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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Strange Harvest in the Valley…

Cottonwood gold

The garden is finished, done, harvested and laid away for the “short white days.” Cabbage soured into kraut, packed in jars and stored in the pantry. The quince picked and stewing in jars of cinnamon clove syrup. And this year’s honey crop bottled and ready for the honey customers. But there’s one more crop to harvest, and a rather strange crop at that: mason bees. It’s my first bee harvest and I’m excited. Last spring I watched the females make trip after trip to the little bee block house on the shed. The stocky little gals, each pollen-bellied, had chosen their own little tube cave as home for their young. What a wonderful waste of time watching them come and go, making a little game of their activity: counting the seconds between trips; counting the seconds each spent in her tube, noting her headfirst entry, a quick exit, and then reentering in reverse—each trip a heads and tails operation.

As their nesting cycle waned (late March to June), I counted the tubes as they were plugged. After Ms. Mason packed in the pollen stores, and laid an egg beside the golden protein pill, she packed the whole compartment tight with a mud plug—thus the "mason” in the bee. (Unlike the human Order of Freemasonry, a fraternal organization, the masonry tasks of the insect Mason fall upon the female; a mason bee block is thus a sorority house—hard working females bringing in the bacon, laying the eggs, and hauling the “mud” to seal things up.) She would repeat the procedure as many as nine times, nine compartments per tube before sealing the entrance.

It was a fitful spring, not fit for man, beast, or bug, and my bee block closed the season with a meager six of its thirty tubes plugged. Not a very promising crop.Bee blockI turned the block around to prevent birds from tapping into a bee smorgasbord (or would that be a smorgasblock?) and waited until fall. 

Today’s the day. If you weren’t an optimist, you would shed your hands of farmin’—of any kind. I have six sealed tubes, for sure, a potential of fifty-four cocoons, a nearly five fold return on my capital investment of  the twelve cocoons I “planted” in the bee box attic last April. I take the block inside and eagerly begin the harvest .Dismantling b bx

Two bands of electrical tape hold the plastic layers in place. These I cut to release the layers so I can pry them apart to examine the contents. The plastic sections are colored to help orient each bee to her own tube. (Sometimes a lady gets confused, enters the wrong tunnel, and is quickly ejected by the rightful proprietor.)

I break apart the plastic layers one color at a time and unroll the newspaper inserts I installed last spring. These paper liners encourage the little masons to nest in plastic—their natural nesting sites are wood—and allow them a better purchase when they are working within. The newsprint also draws the moisture away from the cocoons.digging through tubesWhat a mess! And what an even greater disappointment: insert after insert is empty! The six plugged tubes are the only ones with contents. And in these the predators have been at work: pollen mites have intruded, eating the bee larva’s food, leaving the larva to starve; parasitic wasps have laid their eggs on other larvae, as well, and their larvae in turn consumed the bee larvae. It is a meager harvest I extract from the five plastic layers.A harvest of a messBy the time I pick through the pollen dust, frass, mud pellets and shards of newspaper, only twenty-one cocoons are salvageable, less than half of my projections--certainly a mockery of the block’s potential. Bee cocoons

To remove the debris from the little pellets, I soak them in cold bleach water for fifteen minutes. After their bath I put the cocoons in a sieve, rinse them well, and let them dry for the rest of the day. Out to dry

In the evening I gather up my scanty harvest and deposit the cocoons in a plastic bottle. After convincing the wife the little pellets have nothing to do with rats, I tuck the bottle away in the kitchen refrigerator behind the horseradish spread where it will remain until next March. Then I’ll install them in the bee box attic and the cycle will begin again. Chill 'em out Am I optimistic about next year’s crop of masons? Well, remember…in the spring, you just get new hope!

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  1. Well, I think I'll bring my box out to harvest out with you. I ended up with 11 filled tubes, out of 54. I'm not convinced that mites & parasites didn't destroy my bee crop either. However, it sure was fun watching them work all summer! :)

  2. Let me know if you have a bumper or a (bum) crop. Dad.