April 16

Six Myths About Mason Bees

Six myths about mason bees

(Article from the Honeybee Suite)

Wherever you find beekeepers you are likely to discover plenty of misinformation, fodder for the old joke about ten beekeepers having a dozen answers. It doesn’t even matter what kind of bees they keep, which means mason bees are no exception.

Don’t get me wrong—I adore mason bees and I have kept them for ten years, problem free. They are fun to watch, easy to raise, and they are excellent spring pollinators. Nevertheless, they alone cannot save the world, in spite of what anyone tells you.

Which bees are masons?

Before I get to the myths, let’s clarify what bees we’re talking about. In its broadest sense, the phrase “mason bee” can refer to any bee that collects materials from the environment and uses those materials to build a nest for rearing its young. However, when melittologists (the people who study bees) use the term mason bee, they are usually referring to several genera in the family Megachilidae.

The Megachilidae family is a large group that includes leafcutting bees, resin bees, woolcarder bees, and of course mason bees. The family includes bees that collect all kinds of stuff, such as leaves, petals, pebbles, mud, fibers, plant resin, or sometimes things like builders’ caulk. Depending on the species, they can be pretty open to new ideas. These bees often have large jaws that they use to collect their treasures. In fact, Megachilidae means large jaw or large lip.

Myth one: all mason bees are native

When bee scientists refer to mason bees they are usually referring to bees in the genus Osmia, which in North American includes about 130 different species. When non-scientists talk about mason bees they are usually referring to Osmia lignaria, the blue orchard bee. But on the east coast, folks may be referring to Osmia taurus or Osmis cornifrons, both introduced species.

So there’s your first myth. Not all mason bees in North America are “native.” Osmia lignaria is native, and so are many others, but those other two popular species (also known as the taurus mason bee and the hornfaced bee) are most definitely not. Like the European honey bee, they were brought here for a specific purpose and have since spread across the landscape.

Myth two: mason bees don’t sting

The second myth has to do with stings. I hear it all the time, “Mason bees don’t sting.” That’s an interesting theory, probably started by someone who never got nailed by one. Mark my words, mason bee females have stingers and they know how to use them.

On the other hand, each time I’ve been stung by a mason bee it was my own fault. The first time it happened, one walked up my arm and got under my watch band. I didn’t know it, of course, and when I moved my arm, the band tightened and she let me know. The sensation was so light I wasn’t sure if it was a sting or not. I wasn’t sure until the spot raised up and turned red like a mosquito bite. It lasted about 15 minutes and then disappeared.

My other mason bee stings were similar and barely detectable, but I think it’s important to understand that they do sting. People who choose to get mason bees because they are allergic to honey bee stings should be wary. Would they react in the same way? I have no idea, but I would not assume mason bees are safe for a highly allergic person. Check with your doctor first.

Myth three: masons can replace honey bees

No chance. While mason bees are highly effective pollinators, the ones we normally raise are short-lived spring bees. They work great in orchards, but they disappear for the year before most crops begin to bloom. Although they make an excellent addition to honey bees, they will never be able to replace them.

The same problem applies to most bee species. Because honey bees live in a colony where the workers are constantly replaced, the colony stays active all year long. This means honey bees can pollinate whenever they have flowers and weather warm enough to fly. On the other hand, most native species are active only six to eight weeks per year, so flowers are dependent on many different bee species to do the work.

Myth four: you need to buy mason bees

If you are not a commercial operator, you do not need to buy mason bees. In fact, last year in a bumble bee identification class, a member of the Xerces Society was asked, “Where is the best place to buy mason bees?” The speaker was adamant and forceful in his reply, “Do not buy bees!”

The audience member persisted and asked more specifically, “What if I buy them from — (she mentioned a well-known supplier)?” His answer: “Do not buy bees!”

Then she asked about leafcutters, and he replied, “Do not buy bees!”

Why? Because most native bees live their lives in a very small area, one they are adapted to. Once you begin shipping them around, you also ship whatever diseases and parasites they might have. In addition, you are putting them into an environment they are not accustomed to and they may die.

When you look at honey bees and bumble bees, you can see the damage done by shipping. We have assured that honey bees all over the continent have shared their diseases and parasites. We have shipped infected bumbles bee around to the point where an entire group of species is in rapid decline and faces possible extinction.

Why do we want to repeat this folly with mason bees? Why can’t we learn from our mistakes? I have to side with the Xerces Society on this one. Distribution of native bees should be strongly discouraged along with sell-back programs. If they are not native to your own backyard, they are not really native.

If you want to raise mason bees, put up mason bee housing and be patient. You will get a few the first year, more the second year, and after a while you will have many. They will be locally adapted, strong, and free from imported ailments.

Myth five: you must clean and bleach cocoons

Cleaning and bleaching of mason bee cocoons is not something that happens in nature. It becomes necessary when you have large single-species populations living in close quarters. Many of the common diseases and parasites have always been there at background levels, but their numbers become amplified when the host population becomes congested. If you have thousands of mason bees, you must control diseases and parasites.

Several years ago, I wrote to native bee specialists at UC Davis and the American Museum of Natural History asking about cleaning and bleaching. Their answers were the same: if you are not running a big operation, cleaning and bleaching is not necessary. For the backyard mason bee keeper with a garden and a couple of pollinator condos, no interference is necessary. If you are not running a factory farm, levels of pollen mites and parasitic wasps normally will not exceed background levels.

Myth six: masons will save the planet

No one bee species will save the planet. Not masons, leafcutters, nor honey bees. Saving the planet is up to us, not the bees. The standard advice holds true for all species of bees: reduce the use of pesticides, plant a wide variety of flowers and flowering trees, leave undisturbed patches of ground for soil-nesting bees, and provide habitat strips and water. To those I will add another: leave the bees where they are. Let them come to you. We can’t buy and sell nature because buying, selling, and redistributing is not natural at all.

Honey Bee Suite

April 16

The Pesticides in Our Own Backyards

The Pesticide in Our Own Backyards

(Article from Honeybee Suite)

Silence is a powerful thing. I was on my way to the compost bin when I noticed an enormous mound of dead bees in front of my strongest hive. No buzz issued from the landing board. No industrious thrum from above. The absence of sound shattered the morning.

I was dumbstruck. When I opened that hive on the previous day, bees boiled from the top. Beneath them, rows of glistening cells demanded a second honey super. The colony had overwintered without a hitch and was looking like a winner. But that was yesterday.

This article first appeared in American Bee Journal, Volume 159 No 1, January 2019, pp. 77-79.

Today the colony was dead. Except for multiple frames of brood, some of it emerging as I watched, virtually no bees were left. Although most were on the ground with tongues extended, many had fallen between the frames, their lifeless bodies blocking the entrance.

I didn’t need to look further because I had witnessed this haunting scene before. Here today, gone tomorrow. Like the 50,000 bumble bees in an Oregon parking lot, my bees were destroyed by the careless application of pesticide.

The bees in the adjacent hive hadn’t a care in the world, or so it seemed. They came and went, darting into the sky and disappearing from view. Others jammed the entrance, heavy with pollen and purpose. Little did I know they were next.

Assigning Blame

When people complain about “the pesticide problem,” they often point to Big Ag. It’s easy to fault large corporate farms because they are, well, large and corporate. And because they are in a nebulous “other place,” it’s easy and comfortable to assign blame. While it’s true that many modern farms use an enormous amount of pesticide—probably way too much—they don’t have a corner on pesticide use. Not by a long shot. In fact, if pesticides were kept on the farm, my bees wouldn’t be dead.

I live in a rural area dominated by forest. Here, enormous trees like Douglas fir, western red cedar, and big-leaf maple grow like weeds. No farms dot the landscape. No animals graze in planted fields. Instead, most land that isn’t in trees is zoned rural residential.

The person who wiped out my bees was not a farmer but most likely a homeowner, someone who noticed bugs—maybe even bees—on a flowering tree or shrub and decided to “take care” of them. Most people have no idea that a plant in flower shouldn’t be sprayed, or why. Most have no idea that harm may come from their actions.

Home Pesticide Use

Not much has changed in the last thirty years. Way back in 1989 I wrote an editorial about home pesticide use for the newspaper where I worked. At the time, much controversy surrounded government spraying for the Mexican fruit fly in southern California. Although the city gave plenty of advance notice and did all their spraying at night, people were worried. While I understood their concern, I felt that the pesticide abuse I saw all around me was a bigger problem.

Not a week earlier I had watched a women at the newspaper office empty an entire can of flying insect killer on a hapless spider. The rest of us were left to breathe the fumes and clean the greasy spot from the baseboard. Meanwhile, not being an insect nor capable of flight, the spider sidled off, damp and annoyed.

To me, the women’s actions represented the difference between knowledgeable agricultural use of pesticides and emotional, irrational use of pesticides by people who don’t understand their power. The woman injected all those chemicals into our environment, not caring what else might be injured. She didn’t bother to see if it was the right formula for the job, nor did she consider collateral damage to her officemates. She didn’t measure the amount, and she didn’t figure her costs—a few dollars to inconvenience one spider is ludicrous.

And please don’t think I’m picking on women. I’ve watched my neighbor carelessly spray his fence line while his two preschool children played beside him, breathing the fog. The girl ate a candy bar while the boy shot a plastic dart into the pesticide-soaked grass, retrieving it again and again. The dad probably thought the stuff was harmless, and maybe it was. But do you really want to test that theory on your kids?

Pesticides are Expensive

Conversely, growers who use pesticide have a completely different mindset. If they don’t consider their costs, they won’t be able to stay in business. Not only are pesticides expensive to buy, but so is the equipment used to spray them, and the help hired to apply them.

Because the expense is great, growers are careful to identify what they are trying to kill. In an effort to control costs, they use the recommended rate of application, the optimum timing, and the proper method of distribution. It is easy to forget that farmers have a tremendous financial incentive to use as much as necessary, but as little as possible. They don’t think like our spider lady, who operates under the theory that if some is good, more is better.

We Are the Enemy

While it’s true that some tracts of agricultural land are doused in chemicals, people like us—homeowners, building supervisors, and land managers—are making the pesticide problem worse than it needs to be.  It seems we have a cavalier attitude about our own pesticide use while we view the modern farm as an evil dispensary of poison.

Instead of squashing a bug or pulling a weed, we prefer to spray the interlopers with something we can’t see. Something that just “disappears” after we use it. Except it doesn’t.

If you want some insight into how much pesticide goes into homes and gardens, just take a folding lawn chair into your local home-improvement store and have a seat in the pesticide aisle. For a truly spectacular display, choose the first warm day of spring. The bags, bottles, and boxes fly off the shelves faster than the employees can stock them. Thousands of pounds go out the door, yet most of the labels will never be read and most of the precautions will never be heeded.

Bugs are Bad

No, Big Ag did not kill my bees. Most likely it was a person who sprayed a tree in flower. Many people spray when they see any type of insect, even if they don’t recognize it. Others spray to avoid getting stung or bitten. In the meantime, a foraging honey bee returned to her hive and reported a rich cache of nectar. Following her instruction, her nest mates gathered at the site and, by the end of the day, all were dead.

Although a few people want to kill anything that moves, I believe that most simply don’t understand the consequences of spraying. Even when the label says, “Must not be used when plants are in flower,” many don’t understand why that is important. One woman told me she heard that pesticides can make the flowers wilt, but she tried it and her flowers are fine. An older man told me the warnings meant the chemicals would mask the flowers’ fragrance, but since he couldn’t smell, it didn’t matter to him.

I don’t know when we became so careless about pesticides. Most of us don’t remember when school children were dusted with DDT and read Dr. Seuss cartoons featuring Flit bug killer.1 Nevertheless, I’ve always thought that selling pesticides in the grocery store is a bad idea. It makes them feel safe. After all, we are generally not fearful of things sold alongside our food. When we toss a can of insecticide into the cart along with potatoes, baby food, and pork chops, it seems harmless. They wouldn’t sell it in a food store if it were dangerous, right?

The Largest Irrigated Crop

In terms of acreage, the largest irrigated crop in America is lawn. People use weed killers, insect killers, slug killers, mole killers, fungus killers, and moss killers to keep it green and flat. Every season seems to require a different chemical which someone is happy to provide. Then we water the lawn with our ever-diminishing water supply, and let it run off into our increasingly polluted streams, rivers, and lakes. Then we mow it—powered by fossil fuels that send carbon dioxide into the over-loaded atmosphere. What a system.

The history of lawns is a fascinating study of social pressure. Apparently, lawns developed as a status symbol in England back when only royalty could afford such a luxury. Everyone else needed every square foot to grow food and graze animals. Because grass lawns required resources instead of providing them, they became a demonstration of excess and wealth.

Soon, people all over the world tried to prove their worth by planting lawns. Grass lawns cropped up everywhere and now cover 40 million acres of the lower 48 states. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, US lawns require 3 trillion gallons of water, 200 million gallons of gas, and 70 million pounds of pesticide annually.2

But the table has turned and we’ve become slaves not to the king, but to our lawns. We grow lawns to impress our neighbors—or so I’ve been told—but when is the last time you were impressed by someone’s grass? How often do you say, “Mr. X must be really important and successful, because look at his lawn!”?

Worse, legions of homeowner associations and local governments mandate that you maintain a lawn that suitably represents the community. People get fined or cited for not following the protocol, yet we are damaging our environment in service of something that has little value. How will we ever turn the tide on pesticide use if perfect lawns are required by law?

A Problem of Excess

Let’s think about one of those homeowners for a moment. He is a law-abiding citizen who just sprayed his lawn to avoid the wrath of the lawn police. Now that he’s done, what should he do with the pint that’s left in the bottom of the sprayer? He thinks for a moment, then decides to apply the rest. It doesn’t really matter that he’s already spread the maximum recommended dose because, seriously, what else would he do with it?

If you add together all the extra pints that are applied because the homeowner or property manager doesn’t know what to do with it, that alone would probably make a tidy profit for the manufacturers. It’s like ketchup. The profit in ketchup is stuck to the insides of the bottle. Even if it’s only five percent, if millions of people use only 95 percent of each bottle, the manufacturer can sell a heck of a lot more ketchup.

Luckily, more ketchup isn’t hurting anyone unless you consider all the extra plastic bottles that end up in the ocean. But the extra pesticide is probably hurting something—perhaps your honey bees. Or maybe it destroys some beneficial insects, like those that eat the dead things that would otherwise pile to the sky. Or cute things like lightening bugs that once charmed generations of children.

We Can’t Have It Both Ways

Yes, silence is a powerful thing. In retrospect, I was lucky because I lost only two colonies of honey bees. The others, further away, found different places to forage and were spared. For that, I am grateful.

But the colony deaths reminded me of the larger problem. We cannot expect commercial growers to operate without these powerful products as long as we demand them for our own use. We cannot expect changes in policy as long as we are unwilling to step on a spider or pull a dandelion.

No, Big Ag did not kill my bees. They were executed by someone not too different from you and me. They were doomed by a person doing what he thought was right, using a product with a label too confusing to decipher. I honestly don’t blame the individual. Instead I blame a society that encourages short-sighted thinking and devalues the natural world.

If we stopped spraying the things we grow at home, if we stopped planting lawns or at least decreased their size, imagine the opportunity for pollinators, beneficial insects, and the magical creatures of our childhoods. We simply must remember that the best place to begin fixing the pesticide problem in right in our own backyards.

Honey Bee Suite


  1. Allen W. 2008. The War on Bugs. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.
  2. Talbot M. (2016. September 30). More Sustainable (and Beautiful) Alternatives to a Grass Lawn. Retrieved from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/more-sustainable-and-beautiful-alternatives-grass-lawn.
April 16

How Honeybees Get Their Jobs

How Honeybees Get Their Jobs

(Click link above to watch video and see article published by National Geographic.  Very interesting!

With brains the size of sesame seeds, honeybees have to work together in different capacities to maintain a healthy nest.

Every honeybee has a job to do. Some are nurses who take care of the brood; some are janitors who clean the hive; others are foragers who gather nectar to make honey. Collectively, honeybees are able to achieve an incredible level of sophistication, especially considering their brains are only the size of sesame seeds. But how are these jobs divvied up, and where do bees learn the skills to execute them?

Unlike in Jerry Seinfeld’s “Bee Movie,” real honeybees don’t go to college and get a job assignment from an aptitude officer upon graduation. Instead, they rely on a mixture of genetics, hormones, and situational necessity to direct them. Honeybees are born into an occupation, and then their duties continually shift in response to changing conditions in the hive.

“The jargon we use is that it’s ‘decentralized.’ There’s no bee in the center organizing this,” says Thomas Seeley, author of the book Honeybee Democracy. “Each bee has its own little set of rules, and the labor is sorted out by the bees following their rules.”

Watch World’s largest bee, once presumed extinct, filmed alive in the wild

Born this way

A bee’s job is determined by its sex. Male bees, or drones, don’t do any work. They make up roughly ten percent of the colony’s population, and they spend their whole lives eating honey and waiting for the opportunity to mate. When the time comes for the queen to make her nuptial flight, all the drones in other colonies will compete for the honor of insemination. They fly after the queen and attempt to mate with her in mid-air. If they mate successfully, they fall to the ground in a victorious death. The queen will mate with up to twenty drones and will store their spermatozoa in her spermatheca organ for the rest of her life. That’s where male duties end.

Female bees, known as worker bees, make up the vast majority of a hive’s population, and they do all the work to keep it functioning. Females are responsible for the construction, maintenance, and proliferation of the nest and the colony that calls it home.

A bee’s sex is determined by the queen, who lays eggs at a rate of 1,500 per day for two to five years. She has the unique ability to designate which eggs will develop into female workers and which will become male drones.

Watch Amazing Time-Lapse: Bees Hatch Before Your Eyes

If the queen approaches a smaller worker bee cell to lay a female egg, she will fertilize the egg on its way out by releasing spermatozoa from her nuptial flight. She has enough spermatozoa stored in her abdomen to last the duration of her life.

If the queen approaches a larger drone cell to lay a male egg, on the other hand, she will not release any spermatozoa as the egg leaves her ovaries. This unfertilized egg will develop into a drone.

Domestic duties

It takes 21 days for the worker bee to grow out of her larval state and leave the cell. When she emerges on day 21 as an adult bee, she will immediately start cleaning the cell from which she hatched. Her first three days will be spent cleaning cells to prepare them for the queen’s next round of eggs.

After three days, her hormones kick in to initiate the next phase of work: nursing the young. Seeley explains that hormones are released to activate different parts of the bee’s genes assigned to different tasks. “It’s similar to when humans get sick,” he says. “Sick genes that are involved in inflammation and fever get turned on. Likewise with bees and their jobs.”

A worker bee will spend about a week nursing the brood, feeding larvae with royal jelly, a nutritious secretion that contains proteins, sugars, fats, and vitamins. The exact number of days she spends on this task depends on where the hive needs the most attention. Bees are very sensitive organisms whose hormones are closely tied in with the colony’s needs. “A colony of honeybees is, then, far more than an aggregation of individuals,” writes Seeley in Honeybee Democracy. “It is a composite being that functions as an integrated whole.” The colony is a well-oiled superorganism, similar to ant and termite colonies.

The most dangerous job

When the bee is finished nursing, she will enter the third phase, as a sort of utility worker, moving farther away from the nest’s center. Here she will build cells and store food in the edge of the nest for about a week.

A bee’s hormones will shift into the final phase of work at around her 41st day: foraging. This work is the most dangerous and arguably the most important. It’s only done by older bees who are closer to death. As Steve Heydon, an entomologist at the University of California, Davis, puts it, “You wouldn’t want the youngest bees doing the most dangerous job.” If too many young bees die, then the hive wouldn’t be able to sustain itself.

As the worker bee approaches her fourth week of nonstop work, she will sense her end of days and remove herself from the hive, so as not to become a burden. If she dies in the hive, her fellow bees would have to remove her corpse.

Thus is the life of a female bee during the active seasons of spring and summer, compulsively working from the day she’s born until the day she dies. It’s a thankless life of nonstop work, but honeybees, as a result, are some of the most successful collaborators we’ve found in nature.


April 6

April 6 Hive Inspections

Hive Inspections

April 6, 2019

Frances Smith Educational Apiary

2018 -01 Big Yellow   10 frame Langstrough Hive – 2 deeps, 1 medium

This is one of only two hives that survived the winter for me.  Two weeks ago I rotated the boxes.  This week the hive is going gangbusters and I was able to add the first super of the season.  This hive is strong with a good. Rood pattern and is really cooking!

2019-01. Ten Frame Langstrough Hive

New hive with package of bees introduced last week.  The queen was successfully released and new cone is quickly being drawn out.    Took off shim and removed burr one.  Changed out feeder to top flat feeder.  Added sugar water.

2019-02. Ten Frame Langstrough  Hive

New hive with package of bees introduced last week.  The queen was successfully released and new cone is quickly being drawn out.  Took off empty protective  rood box and added my standard top feeder.  Added sugar water

2019-03  Ten Frame Langstrough Hive, 

New hive with package of bees introduced last week.  The queen was successfully released and new cone is quickly being drawn out.    Took off shim and removed burr one.  Using standard top feeder.  Added small amount of sugar water

2019-04  Eight Frame Langstrough Hive

New hive with package of bees introduced last week.  The queen was successfully released and new cone is quickly being drawn out.    Took off shim and removed burr one.  Using open hole jar top feeder.  Filled jar with sugar water.

2019-05  Eight Frame Langstrough Hive

New hive with package of bees introduced last week.  The queen was successfully released and new cone is quickly being drawn out.    Took off shim and removed burr one.  Using open hole jar top feeder.  Filled jar with sugar water.

2019-06 Top Bar Hive

New hive with package of bees introduced last week.  However, the queen  age had disconnected from the natural wax cons. Fallen straight down and blocked bees from feeding and releasing queen.  All bees in queen cage dead.  Called Tommy and purchase anew Minnesota Hygienic Queen.   Placed new queen in clear bottom space and will. He k for her release Wednesday.  

Jax and Harper Honey Bee Farm

2019 Swarm Cell Two – 07 Top Bar Hive

Swarm repopulated hive two weeks ago.  Feeding sugar water.  Hive growing in strength and number.  Outside inspection shows bees really enjoying all the cone the last family left behind for them.  Plan to take a look at cone from inside next week.

2019 Swarm Cell One – 08 Five Frame Nuc

Swarm caught In Blacks backyard.  Changed feeder to top hive flat feeder.  Something keeps knocking jar off.  Hive growing in strength.  Appears to be a swarm of bees from my own hive.  Will check frames next week.

2018-02  Big  Blue Hive

While not as strong as Big Yellow. It does appear to be growing in strength.  I am not feeding this hive.  Need to take off shim.  Plan to do an inside Inspection tomorrow.