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Are bamboo tubes causing mason bee Armageddon?

The scientist in me is wary of the words “always” and “never.” Although some things are for certain—like death and taxes—“always” and “never” hoist red flags in my mind, warning me that whatever is being said needs a closer look.

Sometimes concealed with a synonym, those words often accompany a flawed statement. Meat is never good. Salt is always bad. You should never feed your bees. You should always rotate your brood boxes. Really? Says who? Time to click on something else.

Bamboo tubes as killers

Recently, I’ve read a spate of articles about the danger of bamboo tubes for mason bees. The articles claim that bamboo tubes are always bad. They will kill your bees. The tubes never dry out. They always grow mold. Bamboos is a significant reason for pollinator decline. Bamboo is an insidious weapon cultivated by the Chinese for the destruction of America. Oh, for heaven’s sake!

Bamboo tubes are the current bad boy in the mason bee world, accounting for all possible problems. Mason bees wouldn’t die, not ever, if we just stopped using bamboo tubes. Ten years ago, the problem was drilled wooden blocks. Back then, they harbored disease, stressed bees, multiplied predators, grew mold, and probably caused bee dementia. They were the sign of an incompetent mason bee keeper, just as bamboo tubes are today.

Wooden blocks and all the rest

At the height of drilled-wooden-block paranoia, I happened to visit the Oregon State University Bee Lab and had a long conversation with a professor of entomology. He told me the very best thing for raising cavity-nesting bees was drilled wooden blocks. But he conditioned them on a few details: drill holes of various sizes in each block and replace the blocks every few years. Sound advice.

A few years later, cardboard tubes took a hit. They were the worst possible housing because parasitic wasps could bore right through the sides of the tube and lay eggs in the bee larvae. At that time, bamboo tubes were recommended because they were harder for the wasps to penetrate, so safer for the bees.

And now, wouldn’t you know it, bamboo tubes are the bad guy because they retain moisture and promote mold growth. Bamboo tubes are causing mason bee Armageddon, and if use them, you are an agent of pollinator decline. Shame on you!

Variations on a theme

The truth is not nearly so riveting. Yes, poorly managed bamboo housing is hard on bees. Poorly managed drilled blocks are hard on bees. Poorly managed cardboard tubes are hard on bees, as are poorly managed paper straws. Do you see a pattern developing here?

What is important is the management of the housing, not the housing itself. The same holds true of honey bees. You can argue about Langstroth vs Warré vs Kenyan top-bar till the cows come home, but it’s the management that counts. If you do nothing, you get nothing (except dead bees). Regardless of whether you keep honey bees or masons or leafcutters or bumbles, it’s your management skill that makes the difference.

Personally, I use many types of pollinator housing, including bamboo tubes. My bamboo-grown mason bees do exceptionally well, even though I live in one of the dampest environments in the country. Yes, even the Pacific Northwest coast, the mold and mildew capital of the New World, is compatible with well-managed bamboo tubes.

Managing with bamboo

How does that work? Well, it’s easy. At the beginning of the mason bee season—about late March—I place last year’s full tubes in an emergence box near new bamboo housing. Before long, the bees emerge, mate, and fill the new tubes. As soon as nesting stops, which is around the end of May, I place the newly-filled tubes in fine-mesh bags and store them in my lightly-heated garden shed. When I say “lightly heated,” I mean it’s heated in the winter just enough to keep it from freezing.

The heat is for the sake of other things I keep there, like flower bulbs, potatoes, and carrots. But it works perfectly for mason bee tubes because it keeps them reasonably dry without total desiccation. A cool garage or basement could work as well. The mesh bags keep predators away from the filled tubes. Although it really isn’t necessary in my shed, I figure it can’t hurt.

So that’s it. The bamboo tubes are outside for two months, and sheltered for ten. No mold. No death and destruction. The bees emerge fat and healthy the following year. My biggest problem is often an over-abundance of mason bees, which are sometimes annoying when they start to appropriate every nook and cranny for their personal use.

If you decide to provide tubes for summer masons and leafcutters, just use a different set of tubes and take them inside as soon as nesting diminishes. Be sure to label the stored tubes so you know when to expect emergence the following year.

Why discourage potential allies?

Fatalistic articles about the dangers of bamboo tubes are short-sighted, written by people who expect everyone to be as perfect as they are. They try to make you feel stupid and incompetent if you use the current “bad boy” technique in your garden. If I recall, one particular article implied you were better off doing nothing than succumbing to the lure of bamboo.

But I so disagree. The greatest threat to pollinator health is not bamboo: instead, it is apathy and lack of awareness, or perhaps fear of bees and insects in general. People who don’t know or don’t care about pollinators can often be seen killing every living thing that isn’t green and shaped like grass.

Bring on the bamboo

I’m actually grateful to the producers of inexpensive bamboo bee housing because I find it is often the first step a person takes toward learning about pollinators and other insects. Because it is small and inexpensive, someone who is only marginally interested may give it a try.

People like to dip a toe in the lake before they dive in. Likewise, many people want to test drive an inexpensive pollinator home before they splurge on fancy condos and a library of books.

Yes, they might err here and there and kill some bees along the way. But if the process piques their interest in bees, if they begin to care, and if they become inspired to learn more about their environment, pollinators of all sorts will benefit in the long run—even if a few died in the process.

We need these beginners, and so do the bees. If cheap bamboo pollinator housing can change a person from a lawn spraying, grass growing, weed killing lunatic into someone who cares for the environment and the things that live there, bring it on! The long-term benefit will certainly outweigh any short-term deficit in management technique.

We need to get off our high horses and spend more time nurturing bee lovers instead of bamboo haters. If we lead with positive attitudes, we will end up doing much more for the bees, and that is what counts.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

With good management, bamboo tubes work well for many types of bees.
With good management, bamboo tubes work well for many types of bees.
More on Mason Bees
For more information on mason bees, try these articles from Countryside:

Raising Mason Bees: Do’s and Don’ts

Exploring the Mason Bee Life Cycle

What do Mason Bees Pollinate?

Comments

Granny Roberta in nw CT
Reply

Ya know, with your kindness and generosity and sensibility . . . you’re just making the rest of us look bad.

No, really, what I mean to say is, do we tell you often enough what a great writer you are?

Rusty
Reply

Thank you!

Andrew Dewey
Reply

Providing homes for any sort of bees requires work. If people want to “save the bees”, I’m now encouraging them to focus on habitat and pesticide usage, instead of keeping bees themselves. We need a version of The 4 Ps for native bees and other pollinators.

Rusty
Reply

Andrew,

Yes, I agree. I think too many people think they actually have to possess bees in order to help them. On the other hand, I think people are more apt to plant flowers and restrict pesticides after they’ve actually been up close and personal with some type of bee. Once they internalize the bee (or bees), they begin to envision ways to help. Maybe we need to develop a “petting zoo” of sorts. A place where people could see bees up close and interact with them.

Gabrielle
Reply

Amen, Sister!

Paige
Reply

Hey thanks for your article!
Do you clean out your tubes and cocoons? I’m wondering for the following year: Say you put out your bamboo condo or box in the spring after a winter in the shed, and then the mason bees begin to emerge. If all the tubes are still full of bees slowly emerging, where do the new ones lay their eggs?
How many tubes successfully emerge on average?
Also, if a tube has parasites last year, and then a bee lays her eggs in the tube that hasn’t been cleaned, does it likely transfer to that next generation?
Thanks!!

Rusty
Reply

Do you clean out your tubes and cocoons? I do not clean out the tubes and would not know how to clean out a cocoon, or what purpose that would serve. I discard both.

If all the tubes are still full of bees slowly emerging, where do the new ones lay their eggs? They lay their eggs in the new tubes you put out for them.

How many tubes successfully emerge on average? The bees emerge, not the cocoons. In any case, all the bees generally emerge. But on average, I would say 95%.

Also, if a tube has parasites last year, and then a bee lays her eggs in the tube that hasn’t been cleaned, does it likely transfer to that next generation? Yes. That is precisely why we use a hatching box and set out new cocoons.

Greg
Reply

Great writing, sorry to say there is a little typo; Kenyan, not Kenyon. But you knew that, of course.

Rusty
Reply

Greg,

Thank you. I always appreciate corrections.

Joan
Reply

Hey, I don’t even like the word “beekeeping”! It implies lack of interactivity, like bee custody or bee ownership. A more accurate description is bee farming, since farmers must proactively manage their livestock and crops to produce yields. My first mentor was a very hands-off “keeper”; I’ve since paired with someone who’s a bee “farmer” in the truest sense of the word and I continue to be privileged to learn from him.

Anna S.
Reply

Well said. I am going to make my first attempt at “keeping” mason bees with bamboo housing!

David
Reply

I have no idea where this bamboo hate came from. I never had any problems. Occasionally there will be a dud tube, but then my setup is to encourage multiple species to use my balcony garden. This includes beneficial bugs that occasionally will get a bee too. Trying to promote a healthy small ecosystem not a perfect sanctuary for 1 species.
When I have the space somewhere else I will add a bee only house though. It’s working well though, plenty of life now in my balcony garden including plenty of mason and other solitary bees.

A few nesting bees also visit the flowers, haven’t found out where they might be living in the neighbourhood. The only thing I’m having ongoing negotiations with to leave is a very, very determined wasp queen to use my ladybug room for a wasp nest.

I think leaving some mint trimmings finally convinced her to find a better spot 🙂

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Rusty–This took me a while to write for reasons won’t explain here. GB

The first plant stems I used were of Joe Pye Weed, gleaned from my garden and used for several years before abandoned for a couple of reasons. But I appreciate the lessons I learned from its use. I plugged one end with clay, convinced that bees preferred a tube where one end is plugged — but it is so many years since I reached that conclusion that I have no idea if I had any evidence to back up that assumption. No matter. The following year I plugged my JPW with a different select location between your clay, and this was the start of my exploring annual dating of of tubes.

Since then, many a walk of mine has been shaped by deliberate inspection — dissection—of stems of plants that I have found while out and about. I am convinced that botanical tubes lead to some of the healthiest bees. But not all botanical tubes are equal. I stopped using JPW because the stem walls are thin and proved to be more vulnerable to parasitic wasps. Thin walls eliminated several other botanicals from my consideration. These days my two favorite weed stems have thick walls and cell nodes and yet are easy to cut — teasel and Japanese knotweed. By using diverse diameters and lengths bees can more easily find “home” —and surprise us keepers with their flexibility.

By the way I don’t like the thick walls of bamboo, because bamboo is hard to cut, plus it tends to split. Teasel and knotweed I score around the stem at each node with a knife or a file or a dremmel and then snap. In my little drill press I place an abrasive bit and grind annoying side stems so the botanical tubes will fit together neatly. Often I cut them upside down as I find them easier to grind but that may just be my idiosyncrasy.

As I mentioned, JPW is what set me on the course of color coding each years botanical nesting. After a few years of random colors I adopted the colors used to code honey bee queens. I dip the end in the right color paint (thinned for fast drying) or use color markers. Old nesting tunnels are unhealthy tunnels, this tracking system is fast and I never have nests more than two years old. I wish this habit was adopted more universally.

Glen

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

I really like the idea of color-coding the tubes: I’ve never even thought about it before, but it’s a good solution to the ever-present question, “How old is this thing?” I never see teasel or Japanese knotweed unless its on someone else’s land, but I wish I had a source. Lots of people like say they make great tubes.

Glen Buschmann
Reply

Rusty I have some teasel and knotweed you may have. Check your email gb

Rusty
Reply

Glen,

Oh, that would be so cool!

Lynn
Reply

I just need to clarify…

I have a bamboo mason bee house that I placed out in the spring and I am now bringing into our garage for winter. Some of the tubes seem to have a crystalline substance in them and others appear empty. The bamboo won’t come out and even if it did, I don’t see how I would gently remove the cocoons and clean them like some sites recommend.

Do i just place the house in my garage until spring and then put it out again and whatever has survived will emerge and whatever empty holes there are will be potential new homes for the next generation of cocoons?

I am a rank amateur at this and there is a lot of varied advice out there:)

Thanks for your expertise and guidance.

Rusty
Reply

Lynn,

Yes, just store the mason bee house in your garage or basement and put it out in the spring. It sounds like it’s not too full, so I don’t see any downside to doing it that way. After two or three years, you’ll want to put the whole thing in an emergence box, but that can wait for now.

I’m not sure what the crystalline substance is. If it seals and covers a filled hole, it could be some type of resin bee, closely related to masons. I do see them from time to time. Otherwise, I’m not sure.

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