Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Native Bee Boxes

With the arrival of intermittent spring weather, I've been very busy lately.  The outdoor projects have begun in earnest and my hands and forearms are feeling the strain of that work.  Typing doesn't help much.  So excuse the recent lack of posting. 

But here's something I wanted to write about: nest boxes for native bees.  My husband made one of these a few years ago and put it up on our shed.  We've already observed that the sealing walls constructed by mason bees last year have been dismantled, and a new generation of bees is checking out the nest holes for deposits of eggs.  So early in the year!  It seems there's so little in bloom yet for them to feed on, but the warmth has them up and about.  The nest box consists of a block of wood with deeply drilled holes in various sizes.  They serve as shelter for the eggs of several kinds of bee.

We have a huge three-bay garage that came with the house.  Its footprint is larger than the house itself.  It's great for storing all kinds of stuff pulled out of dumpsters and projects in progress, which means it gets packed to the point of becoming unnavigable.  On rainy days I've been working to triage some of the ungodly mess that has piled up in there over the last six months.  I found a short length of 4x4 post and decided to turn it into more nest boxes for native bees.  Small pieces of scrap wood furnished roofs to keep off the worst of the rain.  These will be mounted on the scaffolding for our solar array.  I'm sure they will soon be fully occupied.

Our foray into keeping honey bees last year resulted in unmitigated failure.  Our longest surviving colony didn't make it through the winter.  We're going to try again this year, and we hope that we'll have more success with some hard lessons under our belts.  Seeing the help our efforts provide to native bees offers some consolation. These bees are under the same environmental stresses as honey bees.  The human race cannot afford to lose the free services of pollinator insect species, and bees are preeminent in this work.  As it turns out, some of our native bees are even more effective pollinators than honey bees.  Keeping honey bees requires a significant commitment of time, labor and monetary outlay.  It took me all of two hours to build these two native bee nest boxes at almost no expense whatsoever.  I paid for four screws, a tiny bit of silicone sealer (leftover from energy efficiency improvements for our home) and the electricity to run a power drill.  My work for the native bees ends the moment these bee boxes are mounted. 

I mentioned recently how last year there was a sense of my garden and homestead finally beginning to come together.  If anything, that feeling is increasing this year.  When we bought this house the backyard was a monoculture of open lawn, with a border of conventional, uninspired landscaping.  Now it's stocked with dozens and dozens of perennial plants, and we grow a wide variety of annual vegetables there every year, both of which supply food and habitat for numerous insects, which in turn provide food to birds and other wildlife.  That's biodiversity that simply wasn't there before.  Putting up these boxes for the bees is another effort towards that cause.  It's the inter-species connections on this tiny piece of land that are going to make what we do here sustainable over the long term.  I'm convinced that every additional species I can encourage is a strength for my homestead.  I don't even know exactly what these native bees are doing here.  I'm sure they venture off my property as much as they conduct their business on it.  But they are a knot in the living tapestry I am making of this place.  I want them here.  With some scrap materials and a couple hours of labor it's easy enough for me to make this place attractive to them for decades to come. 

One way of looking at this is as a token gesture of atonement for the environmental damage my actions have caused, and continue to cause; a tiny way to give back to the world that supports me.  Seen another way, it's self interest.  Monocultures are fragile things.  By encouraging as much biodiversity as possible, I get more resilience, healthier soil, lower pest pressures, better pollination of our fruits and vegetables, and less work for me.  That's what I'm talking about when I say things are coming together.

If you're interested in helping populations of native bees, you could build your own bee boxes.  You could even salvage the materials from a dumpster on a construction site, thus diverting useful stuff from a landfill and saving yourself some money.  For guidance on this simple project, check out this fact sheet (pdf) from the Xerces Society, a wildlife conservation organization.  On their website you can also find lists (tailored to each region of the US) of beneficial plants to for native bees, including many edible plants.


darius said...

Good for you! I meant to build one last year and never got around to it. Now it goes on my 'List' again.

Unknown said...

We don't keep bees here but have a small strip of agricultural land at the back of our cottage which is covered in red clover, daisys and dandelions which the honey bees love! They have just woken up here in England and it's lovely seeing them buzzing about.

Keep up the excelelnt posts! I hope your arm stops aching soon.

Sft x

String Theory said...

We just made a bee home from a piece of scrap wood and I have planted some "pollinator blend " wild flower seeds near to it. I dont see anyone checking it out yet, but am hopeful that we can help some insects find a safe home.

Paula said...

I've noticed greater diversity in our backyard since turning most of the lawn over to food crops. Lots more birds, that's for sure. My neighbor has the Mason bee box, and he said that he was told Mason bees venture only three hundred feet.

I'm trying honey bees for the first time this year. Hope they do well.

Anonymous said...

A very timely post! A friend made a similar bee nest box for us for Christmas out of some old timbers found on his property. I saw honeybees on my crocus on Sunday, so it's time to put my nest box out, I reckon!

Kate said...

Darius, I think you'll find it a satisfying project. Doesn't take too long and lasts for many, many years.

SFT, those are great plants for bees. Thanks for providing for them, and thanks for the good wishes for my arm.

Queen, I'm sure the insects and bees in particular will take you up on your generosity. Enjoy their visits.

Paula, same here. There's just a lot more going on in the back yard than there ever was before. Thanks for the info on mason bees - good to know. And good luck with your honey bees.

Ali, I never thought to give one of these nest boxes as a Christmas gift. But I'll keep that in mind for any other suitable wood that I come across. We know several people who would appreciate such a gift. But on the other hand, I could also see myself being greedy enough to just add several more boxes for ourselves.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

"A knot in the living tapestry I am making of my homestead." I like it. A lot.

timfromohio said...

This is a great project to do with my boys - maybe we'll deliberately drill differently sized holes and see if we can figure out who decides to live in what size hole ...

Thanks for the link!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I love that you have such a close connection to your insects. I think that's a very high-minded approach, to make up for honeybee losses with native bee housing, when there's nothing in it for you except maybe pollination and biodiversity. I still haven't quite rid myself of the insect-as-pest mentality. But I'm working on it.

Kate said...

My hubby is franticly finishing top bars right now as our girls arrive in a few hours. Always so fun to read when the blogs I follow are on the same page as me. I am guessing we may be doomed to the same hive failure due to lack of adequae prep.

ccm989 said...

I am not ready to take on honeybees -- not with a gang of young children (my 10 year old and his buddies are always in the garden) so I don't want a colony of 50,000 bees where the kids can accidentally tip over the hive box. So I made a couple of those Mason Orchard bee houses too. I bought one last year and it was occupied pretty quickly. The plum tree near the veggie garden is in full bloom so I hung the two new houses nearby in the sun. Hopefully the new houses will get filled up too!

Kate said...

Tovar, thanks. I'm not much for poetry, but every so often something vaguely poetic pops up in my writing.

Tim, sounds like a good project to do with your kids. Check the fact sheet. It'll guide you wrt depth, diameter and spacing of holes.

Tamar, it took me a while too, but I've finally come to believe that most insect species in the garden are allies rather than pests. The catch is that predators must always be outnumbered by their prey, otherwise they'd starve. So it takes a while to build up the numbers of those predator allies. But it does happen.

Kate, same page, same name! Be of good courage with your honey bees. You may do much better than we did. Good luck!

ccm989, good for you. Native bees are certainly a great thing to have, with or without a honey bee hive. I'm going to check today to see whether the bees have found our new boxes yet. I'm guessing it won't take long.

Chris said...

You may want to google and read what they have to say about using wooden nest boxes under FAQ. They are not recommending them anymore as they quickly become bee cemetaries. They have switched over to the straw method. Anyway, it's just FYI!

Unknown said...

Seconding what Chris says - just drill the holes a tiny bit bigger and insert a rolled up bit of parchment paper. Then you can extract the cocoons and get rid of mites, chalk brood, etc.

Here's a great video how-to:

Hazel said...

They look great Kate.

DS really wants an insect hotel like this one as we saw a similar one at Garden Organic (used to be HDRA). we don't quite have the space for that(!), so we've got clay pipes to stuff with old bamboo canes. We also get hibernating ladybirds and lacewings that like them, so it'll be interesting to see what we get.

The crownbee site is very interesting, but I really can't commit to harvesting mason bees! I have enough trouble keeping up with the rest of the menagerie!

Kate said...

Chris and megahurtz, thanks for the input and reference. Our older box and the logs the bees like have yet to become bee cemeteries after three years of use, but I will be on the lookout for any problems.

Hazel, thanks. We tried the bamboo canes, but the insects around us didn't seem to go for them, or perhaps we put them out too late. I should try again sometime to see if we get better results. I like our bee boxes precisely because they don't add any more critters to keep up with. They go their own way pretty much.