Our Ladies of the Dogwood Tree

I feel like the paparazzi of the insect world. I’ve got to be quick to photograph these ladies; they mean business.

Something black buzzes past my head. I press down on the shutter halfway.

Ready for her closeup

It buzzes by again. I click the shutter just before a round fuzzy black bee butt the size, but not the color, of a pencil eraser disappears down a cardboard tube. The underside of her belly is thickly covered with yellow pollen.

This is the third year I’ve raised mason bees, sheltered under a dogwood tree on the east end of my garden. (The birdfeeder is on the west end.) Each year I seem to have more cocoons, so I’m sharing what works — at least in my yard. This year I’m doing a few things differently.

The corrugated plastic keeps tubes off of damp wood after rain

First, I’m removing each capped off tube a day or two after completion, to thwart wasps poking their ovipositors into the wee bee larvae. This was a problem last year.

This surely confuses the bees a little, since they sight on the variations in the tubes to find their current tube-in-progress. But they seem to be doing okay with this lesser of two evils.

Second, I’m storing the filled tubes inside a venti-sized clear plastic Starbucks cup with the lid on it, inside the shed, instead of a mesh bag or paper bag. The straw puncture in the lid lets the cup breathe without letting insects in, and lets me keep an eye on things.

Spider on the left

Third, I’m keeping the house at eye level, to promptly evict spiders, ants and other visitors to the bee house. I’ve already had to eighty-six one spider from the current house.

(Last year, in a different bee house, I discovered one enterprising spider had hit the jackpot: a niche inside where it could easily pick off the mason bees in their predictable comings and goings from the tubes.)

Fourth, I’m letting the kale and turnip greens left over from last year flower and go to seed instead of composting them. Early warm weather woke bees up too soon and there weren’t enough plants pollenating yet. I had a messy green tangle in the garden longer than I wanted, but both the mason bees and honey bees appreciated it.

Fifth, I’m going to use thermometers to get the temps of different bee storage places. Last year the shed got super hot, so I moved them into the garage. Then even the garage got too warm, so I moved them from a south shelf to a north shelf. The right temperatures will help bees mature on the right timeline.

Finally, I’m putting reminders on my calendar to harvest cocoons on time and check on the bees every week beginning in March. With any luck, I’ll have enough cocoons to build a second bee condo.

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