Red Mason Bees are terribly inefficient pollen gatherers. They store the pollen on their bellies, rather than in leg sacs like Honey Bees, and the pollen keeps on falling off. However, this does mean that they are really good pollinators.
Last year we bought this wild bee observation box from Nurturing Nature. Its a wooden structure with perspex panel down one side so that you can take the side of the box off and have a look at whats going on inside. Above is one side of the box and here is the other side:
Each of these mud compartments contain a mound of pollen and an egg. Once the Mason Bees have finished nesting in a month or so, we will be taking the box into a shed and tying it in a pair of old tights to keep it safe from parasitic wasps. Over the summer, the eggs will hatch, the larvae will live off the pollen mound and then form a cocoon, still within the mud compartment. This is how it overwinters (the adult bee is already inside the cocoon). By October, the cocoon is quite hard and able to be handled, which is the time we will be dismantling the box and extracting all the cocoons and keeping them in a specially dry box in the fridge for the winter. Then, from late March onwards next year, we will put little batches of a mixture of female and the smaller male cocoons into the release chamber at the bottom of the box for them to hatch and fly away and the cycle to start again.
Here is the box with a number of the tunnels already filled and capped off with mud:
The mud cap on one of the tunnels on the right is still wet – it is just being finished off right now:
And here she is, back with another load of mud:
Here is a Red Mason Bee (Osmia bicornis) female:
And here is the smaller male, only 2/3 of the size – there are several of these buzzing around the box as well:
These are the UK’s most common mason bee and, because of their efficient pollination skills, they are supplied commercially to orchards etc to help with productivity. As well as using the box above, we are part of a bee guardianship scheme – Mason Bees UK – where they supplied us with 25 Red Mason Bee cocoons in the early spring, along with a release box and some tubes for them to nest in. The idea here is that we send the completed tubes back to them and they clean the cocoons out – of which there are hopefully more than the original 25 – and store them overwinter and supply us with 25 more cocoons next Spring. We are effectively farming the bees for them and they build up a reservoir of bee cocoons, some of which they sell to farmers but also a way of species conservation.
The bees don’t seem to be liking the tubes that we have got out for this Mason Bee UK guardianship so much:
But two tunnels are already filled and several more are currently being worked on and so it should be alright and we will be able to send back more than we started with for sure.
Anyway, its all great fun, this wild bee farming. No sooner do the Mason Bees stop flying, then it is the time of the Leaf Cutter Bees who also use these boxes and tubes – but that will be the subject of a later post.