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A Bit More About Bees September 12, 2013

I peered inside the emergence box.  They were still there, four fuzzy white cocoons about 1/4 inch around and 1/3 inch long… still waiting for the severe warm weather which would awaken the tiny insects resting inside.  It was late summer and I had to think back to the previous year to determine whether my bees were late in emerging.

When I first spotted the cottony substance at the end of the bee tubes last summer, I thought my precious pollinators had been afflicted by a fungus.  I was distressed that it didn’t look like any of the threats listed in the books I’d read on the subject and no amount of research seemed capable of revealing what it was.  Since it wasn’t spreading, I decided not to worry.  I still had plenty of tubes filled with healthy bees waiting for the coming spring and it seemed best to just let nature take its course.

It wasn’t until after the first freeze when I went to remove the cocoons that I realized the fuzzy wool wasn’t a fungus after all! I had attracted something else.  Swathed in a substance not unlike quilt batting, I found five, paper-thin cocoons in each 6 inch tube.  Since they didn’t fit the description of any of the native bees I was trying to attract, I was at a loss.  I did the only reasonable thing I could think of and, laying aside the Nikon 3100 I had been using to document the cocoon harvest, picked up my iPod touch.  A few snapshots later, I was ready to send off an inquiry to Dave Hunter of www.crownbees.com.

I first became acquainted with Dave while working as a buyer for a local garden store.  I hadn’t yet convinced our owner that selling native bee habitats was a profitable business when, due to a reorganization of the company, my job abruptly came to an end.  Still, I continued to follow Dave and his bees on Twitter and Facebook and looked forward to his regular “bee-mail” messages.  I had been treated to a wealth of information on pollinator conservation and was certain that if anyone could identify my unusual guests, it would be Dave.

I was right.  Within a few hours, we were chatting on the phone, as I described my find.  “It sounds like you have wool carder bees,” he said, sounding a touch surprised.  Anthidium manicatum or the European Wool Carder is, as it name suggests, a foreign import used to somewhat warmer climates than we usually experience in my part of the world.  Unlike the the Megachilidae which had filled in most of the nesting tubes in my artificial habitat, these bees forgo waxy foliage in favor of the fuzzy “wool” produced by plants like the Dandylion. While a touch territorial (more so with other bees than with anything of the mammalian persuasion), they are excellent pollinators and Dave suggested that I harvest the cocoons and store them in my vegetable crisper until spring.

Acting on his advice, I sorted through the 15 cocoons (only those in one of the three tubes had been unaffected by an unidentified ailment which resulted in thin, squishy, slime-covered cocoons) and placed the good ones inside the ventilated petrie dish which would serve as their winter home.

Spring came and I removed my fuzzy soon-to-be friends to the emergence house, pinned them to the trellis beneath my bee-house, and began to keep watch.  As of today, the cocoons are resting nicely, awaiting the end of the leaf-cutter bees’ season when (if things progress as they did last year), I expect them to emerge, mate, and set about making a home for next year’s pollinators.  I intend to carefully the document the entire process, if only for my personal enjoyment.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t considered “managing” some of the wonderful pollinators in your own area, why not take a moment to stop by Dave’s site at www.crownbee.com.  You’ll find a wealth of useful information and a hand to help in time of need!


A Bit About Bees August 29, 2013

“MY BEES ARE HATCHING!  MY BEES ARE HATCHING!”  My cries echoed across the yard as I enthusiastically informed my family of the good news.

Truth be told, I wasn’t sure that my bees (Megachile rotunda) were still alive until that muggy summer afternoon.  Spring and early summer had been an environmental rollercoaster with temperatures sometimes ranging as much as forty degrees between night and day.  While I was reasonably certain that my bees had made it through our winter (which was unusually mild), I wasn’t as confident that their development hadn’t been arrested by these wild fluctuations.  Had the multiple thaws and freezes killed my overwintering friends?  And how would I react if it had?

To be honest, these weren’t the bees that I’d wanted to keep.  It had been honeybees which had originally attracted my attention and not so much because I was interested in keeping bees, myself, but because I was in the process of writing a novel which featured a rather eccentric main character… and what’s more eccentric than keeping bees?  I’d picked up a copy of “Beekeeping For Dummies” for background material, but before I had finished I’d begun to feel a strange compulsion to try my own hand at developing and maintaining an apiary.

Unfortunately, at the time, our city ordinances forbid the keeping of beehives within city limits (though this didn’t prevent a few fastidious and secretive residents from doing so) and I turned my attention to another fascinating species: Osmia lignaria otherwise known as the “Mason Bee”.  Unlike Apis mellifera, Mason bees are solitary in nature, hatching and mating in early spring, then laying their eggs in the hollowed shells of old reeds or any other cozy hole of the appropriate size.

The process is a simple one that begins with mud which the bee carries from a nearby puddle to the back of its new home.  After building a rather thick exterior plug which will help to keep predators like parasitic wasps away from the nest, she collects a pile of pollen which will serve to feed her young offspring after it hatches in the fall.  Laying a single egg atop the pile, she then constructs yet another mud wall to separate this nesting cell from the next.  And the process begins again.  If all goes well, each hatched and fully fed grub will then spin itself a cocoon where it will undergo metamorphosis into an adult bee and wait for spring.

Again, I purchased several volumes including Brian L. Griffin’s “The Orchard Mason Bee: The Life History, Biology, Propagation, and Use of a North American Native Bee”, Sherian A. Wright’s “Mason Bees for the Backyard Gardener”, and a copy of the “Pollinator Conservation Handbook: A Guide to Understanding, Protecting, and Providing Habitat for Native Pollinator Insects”.  I’ll admit to having been surprised to discover that native pollinators do a far more efficient job of spreading pollen than their much acclaimed counterpart, the honeybee.  Tidy little creatures, focused upon producing the sweet food which will bring the queen’s offspring through the winter, A. melifera hoard their pollen.  Placing the lovely golden treasure into baskets on their legs, they effectively prevent the precious substance from landing upon the very plants which need it in order to survive.  While they do miss a bit here and there (permitting them to still maintain a reputation as effective pollinators), they do far less good for the garden and the environment in general than do their “dirty” native neighbors.

Taking a trip to www.beediverse.com, I selected their economical (and well-constructed) Chalet for my garden.  Hanging it on a trellis facing the morning sun, I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Despite the fact the O. lignaria was supposed to be native to my area, she never arrived.  And it was with great disappointment that I wandered out to the garden one afternoon, intent upon removing the house and setting it aside until the following season when I would be able to pre-stock it with bees ordered from a supply company.

Much to my surprise, the little Chalet was buzzing with activity!  A group of tiny bees had taken up residence and was quickly stuffing the tubes not with plugs of mud, but with the clippings of green leaves from the nearby shrubbery.  I’ll admit that for a moment, I questioned whether if might be appropriate to continue with my plan to remove the house, since leafcutters are considered a bit of a local nuisance, but reason won out.  Within a few days, each of the tubes was stuffed, sealed, and ready for winter.  Thanks much to the advice of Dave Hunter at www.crownbees.com, I elected to leave the bees inside of their tubes rather than placing the cocoons in my refrigerator over winter.

Not just once this spring did I wonder whether I’d regret that decision.  The insects did not emerge as planned and I was left with tubes packed with what I imagined were dead bees.  I admit that I had been silently mourning them until a few days ago when, stepping out to check the house one last time, they were there.  Each sealed tube in the bee house had been opened as the young males, followed by the females, had chewed through the leafy barrier.

Today, nearly half of the tubes are filled once more, surrounded by a buzz of activity as these gentle bees move in and out, preparing their nests for another winter.  My experiment was a success and I find myself pleased to offer my yard (and a few of my leaves) to my newfound friends!


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