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Of all the domesticated bees in existence, the mason bee is perhaps one of the easiest to manage and maintain. It neither demands sophisticated tools nor require specialized skills to keep. In most cases, the mason bee will demand maintenance that takes about 3 hours or less and this is done about once a year. Of course, this will depend on the number of mason bee houses you have. Mason bees are a target to many pests, parasites and predators, and hence the need for maintenance. This is carried out in the fall and winter months. In this article, we’ll discuss how to clean a mason bee house and why it is important to do so.
For more information on mason beekeeping and maintenance, be sure to check out Crown Bees, a highly reputed company specializing in mason and wild bees in the United States.
Why Maintenance is Essential for Mason Bees
As a beekeeper, every activity you undertake when it comes to the management of your bees is important. Firstly, the mason bee house is a target to pests, predators, and parasites. Therefore, regular maintenance will help keep them off. It becomes so much easier to detect these uninvited guests and eliminate them early enough. I can bet you would never want to find yourself in a situation, where after a long wait all you get are empty cocoons or tubes full of mud and parasitic larvae.
A second reason to carry out mason bee house maintenance, is the fact that it helps keep off diseases that could potentially be spread from one cocoon to the other, or carried over from one season to the next. You can cut the cycle shot through maintenance that would require your time once or twice a year.
Thirdly, there is no sure way of raising healthy bees other than through proper management of the mason bee nest. This is where mason bee eggs, larvae, and adults are nurtured. Proper management makes it possible to ensure the future mason bees are healthy and more productive. Finally, it is important to conduct regular maintenance given the fact that the mason bees are now out of their natural environment. In the wild they would fend for themselves without any help. They would instinctively place their nests on safer grounds, know where to forage, and adapt to changing seasons with ease. However, the man-made mason bee nest would in a way interfere with all these. It is therefore the responsibility of the mason beekeeper to ensure all that is required by the mason bees is in place.
Mason Bee House Maintenance
You will need to continually monitor and maintain the nesting habitat. This will not only ensure the mason bees are clean but also guarantee their safety. Monitoring and maintenance of a mason bee nest entails the following:
1. Tube Rotation
Irrespective of whether you use tubes or nesting structures for your mason bees, it is vital to ensure a rotation is in place. Sets of tubes and structures should be used in rotation. Set aside a single set for a year and another for the following year. This will give you sufficient time to clean, dry and store a set of nesting before the bees from the previous season emerge. This way you are sure to combat pests, parasites and diseases.
2. Wood Block and Tube Cleaning
Winter is your best time to clean tubes as you prepare for the upcoming year. Previous nests should be cleaned using pipe cleaners and paper inserts replaced. You should even purchase new nesting material if possible. The wood blocks on the other hand should be cleaned using a bleach solution. This will help prevent disease buildup. You will need to mix water and bleach in a ratio of 1 cup bleach against 1 gallon of water. This should be carried out in a well-ventilated area. After cleaning it, rinse well and leave it to dry. Wood blocks and natural reeds should be used for two years then replaced. Otherwise, disease carrying germs can easily be passed over from one season to the next.
3. Parasite Management
Mason bees are a delicacy and prime target to many parasites. Wasps are particularly the main culprits that target mason bees. The female wasp will inject its ovipositor and lay its eggs into a mason bee cell. This will in turn mature and cannibalize the mason bee larvae. In fact, most parasitic wasps will overwinter in the mason bee nest, to later emerge as adult wasps that will start the parasitic process all over again. You therefore have to monitor your mason bee house throughout spring and summer. Those tubes that are capped and have mud or leaves indicate you have mason bees.
You should also consider placing the tubes in a mesh bag so as to keep off parasitic guests. Remember to keep the tubes in a shed or areas where they are not exposed to direct sunlight or extreme temperatures. The tubes should also be protected from wind, moisture or birds. At end of the season, keep the tubes outside in a refrigerator, or frost free barn. The preferred temperature levels are between 36 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit.
4. Do not Reuse Nesting Boxes
It is of sentimental importance that mason bees do not return to their original nesting place. To achieve this consequently, means you need to get an emergency box for directing your newly emerged mason bees into a new box. You will have to do this in late winter and early spring. You can create a DIY emergency box using a plastic bin which should have an exit hole on one of its sides. Set the box in such a way that the newly emerged bees can see the new nesting structure as they come out of the emergency box. This will also mean they cannot come back to their original nest. Once all the bees have exited the old nest, have it cleaned, disinfected, and dried for future use.
5. Routine Checks
Mason bee management demands vigilance throughout all seasons. The keeper should be on the watch for any potential problems. For instance, during summer you will have to check if moisture is getting into the nest box. Check out for ant infestations as well during summer since ants are allured by pollen and nectar provisions that are in plenty at this time. You should also be on guard since predatory birds and paper wasps are common during this time. It is also not uncommon to sight spider nests, especially in areas that are too dark. This might mean changing locations or simply opening up the nesting area to allow more light to come in.
Cocoons also have to be continually checked for any sign of abnormality. Healthy mason bee cocoons will be firm and dark whereas those infested by parasites will be pale and flimsy.
How to Clean a Mason Bee House
Cleaning of a mason bee house involves a number of steps outlined below:
- Gently open up the paper nesting tubes to reveal the mason bee cocoons. Do not reuse tubes. If you have to reuse, then ensure they are thoroughly cleaned and rotated with new ones. You might require a scissor when tearing apart the nesting tubes.
- Remove the nesting houses from the nesting wall and clean them thoroughly. Have them dried and ready for nest season.
- Take a paper towel and place the collected cocoons on the towel. Each tube will reveal multiple cocoons underneath. The male cocoons will be at the front and the female cocoons at the back. The ends will be capped with mud.
- You might find some tubes that do not have cocoons, others may be rotten and others full of mud. To avoid empty cocoons, do not reuse tubes and also keep a check on moisture levels throughout the season.
- Put water in a pail or any container then mix it with 10% bleach, that is, a ratio of 1/10 for bleach and water respectively.
- Ensure the bleach and water is thoroughly mixed.
- Place the cocoons and gently cleaned them up.
- Remove the cocoons and place them on a dry paper towel. Let it dry naturally or gently dry it off.
- Take a closed container, place the bees in it and cover it with a wet paper towel. Put this in the refrigerator. You can also keep the closed container outside just like it happens in the wild. However, remember to keep checking on your cocoons.
- Wait until March when you can take it out and use an emergency box to direct the young mason bees to the new nesting area. Remember to build a wire mesh around mason bee nest so as to keep birds out of reach.
When to Release Mason Bee Cocoons
In simple words, releasing cocoons is the act of placing them into the bee house or nesting area. Once the adult bees are about to emerge from the cocoons, they should be set in a suitable position for them to find a nesting hole. This means that you do not have to place cocoons inside the nesting hole. The cocoons should be released when the bee house is installed and ready for occupation. This should be the time when flowers are blooming and temperature levels are right.
It is important to note that mason bees remain as fully formed adult bees but can stay in hibernation until when they are ready to be released. Adult mason bees will emerge when temperatures are 50 degrees F (10 degrees C). The bees will come out one by one, and will take several weeks for all of the mason bees to come out from their cocoons.
It is important to release mason bees when there are open blossoms and temperature levels of 55 degrees F (13 degrees C) or warmer during day time. The night temperatures will not affect the mason bees even if it is freezing.
Extend Mason Bee Season
One important strategy to employ when releasing mason bees, is by releasing half of the cocoons and keeping the other half for a few more weeks. This way you will be able to extend the bee season. You should also selectively release various mason bee cocoon sizes. Remember male cocoons are smaller in size and bigger ones belong to the female cocoons. The ratio of male to females in mason bees tends to be 3 males for every 2 females.
All mason bee cocoons should be released by the time mid-May arrives. It is worth noting that mason bee cocoons may take up to 3 weeks for the bees to emerge depending on prevailing weather conditions.
Feeding Emerged Mason Bees
In some instances spring may arrive late and blossoms delay. If this happens you will have to keep the emerged mason bee adults in your fridge and provide food. The ideal feed for the newly emerged bees is sugar syrup which you can put on a cotton ball. Mix white sugar and water in a ratio of 1 to 1.
Clay is Vital for Mason Bees
Upon release, your mason bees nest should be placed in close proximity to areas where the bees can find clay mud. Otherwise the mason bees will not nest. They will be forced to move elsewhere in search for the mud. You can test if your available soil is clay or not. Clay soil easily sticks together when wet. If the soil in your locality is not clay then you should consider getting it from somewhere else. You can know soil is not clay if it does not stick together and feels gritty on your fingers.
One thing that is apparent and a concern to most mason beekeepers, is the variation of climate in different regions. This affects when mason bees should be released. In such a case therefore, it will mean the time to release mason bees will not be the same for all regions. Remember, the variation in climate and temperatures will differ in these regions, therefore your guide will be signs of the spring season. You should master signs to look out for, so that you do not risk releasing the mason bees at a wrong time. Proper timing of mason bee release is important irrespective of your location.
The main goal for proper timing, irrespective of the region, is to ensure you get maximum number of pollinators that will work on your blossoms. This will guarantee more pollination and ultimately higher yields from your garden or farm. It will also ensure better bee production the following seasons.
As you understand, mason bees tend to inhabit whatever they can get when they are in the wild. Preferred nesting grounds include dead trees, crevices or cracks on wood, wood pecker holes, and so many others. These tunnels tend to be located far away from the blossom fields, meaning the bees have to work much harder when foraging. That is why it is more appealing for mason bees to nest in bee hotels or bee houses. This will allow them to work less and enjoy the nearby blossoms. It is therefore important to plan well the best time for releasing your mason bees. This way they can get a ready bee house, free from parasites and pests. These mason bee houses should be disinfected and properly stored during winter as we wait for the right season to release the mason bees.
Why Proper Timing for Mason Bee Release is Important
Proper timing for mason bee house placement and release of the mason bee, is critical for a number of reasons. These include:
Emergence, if not well timed, can lead to freezing of the young mason bees. Remember, the bees are temperature sensitive. It affects how they hibernate, develop and emerge. In the wild, the bees have naturally adjusted to the temperature changes and will instinctively know when to hibernate, develop, and emerge. However, in controlled settings they lose their independence. Proper timing will therefore help guarantee their survival. Release the cocoons when temperatures are right. Abnormal warm spells and frost can kill the newly emerged mason bees.
The mason bee is target of many predators. The mason bee house should be placed at the right time, a few days before the emergence of the young mason bees. Placing the mason bee nest too early will mean predators can locate it and begin inhabiting the house as they await the bees. It is also important to build a wire mesh around the mason bee house just before cocoons are released.
Signs to Look out for to Release Mason Bees
Forasmuch as different regions have different timing of seasons and climate, some signs can help you know when the time is right to release mason bees. First off, budding branches is a reliable sign. Once you notice buds on branches, know it is almost time for flowers to bloom. It will mean pollination season is around the corner.
Secondly, check out day time temperatures. Consistent day time temperatures (about 50 degrees Fahrenheit), mean it is time to monitor flowers and plants nearby. It is almost time to release the mason bees. You might also check out some guides on the seasons in your area and set an alarm or reminder so that time does not pass by. You should also wait until chances of frost are low. The respective weather guides for your region can help you know the frost dates.
What is Required by Mason Bees?
Successful mason beekeeping is only possible if the mason bees are provided with all they require. These include:
There should be spring flowering plants in close proximity to the mason bee house. Your adult mason bees will be active from March to mid-June. Your garden should therefore be planted in such a way that blooms will be available throughout the seasons when the mason bees are active. It is also important to provide a mix of native flowers and shrubs. These contain best nutrition for mason bees. Your mason bees will also forage in other plants such as fruit trees like apples, per, or cherry. Remember, mason bees do not travel for longer distances like honey bees. Therefore ensure nests are placed within 200 to 300 feet from these plants. If they lack nectar and pollen nearby they will migrate to other areas.
Moist clay soil
This is used for building the chamber walls in the nesting hole. Mason bees are selective and will know what to use. Sandy or rough soils are avoided by the bees since it tends to crumble or crack. If your area lacks clay soil consider setting up a container or small pile of clay mud nearby. The mason bees will locate this and use it. If not provided, they will not use the nesting site you provided.
Nesting site itself
An ideal mason bee house in its natural environment, is one that is wide enough for their bodies and long enough for their eggs. They are solitary bees that love living close to each other. The right nesting tubes for mason bees are ones that do not hold moisture and should be easy to open for cleaning. The nesting house should be sturdy to withstand winds and rain. It should be well positioned to allow easy access to morning sunlight. It should also be well sheltered from afternoon sunlight. The site should remain dry throughout and also be well protected from predators. You can use wire mesh around the nesting house to keep off predators such as birds.
Further Insights on Cleaning a Mason Bee House
The best time to wash mason bee cocoons is in the months of October and December. This is the best time since the mason bees will not emerge from their cocoons, especially if kept within room temperature. Cocoons have to be gently but thoroughly cleaned until there is no mud or mites in sight. Cleaning will also help remove pollen and any other unwanted material that have accumulated around cocoons. Cleaning helps ensure the cocoons are disease-free. It is also worth noting that post cleaning storage bags or containers, should be drilled to allow air to flow freely in and out. During release, cocoons should not be exposed to sunlight or rain. They should also be well-protected from predators.
A Final Word
You can help protect the mason bee through proper cleaning and maintenance of the mason bee house and tubes. Mason bees are easy to care for and will help pollinate your farm or backyard garden. They require tiny spaces and that means anyone with the know-how can keep them. It is certain that you now know how to clean a mason bee house.
Knowing how to clean a mason bee house is an important and crucial. Have you been cleaning your mason bee houses? What are your thoughts on this article? Leave a comment below and let us know.