Archive for the ‘bees’ Category

The lone mason bee I saw last week.

Last year I started raising orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria), which are cute little solitary bees that live in holes in masonry or wood, or in the case of my bees, in paper straws made specially for them. At least, in theory mine live in straws.

Keeping mason bees is a much simpler affair than keeping honey bees. Mostly it’s just providing nesting space (straws or reeds), mud (they use it as dividers between eggs), and pollen during their active period, which is in the spring. After they’ve laid all their eggs or their wings are too tattered to fly, which is around when most fruit trees stop flowering, the adults die, and you put the straws which are now full of  eggs and larva somewhere warm and protected from birds, beetles, and mice. Then in the fall, you pop the straws in a refrigerator until a few weeks before the fruit trees begin to bloom in the spring. In the fall, you’d generally also want to open up some of the straws and check for pests, which only takes a few minutes.

Since last year was my first year raising mason bees, I slightly screwed up this process, and when I put the straws inside in mid-summer, I put them in the basement, but I should have put them somewhere warmer. This Spring, I put some of the tubes out in March, and some in April. Until today, I though I may have killed them all, because I had only seen a single bee hanging out around the bee house, and I should have at least 60 cocoons. Usually in the spring, the males emerge first, and hang around the nesting holes until the females emerge, so they can mate with them. Then the females go out and gather pollen and mud, lay eggs on top of piles of pollen, and seal off the eggs with a wall of mud, and then repeat the process until they die a month or two later.

Because I thought I had killed off all my orchard mason bees, and it’s too late to order more this year, I decided to try summer mason bees, Osmia californica. Californica bees are very similar to orchard mason bees, except they emerge later in the year, they use chewed up leaves instead of mud to separate their eggs, and they prefer aster-type flowers. I got my little carton of 20 californica bee cocoons in the mail today from Crown Bees, and I was surprised when I opened it that it smelled distinctly like flowers.

Osmia californica, with my index fingertip for scale.

There was also one little bee that had emerged from his cocoon during shipping that was crawling around in the box, so I carefully slotted the carton into the mason bee house I made last year, and got to watch him crawl out to the roof of the house to sun himself. I started taking photos of him crawling around covered in the pollen that had rubbed off on him as he made his way through the other cocoons, and it didn’t take long to notice that there were some orchard mason bees also flying around near me. I couldn’t figure out why they seemed to be bouncing off the wall next to the bee house, instead of flying into it, so I stood back a few feet in case I was in the way. This is when I realized that they weren’t accidentally missing the bee house- they’re heading for old nail holes in the wall instead. It makes me wonder if the others are either just late to emerge, or are perhaps nesting in my wooden shingles. I’m not sure why they’re shunning my paper tubes, but I’m glad to know they’re not all dead.

This little orchard mason bee is hanging out in old nail holes instead of in the paper straws in the mason bee house. This one looks like like a male to me, so he’s just hanging out, but if I’m wrong and it’s a female, it may be depositing pollen and laying eggs in that hole.


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Home-grown Apricots in Seattle

I have dreams of wandering outside and plucking apricots off a tree in my own backyard. Yup, in Seattle.

There are plenty of fruit trees in Seattle- mostly apples, cherries, and plums, along with the occasional pear or fig tree. I haven’t seen an apricot tree in Seattle before, but I’m told it can be done, so I’m going plant one. Apricot trees like dry springs, which of couse Seattle doesn’t have, so there’s certainly a risk that the tree won’t produce fruit, or will outright die. 4-6′ trees only cost about $25, though, and young trees don’t really take up much space, so I figure it’s worth the price for the fun of the experiment.

I’m not going to plant just any apricot tree- like most plants, there are varieties that have been bred to survive and thrive in a range of conditions. The main attributes I’m looking at are the size of the tree and the ability to handle some soggy seasons. If I lived on the East side of the state, I’d also be looking at cold tolerance, and whether the trees are likely to bloom before the last frost (not a good thing). I’ve seen conflicting advice on which varieties produce best in the maritime Northwest, but in the end I’m trusting the folks at Raintree Nursery, because they have plenty of experience dealing with us west-siders.

Puget Gold Apricot

The variety I’ve chosen is called Puget Gold, which is the result of efforts by local breeders. It’s reported to set fruit fine despite our non-ideal springs, has a mature height around 15′, and is self-fertile. Being self-fertile means that it doesn’t need another apricot tree of a different variety nearby, to provide pollen, as many fruit trees do. Having a tree pollinate itself or another of the same variety (they’re produced asexually, which means that every tree of the same variety is genetically identical), leads to inbreeding, so some fruit trees have mechanisms to prevent self-fertilization. I’m not concerned about inbreeding, though, because the pits from my apricots aren’t going to be planted. Self-fertile trees sometimes still produce more fruit with another variety nearby, but I’ll see how my experiment goes before investing more time and space into apricot trees.

Most backyard fruit trees are grafted onto rootstocks. The “tree” part is called the scion, and the root part is the rootstock. One of the most obvious influences of the rootstock is the size of the tree, and how quickly it grows. Rootstocks can have a dwarfing effect, and are often categorized as standard, semi-dwarf, or dwarf. (Standard is the biggest). Rootstocks vary in their tolerance to cold and wet soils, and their resistance to soil pests such as nematodes. My apricot tree will be on a Lovell rootstock, which can also be used for other fruits such as peaches, plums, or almonds.

My first steps to maximize my chances of a healthy tree are to buy from a reputable nursery and properly pick a site and prepare it for planting. I’m counting on the nursery to provide me with a disease-free tree that’s been properly pruned for the last few years. Although I curse the slope of our property when I’m planning a fence or patio (or want to drive somewhere in a snow storm), it does provide excellent drainage, which is good for tree roots. I’m going to remove some arborvitae, to give the site more sun, and also because my arborvitae look uglier every year. If I didn’t already have orchard mason bees to provide pollination services, now would be a good time to order some, but I started raising them last spring, so I’m all set on that front.

Has anyone grown apricots (or peaches) in the maritime Northwest? I’d love to hear both success and failure stories.

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The bees are free

I had been waiting to take my tubes of mason bees out of the cheese drawer in the fridge and put them into the garden until I had enough pollen to feed them, and that day has arrived. One of my viburnums has been providing me with clusters of white flowers all winter, but one shrub isn’t enough of a feast for the approximately 40 mason bees my garden will be hosting. Also, since this is my first year keeping mason bees, I’m not even sure if they’ll like the viburnum flowers. This weekend I noticed that the creeping myrtle (Vinca minor) and blue bells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) have bloomed, and if the bees are willing to venture across the street, there are plum trees and forsythias in full bloom.

I opted to make my own bee house, and because I’m still a beginning wordworker, I made a 3-D model of it first in Sketchup, Google’s 3-D drawing program. Sketchup is a fun program for planning out woodworking projects, once you get past the learning curve of how different it feels than most 2-D drawing software, or even other CAD software. I’m having doubts that it’s a good overall garden planning tool, but I’ll save that discussion for another post. If you’re interested in making a similar bee house (or it could also easily be converted to a bird house), it would be possible to make a very similar one with only a miter saw, or maybe even a circular saw, but I wanted fancy miters on the corners, which would have been tricky without a table saw. The french cleat I used to mount it also could be tricky without a table saw.

I filled the house with mostly EasyTear straws that I got from Crown Bees, because they’re cheap, clean, and hopefully won’t be a hassle when it’s time to open some straws and check on the bees in the fall. I also added a few bamboo sections, mostly out of curiosity whether the bees would use them. The sticks you can see jutting out here and there I added to give visual cues to the bees to help them figure out which straw is theirs. I added the blocks of wood on top so that a bird or other animal wouldn’t find it convenient to nest right on top of a tasty food source. The house is mounted against a wall that gets great morning sun, and right above the garden with my peas and raspberries.

The final ingredient the bees will need is mud, but that certainly won’t be a problem to find in the coming weeks in Seattle!

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My bees have arrived

A few of my friends have have been giving me looks like I’m crazy when I talk about raising bees for fun, but they haven’t deterred me. I’m the proud new owner of 20 blue orchard mason bees (Osmia lignaria propinqua), one of the Northwest’s native bees. These little guys will stay in the fridge for another month or so in their shipping straws, since they don’t get put outside until temperatures warm up a bit. In the meantime, I’m making a house for them that will protect them from wind and rain, but still give them plenty of morning sunlight. If anyone has tips for mason bee house design or construction, let me know!

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