Nest boxes for mason bees

This very small bee was exploring the various nest holes in this bee box. This tiny bee is in the Tribe Osmiini, and in the genus Heriades (thanks to Bug Guide for identifying the genus).

This very small bee was exploring the various nest holes in this bee box. This tiny bee is in the Tribe Osmiini, and in the genus Heriades (thanks to Bug Guide for identifying the genus).

by Sandy Garland

Mason bees are named for their use of mud or clay in their nests. They belong in the genus Osmia in the family Megachilidae.

At the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, we have found Blue Orchard Mason Bees (Osmia lignaria) as well as the Heriades pictured below. This and other species in the family are very good at pollinating fruit trees. They are closely related to leaf-cutter bees, which will also use bee boxes.

Some sources of information about mason bees
Blue Orchard Mason Bee
Wikipedia
BugGuide

Life cycle of mason bees

May: Adults emerge in spring around the time apple trees bloom. They mate and lay eggs, provisioning their tunnels with lumps of pollen mixed with nectar and saliva. They seal the
chambers and the whole tunnel with mud, so need a source nearby. Adults live 4‐8 weeks.

Early summer: Eggs hatch, larvae eat their pollen

Late summer: 5th instar larvae pupate

September: Pupae open and adults emerge, but hibernate in their coccoons until the following spring, when the cycle starts again.

Why do they need bee houses?

Mason bees do not dig their own tunnels; instead they look for “natural” tunnels, such as hollow plant stems or twigs or the abandoned nests of other insects. Many of these potential mason bee nests are cleared away from our urban properties in an effort to keep our yard “tidy.”

Bees are also susceptible to parasites and disease. Providing a nest box that can be cleaned or replaced every year may help minimize these and produce healthier bees.

Mason bees are readily attracted to paper tubes. Drilled holes in wood are also an option, but both types of tunnels should be replaced every year.

How to make a mason bee box

Our instructions come from Richard Scarth, who has been helping mason bees for many years. Jenny Sheppard demonstrated the construction of this type of bee box at a workshop in May and donated two boxes to the Fletcher Wildlife Garden.

Step by step instructions

Please note: this easy-to-make bee box is intended for summer use only. The idea is to open the tunnels in the fall and store cocoons in the refrigerator over the winter. This provides a chance to clean away parasites and increases the chances of bee survival.

Jenny has kindly offered to do a follow-up workshop in the fall to show us how to retrieve cocoons properly and the best way to store them.

Alternatively, you may wish to build a protective structure for your bee boxes and leave them out all year round. In either case, the whole box should be replaced in spring just before the previous year’s adults emerge.

Does it work?

We installed our two boxes in our insect hotel on 7 May 2015. Within a week, bees were busily filling the tunnels with nectar and pollen, laying eggs, and closing up the compartments with mud.

In this photo, taken on 15 May 2015, two tunnels in our bee box are already full of eggs and are sealed with mud. A mason bee in the upper left tunnel is still at work bringing pollen and laying eggs.

In this photo, taken on 15 May 2015, two tunnels in our bee box are already full of eggs and are sealed with mud. A mason bee in the upper left tunnel is still at work bringing pollen and laying eggs.

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Mid-August at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

Mid-afternoon at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden, August 14th. A sunny and pleasant afternoon to be looking for things to photograph for the PBase Blog. My first sighting was of the Sphex ichneumoneus, the great golden digger as it is sometimes called, nectaring on swamp milkweed. Its counterpart, the great black digger, S. pensylvanicus, is often more numerous, but both are large and impressive.

Other insects found include numerous Acutalis treehoppers, one of our smallest treehoppers, tiny little green and black insects, usually found on the stems of plants such as goldenrod. The large (for a planthopper), Acanalonia bivittata, with its distinctive shape, is easily recognized. It is bright green, with reddish eyes and a dark stripe down its back. It also comes in a vivid pink form, something I’m still hoping to see. The large swathe of Monarda fistulosa, our beautiful lilac-coloured native species, in the butterfly meadow, is alive with bees and other nectaring insects, including a hummingbird moth and a very tattered silver-spotted skipper. The big Bicyrtes sand wasp, smaller mud daubing wasps, sweat bees, leaf-cutter bees, ragweed beetles, goldenrod leaf beetles, the predatory larvae of green lacewings sometimes called aphid lions because of their propensity for feasting on aphids, pennsylvania leatherwings (soldier beetles), tiny ragweed fruit flies, and a host of other insects can be found on the abundant flowering plants around the site.

In addition to the skipper, lots of cabbage whites, a few white admirals, and several newly emerged ringlets, the second generation in our area, were also seen.

Birds are vocal and active, with broods of young following the adults, calling and begging for food. House wrens are especially vocal these days, as are catbirds and song sparrows. Robins, baltimore orioles, chipping sparrows, chickadees, cardinals, cedar waxwings, and many other birds are very noticeable right now. While our tree swallows have long gone, barn swallows can still be found swooping over the garden. Shrubs such as elderberry and tartarian honeysuckle are providing much food for birds. Diane and I watched a cedar waxwing guzzling down the fruit of the honeysuckle as if he couldn’t get enough!

It is fascinating to see how the vegetation changes from year to year. New plants appear in odd spots, others vanish. All the annuals found last year in the old field’s rototilled section, have gone, but in their place scores of the biennial evening primrose (native plant), some big scotch (or bull) thistles, much beloved by insects, especially bees, and a variety of other species. The native wild cucumber plant is sending its sprays of creamy white flowers up in various spots including in the old field area.

There are lots of photos on the August 2013 Blog here:
http://www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_aug_2013

Be sure to visit so you can also see the great photos submitted by Diane and France, who photographed a gorgeous giant swallowtail at the garden on August 15.

June 4, 2013 at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden

by Christine Hanrahan

Tuesday afternoon at the garden, June 4th, and a lovely day to be wandering through the FWG.

Mating pair of silvery blue butterflies

Mating pair of silvery blue butterflies

Silvery blue butterflies were fluttering around in many locations, including this mating pair near the new woods. Common ringlets were indeed common that day but hard to photograph as they land low down in the vegetation much of the time. One posed briefly, however. Cabbage whites and a couple of hobomok skippers completed the butterflies I saw.

Still on insects, bumble bees were busy around the lupines, as were a few honey bees. I think the red squirrel, resident in one of the big roosting boxes, depleted the honey bee population over the winter. They made the mistake of deciding to make a hive in the box, and this spring when Barry and I checked it, the honeycomb was largely eaten and the bees were absent, likely also eaten by the red squirrel (these mammals will eat just about anything).

Mason bees are using the AAFC bee boxes, and a number of other bee species (Halictids, Andrenids, etc.) were actively feeding. Spittle bugs are mostly noted by the presence of their “spittle” on plants. These are actually protective coverings for the nymphs, keeping them moist, as well as hiding them from predators. There can be anywhere from one to four or more little nymphs inside these damp cases. Eventually the cases harden (they are a mix of fluid and a waxy secretion from the nymphs) and the nymphs have to create new ones.

Dame’s rocket is abundant. Yes it is not native, yes it can be invasive, but for the moment, the beauty of the flowers when seen en masse is stunning. This member of the mustard family is a common garden plant in Europe and is well liked here by pollinators. Claudia notes that she recalls it being planted in the BYG long ago to attract butterflies, but it was then weeded out, probably because it produces so many seeds. She thinks that may be where the plants we now see all over the garden, originally came from.

Various flies, including syrphids (hover flies), tachinids, root maggot flies, and so on, were found throughout. Not only are many syrphids excellent and important pollinators, but their larvae are formidable predators of aphids. A bit later in the season, carefully check out colonies of aphids and look for the flat larvae of syrphids working their way through them.

Green lacewing

Green lacewing

Also found, a couple of green lacewings. These beautiful insects in the order Neuroptera (Nerve-winged insects) are almost ethereal in appearance, with their golden eyes and see-through lacy wings, which of course, give rise to the common name. But their larvae are fierce predators of aphids, sawfly larvae and other insects. I have seen a single green lacewing larva work its way quickly through a colony of rose sawfly larvae, which are twice or three times its size!

All the usual birds are busy breeding now: yellow warblers, chickadees, cardinals, robins, house finches, etc. The phoebe is doing well, and I was happy to find a house wren nest. A lone cedar waxwing was near the birch grove, while a turkey vulture circled the garden overhead. The kestrels are still in their usual spot, so all is right with the world.

Isabelle (far left) and Renate (far right) showing members of the Ottawa Horticultural Society around the Backyard Garden

Isabelle (left) showing members of the Ottawa Horticultural Society around the Backyard Garden

On Tuesday evening, members of the Ottawa Horticultural Society came to the garden for a walk. There were two tours, ably led by Sandy (the first one) and Renate (the second one). Backyard Garden (BYG) habitat manager, Isabelle, gave Renate’s group a good intro to the BYG. Isabelle and I then hung around the BYG, keeping the centre open, and directing any stragglers onward to the tour.

Just as I was about to send this email, I rec’d one from Diane with some excellent photos which I will post to the blog very soon. There is a great shot of the pretty California calligrapha beetle and a golden image of the lovely syrphid Spaerophoria, a small, elongate fly, which is not at all easy to photograph. I’ve tried in other areas of Ottawa recently, but none of my photos comes close to the one you’ll see from Diane. There is also a very neat photo of a little scentless plant bug, new for our list of insects.

See more photos on the June Blog

Blue-gray gnatcatcher and more at the FWG

by Christine Hanrahan

I arrived at the FWG at 5:30 this morning, a major effort for someone like me, normally a night owl. I’d hoped to hear a dawn chorus of migrants – warblers, vireos, flycatchers, and so on. That didn’t happen. Until the sun came up fully, the only birds singing were robins and a few song sparrows, joined by some calling crows and one lone tree swallow twittering over the pond.

A green heron arrived just about on schedule. This one was calling from various locations - breeding season is here and he wonders where the female is.

A green heron arrived just about on schedule. This one was calling from various locations – breeding season is here and he wonders where the female is.

However, once the sun peeked over the treetops, activity picked up. Female red-winged blackbirds busy with their nest-making, tree swallows swooping and calling across the garden, song sparrows all over the place. Recent arrivals include several singing yellow warblers and a very vocal green heron. The heron flew into the big walnut tree by the pond, on top of which the male kestrel was perched, and commenced calling. He then flew off to the ravine, the woods, and the slope overlooking the canal, calling constantly.

The phoebe’s nest is now just about complete, and the birds were heard in the ravine and Backyard Garden. As mentioned before, they are a new nesting species for the FWG. Another new nesting species, red-breasted nuthatches, had started a nest in a most unsuitable location, but soon vanished from that site. We thought they’d left the garden, but not so. They are now nesting in a more sensible site, a cavity about 20 feet up in the ash woods.

In addition to many more common birds singing and flying around the garden, I saw a very neat bird, a new addition to our list: BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER. As I stood eating an orange, thinking how nice it was before the heat of the day took over, I became aware of an unusual call. It took a few seconds before I realized, “holy smoke, gnatcatcher.” I saw it for about 3 minutes as it flew after insects and moved from tree to tree, eventually vanishing in a westerly direction. Although I looked for quite awhile, I didn’t see or hear it again. I did manage to get a pathetic photo which I’ll put on the blog.

One green frog was in the BYG pond early this morning, but there may well have been more as the day warmed up. I forgot to go back and check. I hoped to hear American toads trilling, as they were doing last week, but neither they nor gray treefrogs were calling while I was there.

Two mourning cloaks and two spring azures were flitting around near the ash woods, and nomada bees, small carpenter bees, honey bees, bumble bees, andrenids, and so on, were nectaring on the wild plums. Even a snail was oozing its way up the plum tree. We have considerable thickets of this Prunus species, and at this time of year they are a magnet for insects. In the past, I’ve found butterflies also visiting them.

A red squirrel was exhausted by all the activity taking place in his home. Or at least, that is how I anthropomorphically interpreted his pose. A few minutes before, he’d been sitting hunched up, as above him four male cowbirds were carrying on – screeching and fluttering and making a to-do. Eventually they left, and he ventured out along a branch, when in came a yellow-rumped warbler, almost landed on him, and began hopping along a branch just over his head. The squirrel sank down in an exhausted pose, nose to the branch, as if to say, “I give up!”

Everything is leafing out and, in some cases, flowering has just about finished (already). The unusually warm weather has hurried everything along at top speed, as if making up for lost time.

Lots of photos in the May photo gallery here:
www.pbase.com/fwg/fwg_blog_may_2013

FWG on May 1, 2013

by Christine Hanrahan

It was our first real scorcher of a day at 25 degrees C (anything above 15 C is a heat wave to me). I was expecting to see butterflies, even perhaps a few spring azures, as I’ve seen them elsewhere recently, but no butterflies showed themselves to me. However, bees were abundant! Bumble bees, nomada bees, various andrenid bees, sweat bees, scores of all of them. They were nectaring on magnolias, scilla, daffodils, and the few willow catkins still with pollen.

Many of the birds that were present in good numbers last week have left to carry on their migration. Still present are a few white-throated sparrows and juncos. I also saw many song sparrows, goldfinches, chickadees, red-winged blackbirds, a male kestrel with a meadow vole, a sharp-shinned hawk flying above our interpretive centre, many tree swallows, one pursuing the kestrel! White-breasted nuthatches, but the red-breasted nuthatches seem to have given up on nesting in the snag. Not a bad idea, as it was a terrible location.

However, exciting news: a pair of eastern phoebes are building a nest above one of the security lights on the side of the building. I watched for some time as they went back and forth with tiny bits of moss and other plant matter, carefully placing each bit on top of the light, fussily moving the pieces around until just so. Such laborious and lengthy work – quite impressive. Whether they actually nest remains to be seen, but so far, so good. Last week, they were exploring the nest site the robins used in 2012, on the front of the building. Fortunately for them, they thought better of it. If they do nest, it will be the first nesting record for phoebe at the garden.

Speaking of nesting, red squirrels have been using some of the bird nest boxes for years. Typically, they take over ones that birds no longer use, usually because trees have grown up around them making them difficult for swallows to access, but perfect for squirrels. We have many bird boxes up and I reason that, if we leave the old ones hidden by trees for the squirrels, they’ll leave the other ones alone. So far this has worked well, and everyone is happy.

Bloodroot - These beauties are among the first to appear in spring. They are now in full bloom in many locations throughout the woods, spread over the years by ants that carry off the seeds.

Bloodroot – These beauties are among the first to appear in spring. They are now in full bloom in many locations throughout the woods, spread over the years by ants that carry off the seeds.

In the woods, bloodroot is in full bloom. Each year new clumps grow up, thanks to ants who help transport the seeds. Red trilliums are about to burst open at any moment. Other flowers can’t be far behind. I mentioned magnolias – the two magnolias in the garden are in bloom and beautiful to see.

Photos were added to the April blog over the last week, including some beautiful bird photos by Diane. I added a shot of a red squirrel feeding on a mouse. Not particularly pleasant to see, and I admit I felt a bit queasy taking the photos. I posted the least offensive one! Of course, reds are omnivores, and while vegetable matter makes up a good proportion of their diet, they will eat birds and other small mammals that they catch. They are also scavengers, eating dead critters when times are tough.

April blog

More photos on the new May blog

Bee boxes, houses, condos and hotels…

by Christine Hanrahan

This is a simple overview of various types of accommodations for bees. I won’t be providing instructions for building bee boxes, but I do provide a reference below for the best all-round source for creating different types of bee houses.

Much media attention has been given to declining honeybees (Apis mellifera), but less well-known is the decline in many native bee species, such as bumble bees (Bombus) and others. Our native bees are facing habitat loss, pesticide contamination, disease, and who knows how many other problems. Studies are ongoing with more research devoted to this issue.

The good news is that people are becoming more aware of bees as beneficial. I spoke with a pest control official recently who said that although he still gets calls from people worried about bees, such calls are fewer than in the past. The ongoing media attention about disappearing honeybees and subsequent attention paid to bees in general, and their importance to pollination, has moved this group of insects into a more benign category.

One indication of the changing attitude is the recent interest in placing bee boxes (bee nest sites) in gardens. Although I am happy about this trend, there is also a downside. Buyers are not usually told that if they want to help bees, nectar rich plants must be available or bees won’t be interested. The importance of hygiene in bee boxes is rarely discussed either. Unfortunately, some commercially produced bee boxes are more concerned with making cute ornamental art for the garden than with the requirements of bees.

Many of our native bees are ground nesters and won’t use bee boxes. This brings up a whole different issue, which I’ll leave for another time, as this article is looking only at tunnel-nesting bees, the ones most likely to use bee boxes.

The natural nesting sites of these bees is the hollow stems of plants, such as wild raspberries, or holes in standing dead trees (snags). When we build bee boxes for them, we are emulating their natural nest sites, much as we do for cavity nesting birds when we install nest boxes.

The most common tunnel-nesting bees we see around the Ottawa are leaf-cutter bees and mason bees (both in the Megachilidae family). These are the ones that will be most attracted to bee boxes. Bumble bees may also be attracted to man-made nest sites. At the Fletcher Wildlife Garden (FWG), a newly installed bee box in summer 2009, attracted leafcutter bees (Megachile) within days. In 2012, scientists from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) placed a number of bee boxes as well as bee bundles, around the garden in a variety of sites, and these too were very well-used, particularly the nest boxes.

There are innumerable ways to provide nesting sites for these bees, the simplest being to leave snags standing, and to grow plants that bees would use in the wild for nesting. Creating artificial nesting sites is the other option, and ways and means are varied and many.

First and always, when making any bee structure, think of hygiene, as parasites and disease are a serious problem for bees. With simple bee blocks, essentially a wooden cube with holes in it, there are two options: you can replace them every year or you can use removable cylinders in each hole. These can be straws or rolled tubes of paper, which can be discarded when the bees have finished nesting. The bee block can then be disinfected, instructions for which are given in the native pollinator book listed in references below.

Bee blocks work best if they have holes of varying diameters (to accommodate different bee species) and of sufficient depth to allow bees a long tunnel to work in. Some people suggest drilling the holes slightly upward to prevent rain from getting in. Logs with drilled holes can also be used for this same purpose. Old, weathered logs are best as they emulate the snags that bees would naturally use. At the FWG, I’ve noticed bees making nests in some of our old well-worn wooden posts (used for habitat signs) and the split-rail fences.

Other types of simple nest accommodations include bee bundles, which can be made from lengths of hollow stems, such as bamboo, phragmites (abundant in the region, although very invasive so make sure you don’t distribute the seedheads elsewhere), cup-plants. These are best if situated within some sort of cover (large black soft plastic plant pots were used by scientists who set up bee bundles at the FWG in 2012) to protect them from rain and located in a sheltered site. At the FWG, I’ve noticed mason bees checking out plants for nest sites, and they also used the AAFC bee boxes.

Bumble bees frequently nest in the ground, but they will also nest in piles of stones, brushpiles, under decks, and even in bird nest boxes (which I’ve seen several times at the FWG). I’ve also seen them nesting in the foundation of my house and in sheds. In other words, while their sites are varied, what they are seeking is a warm, dry, sheltered cavity.

Finally, some very creative ideas for creating “condos” or “hotels” for bees (and other insects too) come via the Pollinator listserv. These examples show how bee and insect condos can be constructed fairly simply, using found objects, such as plant stems, bricks, logs, etc. Ingenious designs from across Europe are shown, ranging from small and simple to quite large and more elaborate, all of which can be used and adapted for our area. General information about cleaning out bee blocks, and maintaining sites is given, as well as tidbits of other interesting information. Some of the photos show carefully constructed structures that will hold about 8 or 9 separate bee boxes. Others are created with boards or pallets, separated by bricks, and stuffed with a variety of material that will attract not only bees but other insects such as ladybeetles. The site is fun to peruse and is sure to generate a desire to emulate at least one of the structures. At the FWG we are already planning to create several and will be keeping an eye on them throughout the summer to see who uses them.

References:
***Attracting Native Pollinators. Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies. 2011. By the Xerces Society. Storey Publishing. I can’t say enough good things about this marvellous book. It provides excellent information, complete with photos, of different types of bee structures, good instructions for how and when to install, how to keep nest boxes and bundles clean, and much more. Buy it!!! It is the best source around; you need no others!

Bee and insect condos and hotels: inspirationgreen.com/insect-habitats.html

NAPPC Pollinator listserv: pollinator.org/nappc/listservrules.htm Provides a variety of topical and worthwhile information with much current information about bees and their conservation and efforts to protect them.

North American Pollinator Protection Campaign: pollinator.org/nappc/index.html The premier site for all things to do with conservation of pollinators.

Pollinator Partnership (NAPPC): pollinator.org/index.html Provides information about all pollinators, with an emphasis on bees.

Xerces Society: www.xerces.org/ One of the best all-round websites dedicated to bees and all pollinators, with a wealth of good, trustworthy information. Check under: www.xerces.org/fact-sheets/ for information on bee boxes.

More references for building bee boxes will be added when I find ones that are suitable.

From Yale News: Exhaustive family tree for birds shows recent, rapid diversification

We refer to the ‘birds and the bees’ when we obliquely talk about reproduction, but multi-university research from Simon Fraser, Sheffield and Yale reinforces just how differently the birds and the bees approach their own diversification as species!

Yale News Department, Posted October 31, 2012 at http://news.yale.edu/2012/10/31/exhaustive-family-tree-birds-shows-recent-rapid-diversification

Image from article (A Mooers [SFU], G Thomas [Sheffield] and C Shrank [Yale])

A Yale-led scientific team has produced the most comprehensive family tree for birds to date, connecting all living bird species — nearly 10,000 in total — and revealing surprising new details about their evolutionary history and its geographic context.

Analysis of the family tree shows when and where birds diversified — and that birds’ diversification rate has increased over the last 50 million years, challenging the conventional wisdom of biodiversity experts.

“It’s the first time that we have — for such a large group of species and with such a high degree of confidence — the full global picture of diversification in time and space,” said biologist Walter Jetz of Yale, lead author of the team’s research paper, published Oct. 31 online in the journal Nature. Continue reading

Urban Beekeepers Keep Cities Abuzz with Pollinators

By Katherine Harmon  | Scientific American March 31, 2009

Paris, San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago. These cosmopolitan cities hardly conjure up the bucolic image of an ideal home for honeybees. But to millions of busy bees, they’re just that. Whereas large-scale commercial beekeepers are busy trucking hives from state to state to pollinate crops, city-dwellers are learning a thing or two about home-raised honey. Bees are being cultivated on roofs everywhere from the Paris Opera House to Chicago’s City Hall.

Like the honeybee itself, urban beekeepers are a “small but mighty” group, says fourth-generation beekeeper Andrew Coté, founder of the New York City Beekeepers Association. With so much buzz about colony collapse disorder (CCD), even those who live far from the farms and orchards are pitching in to beef up the nation’s bee populations (while reaping some sweet rewards for themselves).

Read the full article here.