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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Honey Bee Suite
Note: This post contains an affiliate link.