Atlanta Fruitman’s Blog

The Bee Watcher
March 24, 2009, 1:00 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Another older post. I still like to sit at either side of the window and watch the bees. The mason bees are as I type this.


It is surprising what nature can show us when we take the time to look and learn. A world is right under out nose and we often dont see it. One way I discovered a little slice of this hidden world is by observing my bee nesting blocks. I was never all that much in to bees and wasps. I thought they would just sting me if I got to close, so I just left them alone unless they had a nest to close to a door and then I just sprayed to get rid of them. All bees and wasps were all just like hornets and yellow jackets to me. Oh yes, of course we had the occasional mud-dabber near the door that we also had to also get rid of.

It was not until I started working with my fruit trees that I began to notice various different insects, all the different pollinators specifically. I enjoyed (and still enjoy) watching the honeybees swarm around my Nanking Cherries in early spring. These are my first plants to bloom, and the honeybees from a nest unknown, always seem to find them. Often I will find not just honeybees, but solid black bees, bumble bees, large carpenter bees, small knat sized bees, and iridescent bees (the wasps seem to come out later in the season). I also found that as they are feeding, they really just ignore me, and I can get very close to them and observe them lapping up the nectar from each flower and storing pollen. Simple pleasures like this (and lack summers oppressive heat and misquotes) is what makes spring so wonderful.

Each of my trees seems to have it own (though overlapping) community of pollinators. Soon after the Nanking cherries and hardy Almond blooms fade, my Autumn Olive blooms with a huge proliferation of tiny yellow bloom to make the whole tree have yellow tint. One would think a whole nest or two of honeybees come for the banquet by the numbers that show. This is one of my favorite weeks in spring in around mid March (spring break for me) when this happens. I sit under the tree in the morning to waft the mild intoxicating fragrance of the tree and watch as the swarm gathers. I will sometimes bring a cup of tea and book if its warm, and just spend a few hours there. The tree also attracts a huge number of ladybugs that will visit my hand or shoulder from time to time.

But what one tree I was really concerned about was my Jujube tree. For a few years the blooms would come and pollinators would come in modest in numbers, but no fruit. I also noticed that few if any bees would visit the tree. The pollinators seemed to be wasps and hoverflies. Where were the bees? Did they find sweeter nectar elsewhere? Did the tree need the bees?

This is when I started the second chapter in my interest in insects; I was convinced my problem with the jujube was pollination issue. I had two varieties, so I added more and I started thinking about getting some bees. The obvious answer was honeybees, but they require some work, which I was not ready for right now, and I didnt know about my neighbors reactions. One neighbor and good friend has a real fear of bees and snakes. I thought the constant sight of bee house from her back window would not be good for our relationship, so looked into other options, I soon stumbled on Orchard bees. I think it might have been a past Pomona article that alerted me to them, They have the advantage of less pest and disease problems, a small cheap nesting block, and they virtually non aggressive. I bought a nesting block which consist of basically a coffee can full of cardboard straws and the extra straws of hibernating bees. I set the can next to my bedroom window so I can see them come and go through the day. I would come in from working outside or on the computer and watch the bees go out and come back with their rumps full of bright yellow pollen.

As I was researching orchard bees I noticed there were a number of different ways in which people made their nesting blocks. One site told you how to make your owns and also about the sizes for the different kind of bees and wasps. This peaked my interest, so last year I made a few.This project has been so rewarding, I thought I would share how to make a nesting block and my results from it.

This is simple project with simple tools and materials that you can do in your spare time. All you need is 4X4 post block of non-treated wood. Actually this may be the tricky part. If you dont live by a lumberyard, finding non-weather treated wood may be chore. Ask around. Home Depot and Lowes stores in my area only carry treated post wood and plastic/wood composites. The composites may work, but they are very expensive. Hardwoods are best, but I think most any wood will do. Pine, although cheap, tends to ooze resin sometimes, I dont think some insects like that, but other actually seems to use it to seal their holes.

Once you have the wood you want, cut it down to the size you wish 1 foot length is easy to handle and relatively light. Use a pencil and ruler to marker where you want to dill the holes. It is suggested the closest you want the holes centers are a half inch away. This measurement is for orchard bees. Other bees and wasps will have their own distance boundaries. Dont worry, bees and wasp will make their own territory boundaries and this interplay makes it more interesting, If you want a variety of bees and wasps, you can select a range of drill bits from. I used 1/8 at the top of the block to 5/16th at the bottom skipping a size each two rows. Experiment with different sizes. Make sure your hole goes all the way through the wood. This allows for easy cleaning of abandoned nest holes at the end of the season with pipe cleaners, A drill press makes the drilling more easy and automatic, but a hand drill is fine; just take special care that you are drilling straight down in the wood. Once all the holes are drilled, get a blowtorch and char the front face a bit – then sand. Apparently bees like the variation in color of the charred wood better than the plain wood. Next I lightly coated the block with a spray polyurethane (this may not be necessary if your keeping it out the rain or using weather resistant wood). A slanted water resistant roof would be good if you pant to put the out in the weather. Cover the back with some thick tape. I used metal duct tape. This is so you dont provide an entrance for pests and parasitic wasp in the back. Lastly, I put in some small loop screws in the side for mounting. Thats it!!

I put my little bee/wasp condo right up against my window next to the orchard bee nest; I am only inches a way from the holes where I watch in detail and even photograph all that goes on. Both nests are out of the weather and I can see them any time I want. I found that they seem to prefer their nest on the morning side of my house, which is fine for me because I can watch while I relax in my bed. I have seen wasps and bees in shapes and sizes I have never seen before – tiny wasps and large bees. I am not going to describe all the bees and wasps that I see making their home in my block. That would take another few pages, plus your insect populations will be different than mine. You will be surprised by the variety and the behavior that you will see through the season. I am now trying a few blocks using 2X2 inch wood and smaller than 1/8th inch holes. I see some very small bees and wasps on occasion; I am wondering what else I might be missing with the larger holes.

If you dont make one of these blocks for yourself, I urge you to make one for your children or grandchildren. What a wonderful way to introduce someone to the wonders of nature safety in their own home. The nests seems to be most active in the heat of the day, so when it gets to hot for me to work outside, I can still enjoy a piece of the natural world in the house

And what about the Jujube? This is now an afterthought in light of what is going on in my back window. I actually think now it may be a question of the trees maturity. The tree seems suddenly now to put out a wonderful fragrance this spring and it is visited by a lot more pollinators. I am also beginning to get fruit. Did the bee blocks make a difference, I dont think so, I do see some of my wasps and more pollinators of various kinds visiting the tree though. This year the tree is covered with fruit! If they all mature ok I will be very happy indeed.

…now all I need is a good bee/wasp of North America field guide.

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