native soil and mix it with an equal amount of sand.

When will they come?

In a study in Oxfordshire UK, where they dug four 3 x 5 m nesting plots, solitary bees nested in the first year. During the next three years, 80 different species of solitary bees and wasps colonized the plots [1]. Other similar experiments in Europe and Oregon have produced nests during the first one to three years.

Give it a try

If you decide to build an underground bee bed, take some photos and let us know what you did. This is new territory for most of us, so any hints, suggestions, or bee stories would be especially welcome.


[1] Gregory S. & Wright I. (2005) “Creation of patches of bare ground to enhance the habitat of ground-nesting bees and wasps at Shotover Hill, Oxfordshire, England.” Conservation Evidence, 2, 139-141.


This large managed alkali bee bed is in Touchet, WA. The pipes you see are for underground irrigation that keeps the soil slightly moist. The white on the soil surface is salt, the requirement that gives alkali bees their name. The bees that live in the bed pollinate the alfalfa fields that you see in the background. © Rusty Burlew.
This tiny sandbox for bees is at Oregon State University. The soil was taken from the university golf course where a large natural bee bed was discovered in a bunker. © Rusty Burlew.
Remember: sunny, south-facing, gently sloping, sandy loam, no vegetation, slightly damp, no mulch, leave undisturbed.

It’s time for pollinator habitat

There’s a place in front of my top-bar hive where I back my truck and turn around. I was doing that yesterday, having just retrieved a load of tree seedlings, when I saw the strangest sight in the mirror. Strange for this time of year, at least—a cloud, dark as chocolate, spinning above the hive.

I don’t ever remember seeing so many airborne bees on a February day. The front of the hive was coated and the air above was thick. The temperature had spiked to near 60 and the bees careened all around as I watched, totally fascinated.

What came to mind as I lingered near the hive was all the partly made pollinator domiciles I have in bits and pieces scattered about the house, the shed, the barn. These are projects I began last fall, thinking I had forever to get them done because spring was so far, far away.

So besides planting all those seedlings, my plan for the weekend includes drilling holes, cutting reeds and elder stems, and completing my native bee habitat. I also have to fill the bumble bee houses with bird nests I saved from last year.

This post serves as a reminder that, even up here in Washington, the native bees are on their way. Some of the bumble bee queens emerge as early as February and start patrolling the ground looking for vacant rodent holes. Many natives begin foraging much earlier than honey bees, so now is the time to sweep the welcome mat, plant some flowers, and beehold.


Elder stems are popular bee habitat. The pith is soft, so the bees can dig a hole of the perfect diameter. © Rusty Burlew