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.


When your bees mess with you

On Friday I had one easy job to do. One of my triple-deep hives overwintered thanks to the cartloads of sugar I had trucked out of Costco since December.  Every time I checked, the cluster was on the top bars and the sugar was gone, so I just kept feeding.

Since it was finally warm enough to open things up, I decided to consolidate the brood into one deep and remove the other two. Once I got the bees squished into a single deep, I planned to put a comb honey super on top, just long enough to catch the maple flow. At least, that was the theory.

So being the organized type, I drew a quick diagram of the hive I would end up with plus a list of equipment I would need. The whole job would take thirty minutes at most.

Trouble from the start

The trouble began at the beginning. I suspected the hive wasn’t overly populous, but kind of average. But when I popped the lid and removed the quilt, the bees didn’t exactly flow over the top. Instead, they exploded like a cherry bomb; a shrapnel of bees shot in all directions. I was shocked.

The last feeding of sugar was gone, of course, so I thought the top box would be light. But I couldn’t begin to move it, even after I wedged it loose with a hive tool. Thanks to being organized, I had brought along an empty deep. I began to remove frames, one by one, starting at the end.

The first was heavy with honey. And the second. And the third. The next four were filled with brood in a pattern solid as granite. I couldn’t find a single empty cell. The last three frames were also filled with honey.

Honey bee trickery

So what gives? Thanks to these twerps, I was supporting the sugar industry all by myself while they hoarded their honey for some higher purpose that I wasn’t privy to.

Irritated, I moved on to the second box. It also contained brood—about two-and-a-half frames—and six frames of honey. And the bottom? You guessed it: six more frames of honey. Eighteen frames of honey while I’m driving back and forth to Costco—twelve miles and four stomach-lurching roundabouts in each direction. I was furious.

At this point I decided to regroup. There was clearly enough brood and honey for two hives, so I decided to make a split. I went back to the house and got more equipment because my plan and well-organized list were now meaningless. I decided to move the queen into the new split, hoping the old colony might think it swarmed.

A queen gone AWOL

After so many years, I’m completely confident in my ability to find the queen. No problem. Scan the brood combs and she will reveal herself. Only she didn’t. Not the first time through. Not the second time through. Stupidity overwhelmed me and I tried a third pass. Nothing.

So after two hours I ended up with two colonies in two single deeps, both with scads of honey, both with comb honey supers, one with a queen and one without, and me having no idea which is which.

In the end, I stood before my hives­­ feeling like an idiot. Bees had mucked with me. They made me drive to town and spend money, they hid their queen, they negated my list and destroyed my plans. They swallowed up my whole afternoon and probably laughed at my funny clothes.

As I stood there, the thick smell of brood, redolent of uncooked beef, held me in awe. While I inhaled the feral scent, a woodpecker rattled his brains in search of the next meal. Behind the hives a baby opossum poked through new greens and eyed me curiously. In that moment I once again decided that, indeed, beekeeping is worth the trouble. Yes, even when they mess with you.


I’m not the only one who likes the smell of fresh brood. © Rusty Burlew.

Observation hive extraordinaire

Inspiration for Mike’s observation hive.
Inspiration for Mike’s observation hive.

Do you remember this observation hive? This photo, and several others, was sent to me by Carl Uhlman who had seen the hive when traveling in the Netherlands. Many people fell in love with this monstrosity, and the photos keep reappearing on Pinterest and various other sites.

However, I don’t think anyone was more inspired than Mike Southern. He was so enthralled with this hive that he built one for an education project he was working on. This morning, Mike sent me a link to his Flickr account so I could take a look.

I was bowled over—the size, the workmanship, the design—everything is awesome. You’ve got to see Mike’s photos. Don’t miss them!

What I want to know is how do I get one? It would look great over my dining room table.


The dandelions of spring

Dandelions are not perfect bee food, no single species is. Instead, they are very good food. They are early, they are everywhere. They are not particular. They teem with life.

As a kid, I hated dandelions. In early spring before they bloomed, the greens—bitter and rank—were served fried in bacon fat and smothered in gravy. Then, as soon as the first yellow heads appeared, I was given a long weeder with a splintery handle and a pair of cotton gloves too big for my hands.

The dandelions were impossible to pull. Slimy things lived beneath the leaves and the taproot was longer than my arm. Milky white sap that smelled green oozed from the hollow stems. The ones I missed—or pretended not to see—were the only healthy plants remaining in the brown of late July.

Weeds with a higher purpose

I first learned that dandelions had another purpose when I learned to garden. “Plant potatoes when the dandelions bloom,” I was told. And it works every time. But once I got into bugs, dandelions became a life force. They bloom in the spring, they bloom in the fall, they grow everywhere, and they are loaded with sweet nectar and Day-Glo pollen.

If you want to see honey bees, look for a dandelion. If you want to see ephemeral bees glinting green and blue in the sun, look for a dandelion. If you want to see iridescent flies, multicolored beetles, or camouflaged spiders, you’ll find them all on a dandelion. Every year, life unfolds on the sun-yellow blooms.

And if you like to photograph bugs, dandelions are the perfect backdrop. Not as contrasty as things black or white, the saturated yellows highlight your subject while it frolics and twists in the sticky dust.

Plentiful bee food

According to Honey Plants of North America (Lovell 1926), honey made from dandelion nectar is deep yellow, granulates quickly, and has a strong flavor. The amount of nectar produced is highly variable and dependent on local weather conditions. Colonies have been known to store 30 or 40 pounds in some years, none in others. Wax combs that are built during dandelion bloom are often a vibrant canary yellow, almost shocking in hue.

The real boon for bees is the ample supply of pollen. Dandelions produce truckloads of the stuff, and because the flowers close up at night and during bad weather, the pollen is not washed away by dew or rain. The grains are sticky and large, which allows honey bees to pack hunking pellets of it back to their hive.

Pollination not required

Oddly enough, the dandelion plant is not dependent on pollination by insects. According to a recent article in Bee Craft, the award-winning journal of British beekeeping, the dandelion can reproduce by parthenogenesis. Just as a honey bee queen can produce drones without fertilization, so can dandelions produce viable seed without fertilization.

Some sources claim that all dandelions in North America are clones of a few strains imported from Europe, and they continue to thrive in our lawns and gardens using a strange type of parthenogenesis that involves three sets of chromosomes. No wonder they all look alike!

The question that bugs botanists is why these clones continue to produce pollen and insect-attracting nectar when it is not necessary for their survival. But it seems to me that because they are clones of each other, normal means of evolutionary change are not available to them. Without sexual reproduction, there is no genetic variability other than chance mutation.

The fact remains that dandelions are introduced weeds that choke roadsides and meadows, gardens and lawns. But if you love bees, if you love pollinators, you need to see them in a different light, as a resource important because of its timing and distribution. So put away your digger and trowel, toss out the weed-and-feed, and go fall in love with a dandelion.


Spider backed by a dandelion
One of my favorite photos. The big yellow sun in the background is a dandelion.

My bees left! How to prevent absconding

You are a brand new beekeeper. Three days ago you proudly installed your first package of bees according to directions that you read a dozen times. Today, covered in protective gear from head to toe, you open your hive to make sure the queen has been released from her cage.

What you find is shocking. The queen has been released all right, but every last bee is gone. Missing. AWOL. You are heartbroken. What happened? What did you do wrong?

Simply put, your bees absconded. They checked the place out but decided to look for something better. I like to compare it to house-hunting: you walk in a place that looks okay from the outside, but inside you are not quite comfortable. It’s not terrible, but it’s not you . . . so you keep looking.

Absconding can happen any time of year, triggered by things such as lack of food, frequent disturbance, loud noises, overheating, bad odors, parasites, predators, or the presence of chemicals. Regardless of all the possible reasons, absconding is rare—it doesn’t happen very often.

Of all the absconding colonies I have seen or heard about, the vast majority left brand new hives. It’s not because the beekeepers are new, it’s because the hives are new. New wood has certain odors, as does new plastic. New hives do not have that homey, lived-in smell that bees seem to crave. As a result, they often leave the first chance they get. A colony placed in a new hive is like a swarm hanging from a tree—the bees have options, they are not tied down, they can leave whenever they like. And sometimes, they do.

Bees rarely abscond from used equipment, so seasoned beekeepers seldom consider it. I can’t even remember the last time I installed bees in a completely new hive, but it’s a fact of life for new beekeepers who are starting with a package instead of a nuc. Hardly seems fair, does it?

So how can you prevent your new package from leaving? Here are a few suggestions that may help:

    • Do not paint the inside of your hive. If you already did paint it, let it air out completely before installing bees. New paint smell may overwhelm any other attributes of their new home.
    • The same is true for new wooden or plastic hives and frames: let it all air out to dissipate the smells as much as possible.
    • Do not let the queen self-release. Instead, wait until the workers have started to build comb and then release her by hand. Once the furniture is arranged (new comb is in place) the bees are less likely to leave.
    • You can put a queen excluder under the brood box so the queen cannot leave. Don’t forget to take it out after a few days, however, because drones won’t be able to go through it either.
    • While morning sun is a good thing, afternoon sun may cause the temperature to spike inside the hive. When the colony is just getting started, it may not have enough members to keep the place cool.
    • Put the hive on a hive stand so it is less likely to be bothered by skunks or other hungry predators.
    • Do not open the hive more than necessary, especially in the first few days.
    • Do not run a lawnmower, rototiller, leaf blower or other loud equipment near the new hive. Once a colony is established, it will put up with these disturbances on occasion. But early on, when the colony is first settling in, any of these annoyances may cause it to leave.
    • Used comb, even just one, can go a long way toward making your bees comfortable. If you have a disease-free comb, by all means put it in your new hive.
    • Feed syrup. The presence of syrup will stimulate the workers to build comb, and the sooner you have comb, the less likely your bees will abscond. If possible, spike the syrup with a scent they like—a drop of lemongrass or anise oil works well.


New bees on new wood need special handling. Flickr photo by Chiot’s Run.