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Old 05-04-2013, 02:31 PM   #1
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Default Lazy ways for native bees?

I really want to do what I can to support native bee populations and to offer native bee nesting blocks, but. . . I know it's unrealistic to think I'm actually going to crack open all those little straws and rinse the egg cases, etc.

So I'm looking for suggestions on how to manage nesting blocks, and how to plant natives that support native bee populations in a way that's compatible with my free time and energy!

I have lots of native flowers and shrubs (they love the amelanchier and viburnum) planted and I leave my dead stems, grasses, etc. all winter, not clearing them until the spring. What else could I be doing?
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Old 05-05-2013, 02:06 AM   #2
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Interesting that you should ask, I've been thinking about that very idea! I do give presentations on mason bees and up until this spring I covered most of the usual recommendations found in research papers and mason bee books.

But it occurred to me this winter that there are probably a lot of gardeners and environmentally oriented people that would like to help the native bees but are just not going to pursue it to the point of cleaning and storing cocoons. So now I recommend two different approaches based on the level of involvement that the person wants.

You can do a search on mason bees here on WG and find lots of info on the more detailed approach designed to maximize the female to male ratio and the total number of bees (6 inch deep nesting holes, using trays, reeds and straws, cleaning cocoons, etc.). There are also links to good books on this method. I've started calling this approach the 'managed' method.

I've decided to call the easier approach the 'natural' method. For this method I recommend 3-1/2 inch deep holes drilled into wood blocks. Drilled blocks have a lot of disadvantages when using the managed approach, but for the natural approach they work just fine.

The core of the natural method is putting out new nesting holes each year. The procedure would go like this:
Year 1 - put out new nesting holes (block 1)
year 2 - put out new nesting holes (block 2)
Year 3 - put out new nesting holes (block 3) and discard block 1
Year 4 - put out new nesting holes (block 4) and discard block 2
Year 5 - put out new nesting holes (block 5) and discard block 3
Etc.
(nesting blocks are left up for 2 years because some of the bee species that may use them have a 2 year life cycle. Blocks are discarded after 2 years to avoid a build up of diseases and pests)

Now you will probably want to help more than just mason bees. To do that all you have to do is use several different size holes. A good combination would be 1/8th, 3/16th, 1/4 and 5/16 inch diameter holes.

Brad point drill bits make cleaner holes than regular drill bits; the bees are more inclined to use cleaner holes. You can get a set of appropriate sized brad point drill bits in any good hardware store or online. Here's one example:
DEWALT DW1720 Brad Point Bit Set, 6-Piece - Amazon.com

An easy way to create the nest blocks is with a piece of standard 4x4 post. The actual dimensions of a 4x4 is 3-1/2 inches by 3-1/2 inches. Don't use treated 4x4's. 4x4's are available at any lumber supply store and most of the big home stores like Home Depot, Menards, etc. You'll also need a 1x4 which actually measures 3/4 inch by 3-1/2 inches.

Simply drill the holes into the 4x4 (across the grain). If the drill bits are long enough, drill all the way through. Attach a piece of 1x4 to close off one end of the holes in the 4x4.

If you have dead trees or stumps or dead branches you could just drill holes there each year.

I'll add more in another post; It's been a long day.
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Old 05-05-2013, 07:58 AM   #3
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Wow! Ask and you shall receive! I just love the varied interests and knowledge of our membership.

I have seen the bee nesting blocks--as well as gathered hollow stems used for such purposes, but I had no idea of the maintenance required (suggested). I highly doubt that, should I start creating nesting sites, that I'd be inclined to rinse egg cases and such. My theory would be that these bees got along fine without human intervention before, so I'd rather provide what they would use in nature. I now understand the need to prevent a buildup of diseases and pests--I do disinfect my bluebird nest boxes.

The only thing I did (if you can call it that) this spring, was to add some hollow stemmed plants to my brush pile. Being that I've not read up on this topic, I have no idea if that even helps...but I have to wonder, if one uses naturally hollow stemmed plants, would they not breakdown and decay by the third year? Could this be the ultimate solution to a "lazy gardener"?
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Old 05-05-2013, 09:14 AM   #4
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Perfect!

Exactly what I was looking for--I can even have one of the kids wood-burn a date/year onto the blocks as a reminder of when to take them down.

All your suggestions re. brad point drill bits, across the grain, etc. are very much appreciated. Thank you so much!

Any natural indicators (i.e. 'when the redbud blooms') of when to put up new blocks or discard old ones?
Should I put them in an outbuilding to overwinter?
I remember reading long ago that the bees prefer a darker front on a block and some people singe or char the front--is that a good idea?
Will check old threads to see what I can turn up. . .

It's a perfect kid-project, too--thank you again!
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Old 05-05-2013, 06:51 PM   #5
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Let me say thanks to everyone for the tips too. I'd never have thought the bees were worried about splinters but I can see where it would tear wings.

Makes sense to char the wood too; That would certainly discourage any gnawing insects.
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Old 05-06-2013, 12:44 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Teresa View Post
...
So I'm looking for suggestions on how to manage nesting blocks, and how to plant natives that support native bee populations in a way that's compatible with my free time and energy!

I have lots of native flowers and shrubs (they love the amelanchier and viburnum) planted and I leave my dead stems, grasses, etc. all winter, not clearing them until the spring. What else could I be doing?
Native shrubs and trees are very good pollen and nectar sources, especially early in the season. People often overlook these, but trees and shrubs have flowers too.

The goal is to have some plants flowering from spring to fall, a continuous bloom. So one thing to look for is gaps in that progression of blooms. When you see a gap scout around to find out what is blooming and add some of those native plants to your yard.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Dapjwy;
The only thing I did (if you can call it that) this spring, was to add some hollow stemmed plants to my brush pile. Being that I've not read up on this topic, I have no idea if that even helps...but I have to wonder, if one uses naturally hollow stemmed plants, would they not breakdown and decay by the third year? Could this be the ultimate solution to a "lazy gardener"?
Adding hollow stemmed plants to a brush pile sounds like a very good idea. And yes, I would say that definitely is a candidate for 'lazy bee gardener of the year'.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Teresa;
...
Any natural indicators (i.e. 'when the redbud blooms') of when to put up new blocks or discard old ones?
Should I put them in an outbuilding to overwinter?
I remember reading long ago that the bees prefer a darker front on a block and some people singe or char the front--is that a good idea? ...
I did read one study where the emergence of mason bees and redbud flowers occurred about the same time each year; I think that was in Virginia. But you don't have to wait until the bees emerge to put up nesting blocks. It's easier to just put them up very early in the spring, or even late winter; that way you don't have to worry about the bees emerging before you have the nests put up. You can take down the 2+ year old blocks at the same time you put up the new ones.

For the natural method you can leave the blocks wherever you put them up. The only concern would be critter damage (especially woodpeckers). You can solve that by protecting the blocks with chicken wire or screen; or you could move them to an unheated garage or some unheated outbuilding where the critters couldn't get to them.

They do like a darker area for nesting. Darkening the front of the nest will help, but do this well in advance so that all traces of odor are gone by the time the bees will use it. I think charring or painting would work equally well.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Sprucetree;
...
I'd never have thought the bees were worried about splinters but I can see where it would tear wings. ...
Yes, at first thought that would seem like a small thing. One trick that is used to get very smooth surfaces on wood is to use a damp cloth on the sanded surface. That little bit of moisture will cause all the compressed tiny slivers to stand up. Then they use steel wool to remove all those tiny slivers.

When you place a nesting block outside just the evening moisture can cause any slivers in the drilled hole to expand into the open area. Little slivers for bees would be like crawling through a tunnel of spears for us humans. A regular drill bit does a lot of compressing of fibers along the inside surface of the hole. A brad point drill bit has a sharp cutting edge that keeps compressed fibers to a minimum, especially when you drill across the grain.

--------

About 30% of our native bees nest above ground in beetle holes, hollow stems, etc. The remaining 70% are ground nesters. The vast majority of ground nesters are like mason bees in that each bee makes its own individual hole. And like the solitary mason bees the solitary ground nesters very rarely sting. The ones you have to be cautious about are the social ground nesting bees. The social ground nesting bees are the ones where all the bees use the same hole. These bees have got 'all their eggs in one basket', so they are inclined to defend their nest.

To help the ground nesting bees it's a good idea to leave some bare ground in your yard. They usually won't nest where there's thick vegetation. Thick mulch also discourages them. If you are lucky enough to get some solitary ground nesting bees mark it in some manner so that you don't disturb that ground until they have completed their life cycle. Do take a little time to enjoy them. It's fun to watch them popping in and out of their holes. And of course, ground nesting bees will also benefit from a continuous bloom of flowers.

All types of bees will benefit from the reduction or elimination of the use of pesticides.

I've attached a couple of samples of how a drilled block nest might look. I leave extra wood on the sides, or on the top and bottom, so that I have tabs I can use to fasten the block to some structure. I also put a little roof on each block to keep the rain and snow off of the nesting area. The surfaces of these nests should be darkened to improve the acceptability by the bees.
Attached Thumbnails
Lazy ways for native bees?-tabs_horizontal_nest.jpg   Lazy ways for native bees?-tabs_vertical_nest.jpg  
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Old 05-06-2013, 09:26 AM   #7
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An easy thing I did this spring was to find a stand of invasive bamboo in a park by my house and cut stem pieces for bee nests. I cut just below one node and right above the next node to create a tube that is open on one side and closed on the other. I bundled 4-6 of these together with twine and shoved them in gaps in my woodpile and fence. Within 24 hours they were occupied.
The houses were free, and I was cutting down invasives at the same time!
I'll need to remember to rotate them out in two years, though.
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Old 05-06-2013, 04:23 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by NEWisc View Post
Adding hollow stemmed plants to a brush pile sounds like a very good idea. And yes, I would say that definitely is a candidate for 'lazy bee gardener of the year'.
Should I be honored or insulted?
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Old 05-06-2013, 06:44 PM   #9
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Hey, dap, I join that group of "lazy bee gardeners of the year" proudly! I kind of believe in letting nature do the work where possible and drilling holes isn't my thing, so I pile all of my cut perennial stems on my brush piles, leave a lot of standing dead wood, and have open ground for the ground nesters. I must be doing something right since I have many different species of native bees. I might have larger numbers if I put up the blocks, but I want a sustainable ecosystem that doesn't require me to remember to do things, as much as I can, since I am not very good at remembering projects.

I like the idea of cutting bamboo and leaving the stems for bee habitat. Kill two birds with one stone! Except we don't kill birds around here...there must be a better metaphor but I can't think of one now.
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Old 05-06-2013, 06:56 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by turttle View Post
Hey, dap, I join that group of "lazy bee gardeners of the year" proudly! I kind of believe in letting nature do the work where possible and drilling holes isn't my thing, so I pile all of my cut perennial stems on my brush piles, leave a lot of standing dead wood, and have open ground for the ground nesters. I must be doing something right since I have many different species of native bees. I might have larger numbers if I put up the blocks, but I want a sustainable ecosystem that doesn't require me to remember to do things, as much as I can, since I am not very good at remembering projects.
I like how you think, turttle...and I like the idea of self-sustaining habitat, too.

Quote:
Originally Posted by turttle View Post
...Except we don't kill birds around here...there must be a better metaphor but I can't think of one now.
LOL.
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