mason bees

The best mason bee straws ever

When it comes to paper straws for cavity-nesting bees, I think I’ve tried them all. But last week, I was surfing around looking for a good deal when I came across SipSticks paper straws. They claim to be BPA-free, food safe, and FDA approved. The bees like that. But the thing that attracted me was the size, advertised as being 7.75 inches long and 0.31 inches in diameter.

The ideal diameter for mason bees is said to be 5/16-inch. When you convert 5/16 to decimals, it comes out to 0.3125 inches. I freaked out. I’ve never seen straws that exact size except for the extraordinarily expensive ones sold specifically for mason bees. The Amazon Choice mason bee straws are priced at $9.99 for 50, or 20-cents each. Other sellers on the site list similar prices.

So I ordered a box of SipSticks in a 400 pack from Amazon at $14.99, which comes out to 3.75 cents per straw. Then came the biggest surprise. Although these are called “straws” they are more like cardboard tubes, extremely heavy duty and thick. If you were drinking a milkshake or Slurpy, these things would never go soft and mushy. They are the most perfect mason bee tube for the price I have seen anywhere.

I cut them down to six inches with a pair of pruning shears and stuck them in a can in my mason bee lean-to. They are being filled as I write.

SipSticks paper straws are the perfect diameter and weight for mason bees. The price is right, too.

SipSticks are the perfect diameter and weight for mason bee straws. The price is right, too.

Grout-sealed lovage tubes

On a slightly different note, last year I harvested bee tubes from lovage stems and cut them into six-inch lengths and let them air dry. Technically, you are supposed to cut them at the nodes so one end is closed off for the bees. Somehow, that never works out exactly right, so I had a lot of stems with no backs. Usually, I just stick them in a can or box and the bees build a back partition with no coaching whatsoever.

This year I decided to help them along and fill the back end with tile grout. This was actually my husband’s idea. I had asked him to pick up a bag of plaster of paris (my original plan) at Home Depot but he thought the whole idea was too big and too messy. Hence, I used the tile grout. I stuffed some in one end of each tube and let them dry for a few days, and then let them air out a few more. Then I put cans of these in the mason bee lean-to.

The bees seemed to love the lovage stems and I could hear them doing something inside the tubes that made little scritching noises. I wasn’t sure what they were doing until a few dried columns of tile grout began appearing at the entrances, hard and rigid and all of a piece. How they got them out is anybody’s guess—did they pull?—but apparently, they didn’t like them being there. Picky, picky.

How did the bee remove the grout? It feels like an unsolved mystery.

How did the bee remove the rock-hard grout? It feels like an unsolved mystery. © Rusty Burlew.

Big tubes made smaller

Last fall I saw a sale on those tear-drop shaped mason bee houses that are frequently advertised in garden catalogs. The close-out price was reasonable, so I bought two, figuring I could use them a couple years and then toss them before parasites built up. But some of the tubes are huge, big enough for mice instead of bees, so I can see why they were priced cheap.

So, just for fun, I put some small paper straws that are only a quarter-inch in diameter into some of the bigger holes. A quarter-inch is really small, more suitable for some of the smaller leafcutting bees, or even the tiny resin bees that stop by later in the summer. I figured I would just see what moved into both the too-big and the too-small holes.

Well, what do you know? My mason bees, Osmia lignaria (the most common type in home gardens), just decided to squeeze themselves into those little holes. Now, remember, I’ve got all sizes of holes from 1/8-inch to nearly 3/4-inch, in many lengths, and many materials, so why do they want to squeeze themselves in those impossibly small holes? I just don’t understand it. They seem absolutely enamored with them.

I put tiny straws in the big tubes to make them smaller but I thought they were too small for mason bees. Not so.

I put tiny straws in the big tubes to make them smaller, but I thought they were too small for mason bees. Not so. © Rusty Burlew.

Emergence box

One more thing I wanted to mention. I like to use an emergence box after a couple of years of using bee tubes of any kind. In late winter, you put the full tubes in the emergence box with the hole facing south. Once the bees emerge, they see the light and fly out. If your new mason tubes are nearby—within about six feet—the bees will choose those to nest in. What bees won’t do is fly into a dark place to look for a nest, which is why emergence boxes work.

This year I had a lot of big things that I wanted to clear out, including some drilled wooden blocks. I didn’t know what to use as an emergence box until I hit on the idea of a brood box. Actually, I used a honey super with a entrance hole already drilled, set it on an eke, and added a brood box to make it deeper. I placed it right under my mason bee lean-to, put all the used tubes and blocks in the structure, and added a standard telescoping cover.

At first I had the super on top of the brood box, but the bees seemed to have trouble finding the hole. Eventually, I switched them around and put the brood box on top. Now it’s working perfectly, and it’s cute to see the bees emerge. They often land right in the hole and sit there looking out for awhile before they take off.

A brood box and super doing duty as a mason bee emergence box. Once all the mason bees emerge, the boxes can go back in the apiary.

A brood box and super doing duty as a mason bee emergence box. Once all the mason bees emerge, the boxes can go back in the apiary. © Rusty Burlew.

So that’s my story. I just wanted to fill you in on mason bee developments. It seems like everything is a try-it, and the bees themselves are always a wonder. If you have some good mason bee stories, be sure to let us know.

Rusty
Honey Bee Suite

Note: This post contains an affiliate link.

60 Comments

    • Wil,

      If you are using standard-sized cardboard tubes, I would say no. These are nearly identical in size and shape to the standard tubes.

  • Hi Rusty,

    I read with unbridled interest your news that a superb supplier of appropriately sized paper straws had been found — all for a most reasonable price. I was disappointed the Amazon.com site did not ship them to Canada, but checked the Amazon.ca site and voila they are available! Imagine my shock and awe however when the reasonable price you quoted (about $20 Cdn) was changed to $69.90! Yikes. Seems we here up north can only get the 1/4″ straws for a decent price. Sigh.

  • Last year I tried the emergence box idea. I put half of my full tubes lying down in a small cardboard box with an inch and a half square hole at the bottom edge. The bees came out and, even though I had plenty of new tubes nearby, they flew back in, crawled around, and reused the old tubes. Some tubes I had on end in another box with the flaps cracked open. They reused those tubes also. So I’m guessing the hole needs to be a lot smaller?

    • Marilyn,

      I wonder if too much light got in. The hole in my bee box is 1-inch in diameter. At first, when I had it too high, they seemed not to find it and were huddled in a little ball in the corner. I had to help them out. But when I moved the hole, they began doing fine. Maybe it’s something about the geometry of the space, or the amount of light, or…or…or. I haven’t had any go back in, at least that I know about. Interesting problem.

  • “comes out to 3.75 cents per straw”
    Decimal moved by auto correct?
    ? .0375

    Thanks, that’s an awesome deal.

  • No need to cut them unless it is to fit them into a certain housing. Studies have shown that mason bees will make use of very long tubes and the longer the tube the better the male to female offspring ratio. Mason bees will also make use of open trays as well I guess most closely replicating a crack in a log or the space under a shingle roof. I often take a cordless drill with me on some of my hikes and add nesting habitat in dry dead wood that I find. I’ve been thinking about plunge cutting galleries with a chainsaw and hammering in an entrance reducer to create little arthropod shelters and nesting cavities. https://sites.google.com/site/hutchingsbeeservice/my-research-both-current-and-past-projects

  • This is just interesting reading! I am not sure I will ever get into setting up sites for mason bees and the like, but I really enjoy reading about people (like you) who do work with some of the wild bees. I am just happy to have our top-bar hive repopulated with a new colony after losing ours last winter. Today, we put the girls into their new home. What fun!

  • I am helping (citizen science project) with a mason bee survey in our area by the University of VA. I responded to you about it earlier. My “hotel” is up and I have residents in 2 of the 12 rooms. 6 rooms are slightly smaller than the other 6 and the occupied ones are in the smaller group. I also have bee bowls set up (9 bowls 16.5 feet apart, 2 ft above vegetation, in a straight line). I forwarded this blog post to the head researcher for the UVA project. Now, the biologists for the Blue Ridge Parkway have recruited us (being a VA Master Naturalist has its perks) to do a bee bowl survey on Parkway land from now until September. Native bees seem to be the big buzz right now. A great learning experience. Sharon

  • Darlene, I thought the same thing – until I worked it out for myself.
    3.75 cents/straw times 400 straws is 1,500 cents, which equals $15.00.
    Very good deal.

  • Thanks for the tip. Cost is what kept me from setting up a mason bee nest. Thanks to your post I doing it! My straws arrived yesterday :).

    I really enjoy your posts.

  • Thank you so much for the tip Rusty I went and bought some today. I live in Canada and saw the straws were $70 ouch!! Thankfully I have a shipping address in the US.

    I really enjoy reading your articles as they have been so helpful over the years. I look forward to reading more. Thank you ?

  • I’m ready to spread my wings by setting up mason bee tubes and will start with the straws you mentioned (probably too late to start this year).

    You said that you “like to use an emergence box after a couple of years of using bee tubes of any kind.” Is there a reason you would not use the emergence box for the first-year overwintered tubes?

    Thanks from SW Ohio!

    • Alice,

      There is no reason not to use an emergence box every year, if you want to. I prefer to let them come out naturally, without a box, for as long as possible because I think I get a better emergence rate. I think the sun hitting the tubes directly has a positive influence. That said, I’ve never actually calculated it.

  • Thanks so much! I’ve been trying to find a lower-cost, effective approach AND find a way to get them to stop reusing old tubes. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge. Now I need to figure out how to set up an emergence box. (Not entirely clear on where the bee larvae are within the box – Is there a ledge where you put the tubes? I’m not a bee expert, so forgive me if that’s a stupid question.

  • Thanks for the tip on the straws – right now I’m using natural reeds and wooden nesting trays. And this year mason bees nested in my leafcutter bee trays! I guess some of them really like the “tiny house” concept 🙂

  • Do you have any directions or plans on building a home made emergence box? Or ideas of how to re-purpose some type of wooden box to turn it into an emergence box? I had an old bread box that I threw out, sorry to say. I probably could have converted it. I would like to try using one for some of my nesting tubes this coming Spring. Thank you, Rusty!

    • Patricia,

      I’ve seen fancy wooden ones, but I just put my tubes in an Amazon cardboard box. I punch a couple of holes in the side with a screwdriver, and tape the whole thing shut. Not very upscale, but it works.

  • Well, that certainly sounds a lot simpler! I will try it. I also have a beautiful wooden flat box that held some type of computer supplies. I converted it to a weasel trap for my barn. I can easily drill a couple of holes in the sides. It will be perfect. And weather proof. Worth a try along with the cardboard boxes.

  • Hi there, I’m curious about the emergence box. You mention leaving the full tubes in the box, does this mean you do not harvest the cocoons? This past spring was my first year starting mason bees. I began with 10 cocoons from our garden center and harvested 101! Looks like I’ll need to add some bee real estate for next spring!

    • Dana,

      Right. I do not harvest cocoons, but let them emerge naturally. The emergence box prevents the bees from re-using last year’s tubes.

  • Hi,
    It is my first year keeping mason bees. We are having an unusually warm winter at Northern California, our Jan. temp has been in high 50s and low 60s F. Of course when I go check on the bee house in the garage, few of the males already chew out of their cocoon! I immediately transferred the paper straws into a food safe container with holes and have a moisten sponge next to the containers. I just left them in the fridge crisper. Is this the right way to keep bees alive and dormant? Another question, when I took the paper straws out of the housing, I noticed there were at lest 1 or 2 little holes on many straws. What is it? Predatory wasps? Does tha mean the paper straws are too thin that wasp were able to drill holes to get to the bee larvae?

    • Jia,

      Yes, the little holes are usually a sign of predatory wasps. They can drill through all kinds of things because their ovipositors are so thin. But usually the wasps come around just as the mason bees are winding down for the year. At the first sign of the tiny wasp predators, I put the mason bees inside and cover them with fine mesh. The wasps that seem to do the most damage are about the size of fruit flies.

  • Hello,

    We are a Canadian manufacturer of eco-friendly alternative solutions and specialises in paper straws. I am writing to check with all the beekeepers that what kind of straws are required in terms of thickness and length as we do have byproducts which goes as a waste. The height varies from 1-3 inches and we have standard as well as milk shakes straws. We would like to help the beekeepers by providing the straws free of cost excluding shipping and handling. My email id is Khushboo.tavosindustries@gmail.com, please feel free to contact me.
    Thanks

    • Thank you for a very kind offer. However, if three inches is the maximum length, that would not be sufficient for most cavity-nesting bees. They would need to be longer, probably 5 inches or more. Of course, it would depend on the type of bee one wishes to attract, but at that diameter (drinking straw-size), they would need to be longer. At shorter lengths, the females lay only male eggs.

    • Mason bees require a tube approx 7” long and up to 3/8” in diameter. Leafcutter bees need approx 1/4” diameter. The length of the tube is very important for mason bees as they lay their eggs in a specific manner.

  • Regarding the parasitic wasps: Buy a box of knee-high nylon stockings. Slip one over the completed tubes of mason bees as soon as you see the bulk of the tubes filled. A few wasps may get in, but not many. Remove the stocking just before bees are due to emerge, which in Portland Oregon is in March-ish. I have seen squirrels pull the tubes out and chew through them in winter, and I once saw a flicker poking around at the tubes. Good reasons to leave the stocking on even after the threat of wasps is well past.

    Thank you for that fabulous info on the emergence box. I had been marking last year’s tubes with a sharpie to differentiate from the ones being filled in the new year, but it is tedious and I have been worrying about throwing away someone who is viable, in case the tube is used twice. This will solve my problem. I also just ordered two boxes of straws. This is a huge savings compared to my “100 straws for $18” source. Wonderful information. I am now all set for the new bee season. Thanks so much!!!

  • I just received a 400 count box of these straws and without getting a micrometer out they measure 1/4″ ID and 5/16″ OD, they fit perfectly in the slotted wood blocks I have. They also fit in the Mylar-coated cardboard tubes I picked up from the local mason bee expert and supplier, a little tighter than what it came with but they should work. I believe this is the only size tubes he uses for raising and selling his bees. The cardboard tubes I used last year without the paper liners have an ID just under 5/16″, probably about 9/32″. The local bees which I assume are wild because I have never added any bees really liked those cardboard tubes so hopefully they will like these 1/4″ paper liners as well.

  • The SipSticks are now discontinued on Amazon. I’m having trouble finding alternative straws that are definitely the right size for mason bees. Can anybody recommend straws on Amazon that will definitely work?

  • Update: Now that the bees are more active, I see that they are using both the old tubes and the new straws, so it looks like they like these straws just fine. Next season, I’ll use an emergence box and eliminate the old tubes. Thanks for all your advice!

    • Sam,

      Since we now have more Covid-19 cases in the US than China ever had, it’s kind of a moot point. At any rate, studies have been done to see how long the virus lasts on hard surfaces, and the numbers vary from 2 or 3 days to many more, depending on the material and the temperature. But at this point, those purchased in the US would be no safer. If you are uncertain, just order a box of them and leave it unopened for a week or two. Then you won’t have to worry.

  • Did I read somewhere that you want to paint the outer end of the tubes/bee block/house black? That it attracts the bees?

    Do I want the bee house in direct sunlight, and facing south, or in shade but facing south, or?

    I have a four-year-old fan-espaliered, a four-variety dwarf apple tree, and a four-year-old male kiwi (I had what I thought was a female, too: after three years it bloomed and turned out to be male. I replaced it with a tiny fragile little female last summer, but my kiwi dreams are set back another three years, even if the female survives). I saw few pollinators last April and got few apples, and few on the kiwis two months later. But I noticed two days ago (4/10/20, Portland, OR) that mason bees–looks like more than one variety–are mobbing the afternoon-sunlit west side of the firewood stack in my woodshed. I don’t want them nesting in my firewood; I might inadvertently burn them next winter.

    I just found a long 5/16″ brad-point bit, and I’m going to go out and drill a bunch of holes 7″ deep in a 9 or 10″ long spruce block 10″ diameter. Paint the end flat black? Before or after drilling? (Do I want the black a little way down inside the holes?) And where to hang it in relation to sunlight?

    How about cutting strips of computer paper the right size to go around the inside of a 5/16 hole ~twice, roll and insert them smaller, and just let them expand? Hard to get them out? Is brown waterproof exterior wood glue toxic, do you know?

    Thanx.
    J.O.

    • John,

      I have no idea what you read, but I’ve never heard of painting them black. I never do.

      For best results, the tubes should face the sun. If you want to harvest your cocoons, the paper tube-lining makes it a lot easier.

      As for wood glue, if it smells toxic, it probably is. You could try reading the ingredients label if it has one. The toxic volatiles may evaporate as it dries, but you may have to experiment.

  • I tried looking for the Sipstix (out of stock) so I’m going to try some of these: (file not found).

    The giants are 10″ (plan to cut them) and 8mm in diameter. Their paper straw sizes are:
    Jumbo: 6mm
    Giant: 8mm
    Colossal: 10mm

    500 straws for $11.65 or 2.33¢ each (you need to order $25.00 worth of stuff to get free shipping.

    I’ll post back later and let you know how they work.

  • Hey, do you have a replacement for the SipSticks? It looks like Amazon is out of that seller? Any thoughts on a replacement?

  • Gosh…I risk generating a rush on these. Cheap by Canadian purchasing standards. 8 mm = ~5/16″ Bonus: extra long so can be cut in two!

    https://www.amazon.ca/dp/B07WLX275Z/?coliid=I1JVTARGNIRMOR&colid=QTNOBPGM614M&psc=1&ref_=lv_ov_lig_dp_it

    Been using Costco bee condos. But they are filled with bamboo tubes of all sizes. Difficult to replace due to everything is glued in place. But managed to semi-dismantle the condo and refilling some of the space with the fore mentioned straws. Sure takes a lot of straws. Didn’t seal the backs of them but may yank them and do that. Great idea using emergent box — have done that before and was successful. This coming season I also plan to hang paper wasp nest nearby and maybe grow some mint to dissuade wasps.

    Successful season last year with good pollination. Informative website — thanks.

  • Hi, this is excellent advice, and thank you for your help. Even the comments are all useful.

    One question. We get hit by the parasitic wasps every year which destroys almost all of the 13 nests. It breaks by heart.

    I saw on a program someone putting small dot stickers over finished holes to stop the wasp. Would this work? Do the bees need to breathe?

    I read about the stockings to use but don’t want to wait until the end and already lose some.

    P.S. I love the idea of an emergence box. Will try that!

    Thanks.

    • Charlotte,

      No, I haven’t heard about the stickers. It seems to me they wouldn’t work because some of the wasps can lay eggs right through the sides of a cardboard tube. On the other hand, maybe they would deter some types of parasitic wasps. See if you can find the source of that information and ask for specifics, like what the dots should be made of and how thick they should be.

      • I don’t think that the stickers would help. I was really careful last year to pull any tubes that were full and put them in protected containers. Still, the ones that I sent off to Crown Bees (for credit on new tubes) were reported as being full of mono. They must have gotten in as the tubes were being filled because there were no obvious holes in the tubes when I packed them up. I’m at a loss as to how to handle the problem this year.

        • Marilyn,

          I don’t know the answer, but you can usually see the Monodontomerus wasps hanging around the tubes, looking like fruit flies. Luckily, they appear just before the mason bees are finishing up for the season. As soon as I see even one, I store the tubes in a safe place.

          In any case, I’m sure you’re right about the stickers.

    • I previously wrote a comment suggesting nylon stockings. Don’t wait until the end of the season. Watch as the tubes are filled. As soon as the last cap is on any single tube, I gently pull that tube out and put it in my “completed” department: 4 inch across, 8 inch long plastic cylinders, covered by a knee high stocking on both ends. I replace the removed tube with an empty one which then gets filled and removed. I have a LOT of full mason bee tubes by the end of any season. I keep these in the cylinders, outdoors, under cover all winter, with the nylons covering the openings. Remove covers right about now, place tubes in emergence box. *

      After years of observation, I think it is safe to say for me to say that the wasps don’t appear until near the end of the mason bee nesting season. Since I check morning and evening for full tubes throughout the season, I believe I am successful in removing most tubes before a wasp has found it.

      Aside – I understand that the egg and pollen are placed together in each chamber, such that twirling the tube would give you a scrambled mess. I am very careful to keep the tube from turning as I transfer it. So far so good.

      *The emergence box (Amazon, medium size, small hole in upper corner to encourage escape) made a huge difference in my mason bee hygiene. I got the idea here! Thank you all! I gently move all overwintering tubes into the emergence box, use a light bleach solution on all empty cylinders and nesting rounds that hang in trees, rinse a lot, dry with a towel, dry thoroughly in the air, fill with new straws and stand back. When the season is over, I discard the emergence box and its contents.

    • My bees are plagued by predatory wasps, big yellow ones, and tiny black ones. I tried the stocking trick, does not work, the wasps drilled through it. They drilled through all kinds of paper straws and covering material. What worked for me is to slip the paper straw into a bamboo tube or a wooden dowel that’s big enough to accommodate the straw. At the end of nesting, I just pull the paper straw out. Next season, just slip new paper straws in.

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