How to Harvest Leafcutter Bee Cocoons

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The world has about 20,000 to 30,000 different bee species, 7,000 of these being honey bees. Most of this species are solitary bees. Every female solitary bee is a queen, going about their work for about six weeks. Because these bees are solitary, there’s no hive or queen to defend so they are considered friendly and pet safe bees. The leafcutter bee has also been found to recognize its owner or keeper. Leafcutter bees are one of the many species of bees that are considered solitary. This means you won’t find them as part of a swarm or in hives. Instead of storing honey in closed hives made of wax, they have a different strategy, as you might have guessed from their name, they cut leaves. Using sharp jaws, the female bee cuts neat circles on leaves of roses, lilac or pee plans. Leafcutters prefer non-hairy leaves that are also thin, such as rose leaves and cherry leaves. The plants aren’t harmed by this and the bee has an important use for the fragment. The female bees will curled-up the leaf circle between her legs and fly to her chosen nesting spot. Favorite nesting points being small tunnels, the bees either find one in a hollow stem, tree or if they need to, they dig them out of loose material such as dry soil. They may also use flower petals. Most leafcutter bees are approximately the size of honeybees.

About Leafcutter Bees Pollination

Leafcutter bees are responsible for pollinating very many important crops such as; alfalfa (used to feed livestock), fruits and vegetables. They do this consequentially while they harvest for leaves. They bellyflop onto the pollen while finding and cutting leaves and then onto another flower and finally they transport the leaves to their nests. Whilst doing so they spread the pollen which falls from their hairy bodies. The leafcutter is so efficient that one leafcutter can do the job of up to 18 honeybees. Inside the leaf cocoon, the egg will develop into a larva, developing to a pupa and in a month or two immerge as a fluffy adult leafcutter bee ready continue the cycle all over again.

Inside the nest the bee will then arrange the leaves into thin ball-shed rooms. She will then store nectar and pollen for food and lays a single egg on top of the food horde. Sealing up the room with another fragment of leaf, she creates a safe haven with everything a developing bee larva will need to survive through hibernation into full maturity. But her work is not done as she will need to lay several more eggs and thus create more cocoons for them. The leafcutter creates up to 20 nurseries in a single nest.

Raising this bee is very easy, you just need small holes and. them into something that keeps them dry (like a small house). You will need to avoid man-made chemicals as solitary bees tend to avoid their smell. Leafcutter bees are summer bees; they immerge when temperatures reach about 77°, that is, between 74° to 79°. The nests should be kept near water, food and if possible with direct contact to early morning sunrise. Overall, harvesting leafcutter bees is both easy and beneficial to anyone who has the interest. One may start planting vegetables and crops right after incubating their leafcutter bees so that once the bees have hatched, they meet blooming flowers and growing plants. In this case, the bees will not be forced to go elsewhere to start their tasks of pollination and leaf harvesting
Reasons for Harvesting Cocoons

Leafcutter bees as explained earlier are efficient pollinators. It is required that their population is stabilized by ensuring their eggs survive hibernation throughout the winter into the summer. Leafcutter cocoons are made of leaves and therefore tend to be extremely fragile. This is one of the many reasons why it is important to harvest them. Normally, in nature, the bees would have to survive the harsh winter with no human help. Most of the cocoon ends up being compromised by the harsh weather and this leads to most of the bees dying from the cold and water before they even they have fully developed. On the other hand, if the bees are harvested, they will be safely stored in a controlled environment increasing their chances of survival.

Leafcutter bees being exponentially productive bees, they attract a lot of parasites and pests that want to munch on them and their pollen. The pests also infect your bees with fungi which spread killing many and could at times be extreme. These pests include; pollen mites, multiple larvae in a single chamber, chalkbrood’s, and tunneling worms. They ideally attack through the walls of the thin nesting tubes and will reinvigorate themselves every year. what happens is that the bees munch on the chalkbrood spores which are mixed into the pollen-loaf, the chalkbrood kills the bees and transforms them into larva-shaped spores while the surviving bees hatch and spread the fungi in the cocoon and on the pollen only to be eaten again and affecting more bees and this has been increasing every day. Another pest that has been a serious problem are pollinates which are microscopic bugs that eat pollen, they arrive stuck to the pollen under the bee, if they are enough, these mites eat all the pollen before the eggs can hatch and eat the pollen, its typically a race to see who can eat the pollen first leading to a shortage for food for bees.

The best way to avoid such pests is to harvest your leafcutter bee cocoons during the spring. This way, the pests won’t be around to infest your nests. Birds are also a formidable enemy to the leafcutter bee. Therefore, you should avoid keeping bird baths close to the bee nest.

Bees harvesting can also be done commercially for contract pollination.  Some companies harvest bees so as to rent them out or seem them to farmers for pollination purposes. This is a relatively untapped field that has shown significant potential as it is effective. Cleaning your bee houses right before reentering the cocoons will help eliminate all pests and parasites that might have nested within the leafcutter bee cocoon.

Morally it is our responsibility as the keepers of the leafcutter bees to take good care of these beautiful and important pollinators. This is achieved by building and installing the nests as well as harvesting their cocoons. This is necessary as the bees will lead to the betterment of our surrounding environment and in the long run, environmental stability.

Harvesting Bee Cocoons

Harvesting should be done early spring right when the dandelions are starting to blooming. Harvesting in this case means retrieving the cocoons from their nests, cleaning and storing them. Allow your leafcutter bees about five to seven weeks of incubation so that they can develop into adults.

There are several options of nests that can be used as nesting homes for bees, namely;

  • Bamboo nests.
  • Natural reeds nest.
  • Cardboard nests and wooden trays.

What to expect when harvesting includes;

  • Healthy leafcutter bee cocoons
  • Bee fesses/frass
  • Chalkboard
  • Pollen mites or other types of parasites
  • Dead leafcutter bees
  • Pollen loafs from unhatched bees

From Bamboo

Cocoons can be harvested between fall and winter when bee activities have reduced, any sooner you’ll be risking the development of the larva. While harvesting leafcutter bee cocoons, keep in mind they are made of leaves and thus more fragile than most cocoons thus extra care must be taken. This becomes a bit harder when using bamboo as it is strong and will require a bit more pressure to open. Cocoons can be stored in the nesting tubes or extracted.

 To extract from bamboo, the tools you might require are;

  • Philips-head screw driver
  • Pencil or a pen
  • Popsicle stick

One can use a small sledge opener which is placed at one opening and gently nudged in one direction as you turn the bamboo in the opposite direction with your hand; this ensures it breaks in half reducing chances of damaging the cocoons. While using the tip of the pencil/pen, push the cocoons slowly and safely onto a paper towel or cloth. Pick one cocoon at a time as you count them and while discarding the damaged or empty ones. Place your cocoons in cocoon guard bugs or bubble bugs, leave the top open. Place the open bug into another larger bug and place a safe bee trap in another larger bug. Seal the larger bug and start storing in a cool dry place. Once the adult bees emerge, they become trapped in the trap preventing them from escaping early. As soon as they bees are noticed to have emerged, take the bug out and release them near their nests so that when they are done exploring, they will return to the nests. The cycle will continue as the bees get to work immediately.

Finding other insects in the nests is completely normal as they like nesting in the safe havens of bees. Any fungi or other infestations such as chalkboard are also common and should be dealt with as they lead to bee shortage.

However, since bamboo tends to be difficult to open up, it is advisable to use a more bee friendly nest that will also serve as easy to open to reduce the number of bees lost during cocoon retrieval.

From Natural Reeds

Before you begin, chose a clean working place and gather the necessary harvesting tools. The process is normally messy thus you may prefer to lay a cloth or paper tissue onto the table before undertaking the task of harvesting.

Tools you may require include;

  • Cocoon comb. You may also use a normal plastic comb but the cocoon comb is more preferable as it is made for this particular task thus reduces damage and increases on speed.
  • Cocoon guard bug or a bee guard bug. You may also use a mesh buy of a bubble bug.
  • Strong small brush such as a toothbrush.

Natural reeds are the best option as they are more environmentally friendly. They are also very easy to open and require little force thus do not compromise the fragile cocoons. For natural reeds you may want to use a small wooden strip to check if the tube is fully occupied ore reusable. Simply run the strip in, through the tube and if you find there are no cocoons you may set it aside for next harvesting season thus reducing on wastage and cost.

Open up the natural reed using your fingers and nails, normally the ends do not have any cocoons so don’t fear nipping the tips. To be faster you may use a hand cutter, cocoon comb [use the edge as it is made a bit sharp] or scissors. Pry open the cocoon comb being careful not to damage the cocoons. The cocoons are expected to be green, yellow or dirty brown in color. Many other things such as parasites, fungi or insects are expected as well. Using the cocoon comb, remove the cocoons safely and place them on the paper towel. Pick out whatever is out of place and gently brush off any pollen mites on there.

You can now place the cocoons in a bee guard bug or any other bug that is breathable. Store the cocoons in a cool dry place until it’s time to place them back into their nests. You can throw the used reads out and return the unused once back to the sitting location.

On the downside, natural reeds are not nearly as hard as bamboo and this makes it easy for other insects such as wasps and bumble bees to make their way into the nest through barrowing holes in the sides. They are also easy to penetrate by birds through the openings.

From Cardboard

Cardboards are also easy to open and thus very preferable to most people. They are also easy to acquire as they are very common. Tools required would include; cocoon comb, bee cocoon bug and scissors or an all-purpose cutter. First run a thin wooden strip through the tube to check how full they are. To promote accuracy, place the strip inside and use a pen to mark how far the strip can reach. You will then remove the strip and place it on the tube starting from the marked spot and mark on the tube where the other end of the strip reaches. You may do this for both ends to mark outpoints you may cut out to reduce on wastage.

Tear or use scissors to carefully snip the ends of the cardboard bee tube. Use your fingers to gently unravel the tube. With care, use your fingers to separate the leafcutter bee cocoons from the paper and place them on a clean or so surface. Brush off any debris on the cocoons and hand pick the spoilt once to only remain with healthy viable cocoons. You may now place the cocoons in a breathable bag such as a cocoon guard bug. Store them in a cool dry place as you wait for the time when you can return them to their nests, which is the summer time.

Note that leafcutter bees are not like mason bees, they cannot survive in water thus should not be washed or stored anywhere where they can come into contact with a lot of moisture. This is why they are stored in breathable bags so as not to sweat and create a moist environment. Since you don’t wash them, it is impossible to get all the pollen mites off and this can pose a danger to the cocoons they are attached to. Consequently, constant checkups that ensure things are moving on well are required.

From Wood Trays

Wood trays are the most advisable method as they are easy to open and do not require any breaking thus reusable over and over. They may require a bit of maintenance through simply cleaning while the bee cocoons are in storage.

The first step is normally removing the rubber bands holding the boards together (normally 3-5 boards). Remove the cardboard base and place them safely aside for reassembly. Lift one tray at a time using a cocoon comb to gently scrape them off onto a paper towel covered surface. Debris may also come off so you will be required to handpick them and dispose of them separately. Place the healthy cocoons in a breathable bag such as a guard bug and store them in a cool dry place. You’d like to time the summer so that when the bees come out of their cocoons, they will be home and will adopt that position as their nesting place.

Use a brush to brush off the debris and dirt left onto the wood trays. Put some water and a tablespoon of bleach in a bath and use it to clean the trays. Rinse the trays and place them outside to dry. Once dry gather all trays, rubber bands and cardboard bases and store them as the bees hibernate. Once the summertime nears you may reassemble the trays and return them to their original position where you will later place the ready to hutch leafcutter bees. For leafcutter bees, the front of the wood trays is normally painted black to increase warmth in the box. Note that;

  • Leaving unoccupied boxes out may attract other insects and this is why it’s advisable to store them when not in use.
  • Providing external housing for any nest is vital as it prevents any environmental damage to the tubes or trays.
  • You have to periodically check the stored cocoons incase parasitic wasps emerge to attack them.
  • Solitary bees do not produce honey
  • The temperature should always be regulated where the leafcutter bees are stored as the cocoons are not as volatile as other bees.
  • Using variable size tubes help the bees remember their nest thus reducing confusion.
  • At 30°c, adults will start to emerge after about 18-23 days while at 21°c they emerge between 40-45 days.

A Final Word

Leafcutter bees are one of the necessary, undeniable species that are vital for their pollination efficiency.  They serve the purpose of not only increasing, but also diversifying the plants in our gardens and farms. They are an important aspect to consider when starting a garden be it a vegetable or flower garden. They will ensure continued growth for your crops, fruits and vegetation and will never disappoint. Keeping leafcutter bees discourages against irrigations as it will disrupt the bees work of leaf collecting and irrigating. Where irrigation is necessary, one is advised to irrigate during the cold season when the bees are in hibernation or at night when the bees are inactive. For large scale farmers, leafcutter bees for the summer will quadruple your productivity with little downside. The bees will increase the pollen flow for you and your neighbors and you don’t have to worry about them stinging as the male do not have a stinger and the females are very peaceful. Instead the males have a wiggling end that poses no threat to you, any kids around or even pets. Most of the instruments required can also be replaced by simple objects at home thus little or no money spent on acquiring them. Due to their tiny size and hairy bodies, they can easily pollinate even the smallest of flowers or crops that are the back bone of our food system. The only requirement is to avoid using any artificial or manmade chemicals. For beginners, we recommend one nesting hole per 2 leafcutters. The beginning might be slow but with patience the number slowly increases and you will soon witness the advantage of having this helper on your land. If you chose the bee harvesting lifestyle, you’re on the road to helping America and at large the world gain more pollinators back.

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