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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.

Comments

wil
Reply

Would these fit as removable inserts inside the cardboard tubes?

Rusty
Reply

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.

Gerry
Reply

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.

Rusty
Reply

Gerry,

That is ridiculous! I should load up my pickup and drive north!

Marilyn
Reply

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?

Rusty
Reply

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.

Darlene
Reply

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

Thanks, that’s an awesome deal.

Rusty
Reply

Darlene,

Did I make an error? $15.00/400 = .0375 dollars per straw or 3.75 cents per straw.

Matt Bearup
Reply

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

Steve Rodney
Reply

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!

Phillip
Reply

The same 400 box of Sipstick straws cost $70 on Canada’s Amazon. Bummer.

Sharon
Reply

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

Marian I
Reply

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.

Randy in NH
Reply

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.

Danielle
Reply

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 ?

Susan McCloskey
Reply

Don’t forget–you can roll your own.

Alice
Reply

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!

Rusty
Reply

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.

Ann
Reply

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.

Rusty
Reply

Ann,

I just pile them in the bottom of the box.

Melissa
Reply

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 🙂

Gail
Reply

Was very excited about the deal on the straws, until I realized they were made in China. Bummer! Will not buy.

Patricia Barberi
Reply

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!

Rusty
Reply

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.

Patricia Barberi
Reply

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.

Dana
Reply

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!

Rusty
Reply

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.

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