Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Other Bees

     I have some involvement with bees other than honey bees.  Every spring I set out a lot of mason bee cocoons at our house. I also sell a fair amount of mason bee housing, cocoons, and educational materials at the Beez Neez.  I am particularly fond of the mason bees because they contribute significantly to the fact that I get some sweet cherries almost every year.  The mason bees will work under cooler and wetter conditions than honeybees. Often what passes for spring in western Washington isn't dry enough or warm enough for the honeybees to be reliable early spring pollinators. Before I had mason bees my sweet cherries only set fruit about every third year, even with twelve beehives in my back yard.  Now the trees at least set fruit every year. That doesn't mean I get cherries every year. I still have to worry about late rains that cause the cherries to crack and ruins the crop. At least I feel like I am in the game every year and have the hope of sweet cherries. I have five different varieties of sweet cherries.  Some bloom early while others are later. That variation in the bloom time reduces the risk of rain preventing pollination and also reduces the risk that rain will cause all of my cherries to split. I usually end up with some sweet cherries from at least one of my trees.
Mason bee cocoons are placed on top of the nest blocks in the Spring

A mason bee waits inside her nest hole until things warm up

    I also occasionally deal with bumble bees. I received a call from a day care a few days ago in which they pleaded with me to remove a nest of bumble bees from their back yard. The bees had set up a nest in a bird house on top of an old rabbit hutch.  I explained to the day care owner that there really was no significant risk of anyone being stung by bumble bees, especially from a nest that was several feet above the children's heads.  It was purely a matter of perceived legal liability in our sue happy society.  I agreed to remove the nest for a fee and drove down to Bothell early the next morning to do the deed.

    Bumble bee colonies don't persist through the winter like a honeybee colony. They disperse newly mated bumble bee queens in the fall who all look for a place to hibernate during the winter.  All of the queens who survive the winter will then try to start up their own colony the following spring. They don't reuse old nest sites, but always look for a new location.  Finding a new nest site is a necessity because bumble bees are not as neat and tidy as their honeybee cousins. The old nests are basically trash heaps.  The inside of a bumble bee nest looks like someone took a bunch of little wax pots, shook them up in a jar and then dumped them out into a little pile. Honeybees would never tolerate that sort of careless disorder. Bumble bees often nest in old bird houses, a space much too small for a honeybee colony. Whenever a caller tells me they have bees in a birdhouse I know right away that they aren't honeybees.

     My little bumble bee removal project turned out to be much more complicated than I had expected. It wasn't a small little bird house. It was more like a bird house condo with four separate next boxes under one roof.   I had only brought one piece of small mesh hardware cloth the screen off the entrance. As soon as I applied that to the hole which obviously had a nest, I had bees coming out of the other two nest holes. I knew they were separate nests because there were two different species of bumble bees coming out of the other two holes.  I didn't want to leave a large number of homeless bumble bees at the day care so I decided to make another attempt later that evening.

    I came back to the day care at about 11:00 p.m. with a much larger piece of hardware cloth.  I screened in all four entrances at once and slipped a mesh bag over the entire bird house.  I carefully pried the bird house loose from its moorings atop of the old rabbit hutch. My main worry was about the structural integrity of the bird house. I then put it in the back of my truck and drove home.  When I got home I moved the bird house to it new location atop an old hemlock stump in our orchard. I waited until the next morning to remove the mesh  bag and the screen so the bees would have settled down from all of the vibration from their 12 mile trip.   So far it looks like the relocation is at least a partial success. There are still bumble bees coming and going from at least two of the three nest holes.

My new bumble bee condominium

   I should probably do a garden update.  It looks like we have had pretty good fruit set in spite of our wet spring weather. Hip hip hooray for the mason bees.  I have four sweet cherry trees that have set a good crop. My little asian pear tree has set a lot of fruit and we are going to have a bumper crop of plums. I have three different varieties grafted onto my plum tree as a hedge against our wet spring weather.   The Shiro blooms first. Obilnaya starts to bloom before the Shiro is finished, and Santa Rosa starts to bloom before Obilnaya is done.  It takes the plum tree about three weeks to finish blooming which gives me a much bigger window when I might get warmer drier weather for the blossoms to be pollinated. It is too early to tell for the apple trees but I expect a good fruit set based on the weather we've had the last week or so.

     On the vegetable front, I am running very late on putting in my garden this year.  So far, the only vegetables in the ground are some red onions I planted about two months ago and the tomatoes I transplanted this morning.  The tomato starts were a gift from a good bee store friend.  I'm planning on some time off over the next two weeks so I can focus on the vegetable garden.  I'm scheduled to pick up a load of horse manure later this week from another good bee store friend.


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