Tag Archives: Osmia

Guide to building and managing a mason bee hotel

In nature, tunnel-nesting bees are perfectly happy to use logs riddled by boring beetles or piles of dead plants that have hollow stems. That habitat is often in short supply in many yards, however, so it’s necessary to provide hotels if you want to attract them. These hotels can be as simple as a large coffee can filled with hollow reeds … or as elaborate as the three-level one I built. The bees really don’t care.

Types of nesting material

DIY bee hotels can be filled with routered nesting trays (you can buy these or make your own, if you’re handy), wood blocks with paper inserts (these inserts can be purchased), wood blocks or logs with drilled holes (unlined), or just sections of hollow stems (by far the easiest). Or, like house in the photo below, a mix. A hotel should have a roof to keep the tunnel entrances relatively dry, should be situated to get morning sun, and be approximately 5 feet off the ground (so you can enjoy watching them).

Below is a photograph of my other hotel. It’s smaller and is set up in my front yard to entertain people who walk by. Tunnels are all unlined drilled holes, plus milkweed stems. Holes in the blocks are varied because I want to attract a variety of solitary bees.

Swap nesting materials regularly

The ideal bee hotel is one that allows all the nesting material to be removed each year (or so). By installing fresh nesting material, new tenants each spring will get to move into tunnels free of kleptoparasitic pollen mites and pathogenic fungi. Another benefit of removable nests is that you can remove sections as they get filled, allowing you to replace the spot with the same type of tunnels or with tunnels that have different diameter to cater to a different bee species (there are hundreds). Below are examples of my hotel with different configurations (my 2020 version, on right, is a bit boring).

Emergence boxes

What do you do with the nesting material after you remove it from the hotel? I put mine into a large cardboard box that has holes in the sides and at the top, then store in my unheated garage for the winter. In mid March (before bees in my area start to wake up) I put the box outside in a spot that is dry and gets good morning sun. Then when bees emerge from their cocoons they can escape from the box but are disinclined to re-inhabit the nesting tunnels they emerged from. Here’s a view of the nesting material inside my emergence box.

After several months outside (e.g., in August, long after the last resident has emerged) I take everything back into my shop and redrill holes and sterilize the wood. Then I can reuse blocks in future years.

Cleaning pupae

Lately, I’ve been thinking that I should move entirely to a system where I can sort through pupae at the end of the season. E.g., as summarized here. The reason for this is that I’d like to remove (kill) the kleptoparasitic mites (pic) and Houdini flies (pic) that are likely destroying many of my solitary bees. To enable this process I am going to start using paper straws to line all the tunnels. These straws can then be removed and unwrapped and the contents examined. Below is a photograph showing how drilled holes can be lined with paper straws — just fold over the back overhang and seal with foil tape.

Several companies sell sturdy (and easy to unwrap) paper straws as well as cardboard tubes that can easily accommodate the straws (i.e., you don’t need to drill holes in wood).

Another way to sort through pupae is to use routered wood trays, which you can buy or make (with a router or a table saw). Although some types of trays are better used with straws (to prevent mites from moving from tunnel to tunnel), others fit snuggly enough to be used without them. On my list of things to do is to make some routered nests that are sealed on one side with Plexiglas so that I can observe the bees within (such hotels can be purchased, and are beautiful).

Design tips

  • To keep everything dry on something this tall you need a generous roof overhang. Mine extends 5 inches beyond the front of the shelf, plus the wood sections and reeds are set back from that by another inch or so. If you have a shorter house you can have a smaller roof.
  • For larger hole sizes you want, ideally, 6 inches of depth. Shorter (4″) tunnels are fine but can result in a male-biased brood sex ratios. If you want to encourage population growth, encouraging the production of females is important. So buy long bits (I really like my 5/16″ auger bit, shown in drill below).
Drilling holes for mason bee inserts
  • Burning the front of the wood allows bees to more easily find their holes, plus the darker surface causes the wood to heat up faster in the morning sun.
  • Avoid treated lumber or fresh cedar. Per rumors on the internet, those types of wood can result in the death of the larvae. Pine is fine but I think harder wood is preferable because the drilled holes tend to be smoother.
  • For cutting reeds to size, I highly recommend using a cutoff disc on a Dremel tool instead of pruners. You can get a really smooth surface with a Dremel.

Examples of nice DIY solitary bee hotels

Additional resources

If you’re lazy and just want to buy a mason bee house, here’s my draft listing of companies that seem to make good ones. Please also see my guide to bee houses you should avoid.

Where to buy mason bee houses

The following companies sell bee houses that have deep (approximately 6″ / 152 mm) nesting holes, have disposable or cleanable components, have protective roof overhangs (usually), and are not suspended by a string. If I’ve missed somebody, send me a note and I’ll update this post.

There is no perfect house, so do a little research with local bee experts to see what might be best for your area. Also, no single house is going to attract all types of bees. Figure out what type of bee you want and then find a house that suits it. Personally, I’m a fan of having several, smaller houses so that I can situate them in different parts of the yard. I also like to think that this separation reduces the ability of parasitic wasps to lay eggs in the tunnels. I.e., if you have a hotel with hundreds of holes, that makes it very easy for parasitic wasps to go hole to hole.

Here’s a guide to avoiding low-quality bee houses that are for sale at most garden centers. If you’re handy, you can also make your own (it’s fun).

The horrors of mass-produced bee houses

Here are some reasons why cheap mason bee houses can end up hurting bee populations. I live in Pennsylvania (USA), so some of the issues might be specific to my location. And to the species that live here, of course. Check with your local authorities for more detailed advice.

1. Nesting blocks, tubes, reeds are not removable

Glued nesting materials is the number one reason why most commercial bee hotesl can become death traps. Because the nesting material cannot be removed and cleaned, over time there will be an increase in the population of parasitic wasps, parasitic bees, parasitic flies, kleptoparasitic mites, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. And you typically won’t see these dangers because the solitary bees will still use the hotel (they can’t help themselves). Here’s a photograph of the mites that tend to build up when bees reuse the same house every year. Sometimes they have so many they can’t fly anymore.

Hundreds of Krombein’s hairy-footed pollen mites on a mason bee. Image by @GeeBee60.

Ideally, empty out the house every year or two and give it a good cleaning. You can do this by removing all the filled nesting tubes at the end of the season (e.g., October) and storing them in an unheated garage or shed. Then, in the early spring put these nests inside a cardboard box that is equipped with a small exit hole — so bees can escape but can’t re-inhabit the nests. Finally, once everyone has emerged, clean the trays (brush, wash with bleach), re-drill holes (for blocks), and throw away reeds and paper tubes. While all this is happening, equip your (cleaned) house with fresh nesting trays, blocks, paper tubes, reeds, etc. All of this can’t happen, of course, if everything is glued in place.

If the above sounds like way too much maintenance, perhaps don’t buy a mason bee house. Get a garden gnome or a gazing ball.

2. Nesting tubes cannot be opened

Even if you clean the house every year and put in fresh tubes, the tubes filled in the prior year might be filled with parasitic flies and wasps. The ONLY way to get rid of them is to pry open the tubes and examine each pupa. And you can only do this if you use paper straws (that you can unwap) or if you use routered nesting blocks (that can be taken apart). So if you want the best accommodations for your solitary bees, opt for either of these designs. Bamboo is really difficult to split open, by the way, which is why I don’t use it for my bee hotels. Big Bamboo is probably going to sue me.

3. Nesting tubes open at back

If holes aren’t capped in some way at the back, parasites can easily gain entrance. Mason bees will plug the back with mud but it’s best to have a wall.

4. Reeds or holes with large splinters

Sharp edges inside the holes can snag and tear delicate wings.

5. Stems blocked at front

In houses that use bamboo, sometimes many of the sections are blocked off near the front by an impenetrable node. E.g., many of the tunnels are too short to be of much use.

6. Tunnels are not the right diameter

If reeds or bamboo are used in the house, make sure that they are all the diameter that supports the species of bee you want to attract. Solitary bees will end up using tunnels that are too wide but they will waste mud (and time and energy) filling them up. Bamboo houses are often a problem in this regard. (If you want to attract all different types of hole-nesting insects, then diversity in diameters is fine.)

7. Roof lacks overhang

Mass-produced mason bee houses are designed to be as compact as possible so they can be packed and shipped efficiently from factories in Asia. This usually means that they won’t have roofs that protect the nest entrances from water. Moisture causes larvae to rot and also seems to cause kleptoparasitic pollen mites to flourish. If your house is fine except for the roof, get creative and attach one. Or stick it someplace that is under a pre-existing structure.

8. House attaches to tree with string or hook

Mason bees start their lives as eggs on top of a mound of pollen, and houses swinging in the wind could cause them to fall off or be crushed by moving pollen balls (when too dry they can shift). At least that’s the word on the street. Perhaps a more important reason to keep the house stable is that mason bees likely find it challenging to land on a moving nest. If you have a mason bee house that is designed to hang, just get creative and attach it somehow so the bees have an easier time landing.

9. Nesting material is impermeable to water

Like anything that’s alive, mason bee eggs, larvae, and pupae produce water during respiration. When that moisture can’t escape the bees are likely more susceptible to bacterial and fungal pathogens. Plus the pollen ball itself can rot. So avoid houses that use plastic, glass, or metal tubes.

10. Nests are too shallow

The house pictured at the top of the page is approximately 2″ deep, and that could lead to most of the progeny being males. In nature, mason bees lay fertilized eggs (which develop into females) at the backs of long nests, then pack the front with unfertilized eggs (which develop into males). This means that houses with short nests can end up being primarily nurseries for worthless guys (sorry, guys). If you want a house that can generate an ecologically useful proportion of females, buy houses with nesting tubes that are approximately 6″ (152 mm). Having shorter tubes (say 4″) might be OKish but you may have far fewer females. Shorter tubes are of course fine for smaller species of solitary bees that live in smaller-diameter tunnels.

11. Contains pine cones and other fillers

Solitary bees don’t utilize pine cones. Companies cram them into insect houses because pine cones are cheap and people regard them as chic. The only thing that seems to be common in pine cones out in the wild are spiders. Similarly, cramming moss, bark, pine needles might be evocative of nature and visually pleasing, but they do nothing for the bees as far as I can tell.

12. Contains holes that lead to empty cavity

This is yet another way to save money. Solitary bees use tunnels, not rooms.

13. Contains slits for butterflies

Solitary bees will not use these slits and neither will butterflies. Again, companies incorporate them to save on wood and labor, plus to influence buyers who are fond of butterflies. Don’t be fooled.

14. Honey bee shown on packaging

A photograph of a honey bee on the label is a likely sign that the house is probably not up to code. I.e., if company doesn’t know the difference between honey bees and solitary bees the house is likely to have multiple design flaws.

Mason bee house with honey bee drawing

15. Too many nesting units

When thousands of mason bees are living in close proximity, parasitic insects and mites will likely have an easier time infecting numerous nests. There’s not a huge literature on how risk scales with nest density, but please see Groulx and Forrest 2017 and Groulx and Forrest 2018 for overview of potential issue. It could also be the case that large hotels get taken over by aggressive (invasive, introduced) bees at the expense of local bees (e.g., as discussed in Maclvor and Packer 2015). My 2 cents: if your heart is set on an eye-catching mega-complex, just be extra sure that all components are truly cleanable or disposable. It’s worth emphasizing that you need to actually clean it, too, not just set it up as cleanable.

These look soooo cute, but if ALL the blocks are left in place for multiple years they could become towers filled with bee parasites.

16. Inadequate instructions

Even if you buy a good bee house and generally know things about the needs of solitary bees (mud, leaves, lots of native plants, etc.), you can still benefit from detailed instructions from somebody who thinks about solitary bees all day long. E.g., look for instructions that tell you how to clean the hotel in between seasons.

Flow chart for making buying decision

Here’s a summary flow chart to print and keep in your wallet so you’re prepared when you see something adorable. Or print and give to that shop owner who carries trap houses.

“OMG I own a death trap what should I do?”

If you have a cheapo mason bee house that saddens you, don’t do anything rash. Just leave it up and let your current residents do their thing. But at the end of the season, after all the holes are filled, put it in an unheated shed or garage for the winter (so that birds don’t feast on the pupae). In early spring, put the whole house inside of a cardboard box (here’s an image of durable emergence box). Poke a small hole in the top or side so that emerging bees see the light and escape through that hole, and then set it outside in a place where it will stay dry. After all the bees finish emerging (summer), throw out the house. Or, better, burn it and record a video of the fire. Then post the video online to bring needed awareness to low quality mason bee houses. If you have a good photograph of a burning mason bee house, I could use one right here.

“I want a cute bee house but not the commitment”

If you want the look of a bee hotel but don’t want all the maintenance fuss, print this photograph onto a large piece of paper and mount onto a board. Neighbors will think you have the real thing. To make it last, laminate or apply a coat of clear varnish.

Free bee housing for the lazy

The BEST way to encourage lots of native bees in your yard is to just stop overdoing the yard work. Make a pile of stems from last year’s perennial garden somewhere in yard, and they’ll naturally break apart and be found by solitary bees — Monarda and Asclepias are some of the many perennials that are hollow. And leave dead trees (or logs) so that boring beetles do their thing and leave nice tunnels for the bees. Finally, leave some patches of your flower beds unmulched so that ground-nesting bees have some ground.

More information

Don’t let the above discourage you from owning your dream house: here’s a draft listing of companies that make good ones. Or, make your own. Below is the one in my front yard.