How to Harvest Wild Bee Cocoons

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Bees are basically insects with wings. They share the same family with wasps and ants. Domestically they are categorized as wild bees and honey bees. Honey bees being known for their honey production while wild bees are best recognized for their vital participation in pollination. Another major difference is, while honeybees live in hives filled with honeycomb which they use to house brood cells and honey and pollen for food, wild bees live in colonies in cavities found in hollow trees or flowers, walls or underground. Wild bees follow the normal bee order of the queen system where the queen is at the top of the hierarchy. They also live in large hives made of wax honeycomb. Basic facts about wild bees include; they do not sting unless they feel threatened, there are over 5,000 wild bee species in the world. Almost 50% of wild bees are categorized as pollen specialist. Bee cocoons differ in size. During hibernation, the bees form cocoons where they remain until the following summer season. These cocoons however are compromised by pests and other insects such as wasps and beetles which attack the cocoons and consequentially bring fungi as well as eat the bees. For these reasons, people have adopted to harvesting the bees so as to help them survive the harsh weather and environmental conditions. The larger cocoons are female while the smaller once are males. Cocoons are however very fragile and thus need to be handled with the utmost care while harvesting.
Reasons for Harvesting Cocoons

The top three reasons to harvest wild bee cocoons:

  1. Parasitic wasps which targets developing bee larvae and will lay their eggs inside the larva.
  2. Pollen mites- these are microscopic mites which will starve and kill the bee larva by consuming its food reserves, that is, the pollen loaf.
  3. Diseases-these include mold and other fungal infections.

Harvesting bees basically helps in keeping a healthy bee population which is vital for the survival of the ecosystem. Harvesting of cocoons involves the process of removing and cleaning hive nests. The main cause for cocoon harvesting is pests. Pests tend to invade the cocoon compromising the bees and their vital work of pollination. Such pests include parasitic wasps which are small. They are attracted to beehives because they like to lay their eggs inside developing bee lava.

They typically attack through the walls of thin nesting tubes and will reinvigorate themselves every year. Each bee species is susceptible to a fungal infection called chalkbrood, 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 of food for bees.

Some nest holes pests include:

  • Microscopic – pollen mites
  • Multiple larvae in a chamber (also Houdini flies) which are found in most places, from Europe to America.
  • Tunneling worms and beetle which destroy the structure.
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Sometimes the beetles lay eggs in cocoons which come back to lay more eggs leaving cocoons with more beetles than bees. Beetles also drill through the walls of the cocoons and eat the bees which turns into a game of eat or be eaten.

These pests destroy, infect or overpopulate the cocoon leaving the bees either dead or homeless thus compromising the natural balance required to ensure stability of the ecosystem. Harvesting the cocoons therefore is important as you remove the cocoons when the bees are inactive and this will in turn prevent other species from nesting. One may store the material in the garage or shed until ready to harvest.

Pollination is the biggest role played by wild bees and is the most important role of any bee. This is because it facilitates in the spreading and survival of crops which we rely on for food.

Bees carry pollen from one place to another diversifying the growth of crops in different areas and ensuring they don’t go extinct. The survival of the plant eco system heavily depends on the survival of this bees and the service they provide. Wild bees however are finding it hard to survive in the world and thus it’s important we lend a hand. Being so, it is therefore necessary to ensure their survival by taking care of them during their hibernation through harvesting.

Cocoons also have several commercial uses such as manufacturing of silk. Silk is a material mostly used in the making of clothing materials. Though warms and moths have been known to be the main sources of silk, silk from bees has been found to be tougher. The cocoon has a particular structure that differentiates it with large structures of proteins as compared to spiders and moths. It is arranged in a way where the cocoon twirls with each other providing a lightweight but tough silk. The process of transforming cocoons to silk is however very delicate and long. The bad or damaged silk had to be separated from the good silk before processing and for perfect work the silk has to be handles manually by people. Silk can be used to make many products from clothing, curtains, shoes and even finishing’s on furniture. In short if you want more bees which lead to more cocoons, you will need to harvest.

Harvesting Wild Bee Cocoons

It is important to harvest wild bee cocoons. When we talk about harvesting of wild bee cocoons it does not mean honey harvesting since wild bees serve other purposes other than honey. The solitary bees are used mainly for pollination purposes, which is a more important job. In fact, wild bees are highly efficient when it comes to pollination unlike honey bees. This species of bee is easy to keep and more volatile compared to other species.

What you should expect to see in a wild bee cocoon: 

  • Wild bee cocoons or wasp cocoons.
  • Pollen loaves and bee frass.
  • Nesting chambers with protective walls.
  • Open, thick and capped ends.
  • Empty cocoons.
  • Meal moths and small beetles.

Exposed Larvae

The presence of huge or flabby larva completely occupying the nesting chamber then it could be a wild bee or valuable wasp, in need of more time to grow. If you can, close the nesting hole and store intact nesting holes in a recommended cocoon bag in your unheated garage or shed. Watch for emerged adult bees and release the rest of the intact nesting holes in your bee house.

Tools Required

  • Scissors
  • Stiff wire brush. You can also use old toothbrush.
  • Cocoon Guard Bag
  • Phillips-head screwdriver for cocoon removal. You can also use a Popsicle stick.

Setup a Workspace

 You will need a cool room for keeping the wild bees in hibernation (try opening a window) and newspaper or a pan for catching cocoons and debris. 

Gauge Stick: find out if the Natural Reeds/Bee Tubes are partially filled. You can use a thin stick or bamboo skewer to make a gauge. Measure and mark the stick in line with the length of the nesting tube. You can then insert the stick into the nesting hole.

First expectation would be the mark protruding. If that happens then there exists a filled nesting chamber within cocoon. Conversely, if that does not happen then it means the nesting hole is empty. This can be utilized the next spring and summer.

There are a couple different nesting styles and nesting materials each with a different way of harvesting. This includes;

From Bamboo

Bamboo is a giant woody grass which is mainly grown in the tropics. They are fast growing perennials with some reaching up to 30cm [1 foot]. Bees prefer to build cocoons in bamboos because of their visible size. Bamboo is largely used as nesting tubes as they are cheaper.

To harvest wild bee cocoons, one must do it when the bees are fully formed. To harvest from bamboo, you will have to use a strong sharp object to open it up by cutting in half, straight through the middle. At this point a lot of the cocoons are compromised as they might break or get damaged. Some wild bees hibernate as larvae and they need warm temperatures to develop into adult bees, this is called incubation. Each species has their own set of cues that wake them up and tell them when to emerge.

 You are gently now going to remove the cocoons and put them in a bucket or bowl of cold water where you can rinse your cocoons in. add a table spoon of bleach, [averagely per gallon per water] to have a very dilute bleach solution that takes care of any fungal diseases or anything that might have built up on your cocoon. Then lay the cocoons on a couple of paper towels or clothe where you can lay up your cocoons to dry. Use any type of storage container lined with a paper towel and drill holes in the lid to allow ventilation. You may sprinkle some water on the paper towel for slight moisturization.

However, though the bamboo is cheap an easily available, it is not the best option as it is easy for pests to move in and out as there are a lot of holes and chambers that are compromising the cocoon. The bamboo also never dries out; thus, they allow the growth of mold. It has been considered a significant cause of pollen decline. The other downside to using bamboo is that it is a strong material which makes it hard to open without using force thus hard to get the cocoons out while still intact. Thus, easer to open alternatives such as sunflower, wild rose, sumac or cup plant should be considered, just ensure you seal off one end of the reeds to avoid pests from entering. [You may use clay or mud which is a natural substance that works as a suitable tube sealant.].
From Natural Reeds

The female bee will choose a reed and lays eggs in each. Each reed comes with a sealed end mostly with mud.  Natural reeds are most preferable for bee cocoons as they can be easily sealed and are easier to open, clean and remove contents with little or no problem. To harvest you will need to crack and open up the reed, if you find this a little bit tough you can employ the use of a knife but while taking extra care or you may use cocoon comb to open them up, this is safer. Remove all the cocoons and place them in a basin or bucket.

 Now place the cocoons in a bowl or dish with cool water, clean them. The cocoons are now dried and may be kept overnight in a fanned room to ensure that they are completely free of moisture. Once dried, they can be taken to the work station to be checked. Any cocoon that allows light to pass through does not contain a viable bee. The bees can then be kept in winter storage where humidity levels are measured to ensure the cocoon don’t mold or dry out. This bee will remain dormant until they are sent out back to farms where the cycle continues. Remember to use containers with a layer of two or three cocoons thick. More than that can result in excess mound growth in the container.

From Cardboard

Cardboards are the easiest to use as one simply finds the edge where it starts like on a paper towel and then use your nail to peal it back or thumb to roll it slowly open, you can also use a nail clipper to get things going. The cocoons will fall off. Ensure you place a paper towel underneath to catch the cocoons. The process to clean and store is basically the same.

Basically, the cleaning clean method of the cocoons is similar though out. Pests, parasites and fungi are the main thing you need to look out for to prevent any future problems. For those who would care to start wild bee cocoon harvesting, you might want to consider the most cost-effective method for you to prevent major losses. One may also consider the easiest and time effective method to prevent wastage and tiresome work.

Ensure that the water is cold. Bleach the water with a bleaching agent. Place the cocoons inside and ensure they are completely immersed in the water. Clean thoroughly, you may even gently use a hose to ensure it is spotless, but not for too long so as not to compromise the cocoon. Lay the cocoons on a clean surface and dry them under a light or outside. Once completely dry, you may put them in a ventilated container and store them in a cool dry place.

The female cocoons are normally at the back of the tube while the male cocoons are at the front. This is simply because the males are more expendable in the bee world. Males are also the first one to immerge in the spring, so they can locate females as soon as they immerge. If there’s a hole in a cocoon, it is probably from a predatory insect like a wasp. There are some wasps, beetles and other critters that use the safety of the nests to raise their own young. This results to pole mites and chalkboards which kill the bees. If you find this issue you want to make sure you remove the affected cocoons and thoroughly clean the surviving once. Cardboards are also not that environmentally reasonable as they get wet easily and thus need an external covering.

 Adding bleach is not compulsory but is advisable. One may simply use lukewarm water. If you use bleach, you may also need to rinse with clear water.
From Wood Trays

For a seasoned wooden tray, you’ll find its old, dirty but nice smelling and this how you know that it is ripe for harvesting. Wood trays are best for a bulk load of bees as it can carry a lot of cocoons. They are also more preferred as one can re-use them as thus cost effective.

Wooden trays or as others call them, nesting trays are made by drilling holes into wooden blocks. They are also considered pretty easy as they are mostly held together by rubber bands then played open and then one can simply scrape the cocoons onto a cloth or paper towel using a cocoon comb and brush. One may also use a screw driver to slowly push the cocoons on to the paper. Remember to isolate chalkboards and any other pest infested tray for proper care. Also check for pollen mites, they are yellow in color and simply eat all the pollen starving bees. Tunneling warms are also a huge problem which has to be noted and dealt with.

 Clean out the excessive debris and hand pick all dirt or spilt cocoons. Separate out all the cocoons that did not mature correctly or disease looking cocoons. The cocoons may be covered by some sort of brown, cylinder like debris which are perfectly normal and nothing to be worried about. Be sure to remove any cocoon with pin holes or chewing of any fungi to prevent spreading of any diseases or pests.

Soak the cocoons in bleach water and clean thoroughly. Remove the cocoons and rinse them to remove any residual bleach. Allow the cocoons to air dry and then later store them in a cool dry place as it waits for summer season. You may also want to wash the trays as they may also be reused. While bees are in cocoons, they survive on stored fats which they metabolize throughout the winter.

A Final Word

Naturally occurring nesting holes are spread across the landscape. However, man-made ones tend to be close together, thus facilitating an easy transmission of pests and diseases. Harvesting of cocoons and avail fresh nesting holes every season will reduce the spread of pests and diseases. If this is not done, parasites and diseases will kill your bees. Diseases and pollen mites are normally transmitted when healthy move from infected nesting chambers to healthy ones. This can be avoided by harvesting the bee cocoons during spring and providing fresh and clean nesting holes every season. Harvesting wild bee cocoons is easy, quick, and allows you to: Ensure the health of your wild bee cocoons, take inventory / count of your bee population, get yourself well acquainted with your local native bees and their impact in your life so as to better appreciate their value, and share extra bee cocoons with local friends and neighbors. In the US and in the world at large, measures are being taken to ensure the survival of the wild bee and others of its kind. Wild bees have been playing a big role in the facilitating of farming and diversification of plants through the spreading of pollen and this makes them one of the most important species alive. Without this bee most plants, flowers and crops would go extinct or be isolated.  Furthermore, the luxury of diversity in plants would also be lost indefinitely. Various research conducted show that the number of wild bees had been significantly reducing leading to a dangerous shortage of bees in the system. This is therefore leading to a slow but growing state of imbalance. To avoid this and promote sustainable growth, people, groups and organizations have taken up the role of cocoon harvesting and care to ensure that these important insects make it through their hibernation and into the coming seasons.

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