The Grapevine Fabre Speaks on Parasitism
A Surprise Visit The Perforated Plug Mystery
Bug Collecting with Children The Cedar Question
Bumblebee Nests The Gift Of Pollination
Mason Bees In England


The Grapevine

Spring and summer have slipped away. I hope yours were as pleasant as ours. We had a warm and sunny spring and an OK summer in Western Washington. The result was a bumper year for Orchard Mason Bee propagation, lots and lots of fruit of all kinds, more tomatoes than we knew what to do with… just a great growing year. This years fine crop of bees will be able to be shipped until February 29th. They should be robust and healthy judging by the looks of the mud plugs. If you want bees, send in your pollinator order now. Also, be sure to read “The Gift of Pollination” section as a gift idea or a great way to get started with your own bee population.

For many of you this is your first look at the Urban Farmer. Most people pay their way onto the mailing list by buying something from me, bees, a book, or the audio tape. You get to read it because your found this website. I write an Urban Farmer from time to time when the mood strikes. This is the third. My intent is to share interesting things that I have learned about bees, bugs, or gardening since we last connected. I hope you will enjoy my occasional ramblings. There is no charge but please forgive a commercial message. I must pay the postage somehow.

Philidelphia Flower And Garden Show

When we last chatted I was excited to tell you I was to be a seminar speaker at the nations largest flower show. It was a great thrill to be there and to do seminars on two successive days. I took along my usual speaking props, a box with pinned bees, and a split open slice from a nesting block showing the mud nesting cell walls in half section. The props were in my open brief case in the empty airplane seat beside me as I sat reading. We were 25 minutes out of Detroit when he appeared. A black blur crossing my vision headed for the sunlit window beside me. Could it be possible? Was that a bee on the airplane? In an instant I understood. There resting on the window edge preening his long antenna, was a beautiful male Orchard Mason Bee. He had come from the demonstration nesting block slice that I had prepared for the show. The slice had three holes, only one had I bisected to show the nesting cell. The other two I had thought were empty as I could see no mud plugs in them. Apparently far down in one of the holes was one loaded cell with one little male. He had awakened in the pleasant warmth of the planes cabin, surely the only Osmia lignaria to ever have emerged at 30,000 feet over North America. Calmly I arose and went to the empty galley where I helped myself to a Styrofoam cup and a clear plastic juice glass. I gently shooed the bee into the cup, capped it with the clear glass and poked several tiny air holes through the Styrofoam. An incredulous stewardess brought a roll of masking tape to join the two cups and I had a serviceable bee cage. I showed the bee at both the New Jersey and the Philadelphia shows where I was signing books at a book vendors booth between seminars. Finally I released the hungry bee among the blossoms at the Philadelphia show. A late update: I just learned I am to be a seminar presenter at the big Northwest Flower and Garden Show in Seattle. The talk is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, February 10. Come and say hello!

Gregariousness in solitary bees

Have you pondered as I have the strange irony in the Orchard Mason living a solitary life after mating and yet showing such a strong gregarious habit in preferring to nest in close proximity to it’s sisters. I read an interesting theory while grazing in the Rutgers University, Douglas Library. The writer postulates that this gregariousness may represent the first stage of a evolutionary move to social behavior from the solitary state. Is it possible that in the timeless march of evolution, the Orchard Mason is destined to become a social insect?

Fabre Speaks on Parasitism

If you haven’t yet read that great French entomologist Jean Henri Fabre, here is your chance. One of you kind readers, (I regret that I have lost track of your identity) wrote to tell me of The Insect World of J. Henri Fabre , Beacon Press, Boston, ISBN # 0-8070-8513-8. $14.00. A good bookstore can order it for you. Here is an example. “Life in general is a vast brigandage, Nature devours herself; matter is kept alive by passing from one stomach into another. At the banquet of life, each is in turn the guest and the dish; The eater of today becomes the eaten of tomorrow; hocha tibi, cras mihi. Everything lives on that which lives or has lived. Everything is parasitism. Man is the great parasite, he steals the milk from the lamb, he steals the honey from the children of the bee… it is the fierce law which for the life of the one, exacts the death of the other.” Or how about “Etymology says a parasite is one who eats anothers bread, one who lives on the provisions of others”, “Entomology extends that to one who not only lives on the provisions of others but lives on the others”. Or how about “In the fierce riot of empty bellies”. Fabre, who died in 1915, will educate and entertain you. If you like bugs and great writing buy him.


A Surprise Visit

The shop was humming, the chop saw whining as I was cutting out this years pollinators. The door flew open and two strangers, unannounced, came marching across the pine floor. When the noise from the vacuum system subsided, they introduced themselves by saying, “It’s important work you are doing, we have a lot of bees for you”. And so I had the great pleasure of meeting the Ray Harringtons from rural Creston Washington, way up Lake Roosevelt, behind Grand Coulee Dam. They pulled their old school bus, converted to a camper, up before the shop and unloaded into my waiting wheel barrow, a large pile of old weathered boards and timbers in which they had drilled 5/16ths inch holes. Each board is marked with “Hunter Camp Ground” or “Fort Spokane, Tree, 100 feet from water” or where-ever it had been set out in the spring. The filled nesting plugs are extremely diverse. There are many plugs which appear to be Orchard Masons,. There are the telltale leaf mulch plugs which indicate leaf cutter bees. There are plugs with a strange shiny sort of excretion on them. Most fascinating are plugs with tufts of dried grass sticking out of them. Ray thinks those are spider nests. Woodpeckers have excavated part way down into several of the holes. One of these days I am going to saw those boards up and open the nesting cells. I will let you and the Harringtons know what strange creatures I find in there. Anyway, the Harringons drove off for the desert country, snow birding as Mrs. Harrington said, “for the winter”. You sure meet interesting and nice people in the bug business. The Mystery of the Perforated Plugs


The Perforated Plug Mystery

Many of you have reported that mud plugs appear in your nesting blocks only to be violated by small holes a few weeks later. The common reaction is that some creature has been attacking your Orchard Mason Bees. Every thing from spiders to chickadees to woodpeckers have been blamed. I rather think the phenomena can be explained in quite a different manner. The hole maker is from within the cell not from without. I suspect that the culprit is a small black and yellow beneficial wasp that makes nesting cells with mud much like the Orchard Mason, however its egg has a fast turn around time and its metamorphosis from egg to adult emergence is a matter of mere weeks. To support this hypothesis is the report of Mary Weems of Sedro Wooley, WA who reports that she protects her nesting blocks when filled by inserting them in a leg of panty hose, or mesh stocking. She finds that some of her holes are opened by a creature who not only drills the mud plug but cuts through the mesh stocking. Clearly an inside job. Don’t be alarmed. The wasp is beneficial. It captures caterpillars and turns them into zombies with its special sting. Then carries it into a nesting cell and lays an egg on it, sealing the cell with a mud plug. The wasp larva dines on the living zombie (living dead, right Boris?) eating most of it before it succumbs. That way the wasps do not need refrigeration to keep their food from rotting. Soon a new wasp digs out to renew the process. Watch for mud plugs that are very smooth. It is apt to be a wasp plug. Our Orchard Mason makes a very rough plug surface.

Idaho’s Bees have A Different Schedule

Marya and I took a wonderful trip through the Idaho wilderness area this summer with Middle Fork River Expeditions. Six days and five nights on the middle fork of the Salmon River. Not a road nor auto, just incredible beauty and On July 14th, at the 5000 foot level, I found female Osmia Lignaria nesting in beetle holes in the bark of ponderosa pines. That’s a full month after I have ever seen them here at sea level in Western Washington. Incidentally, take heart, the world is not entirely fouled. There were incredible butterflies everywhere, lots of interesting creatures to observe. We saw bear, mountain sheep, and even a moose. In two places on sand beaches along the river, small damp spots where hundreds of a small pollen bee species along with several species of butterflies were congregating to lick something from the sand with their tongues. Anyone know what they were after? Salt? Alkali? Sulfur? If you are interested in a great wilderness experience we are happy to endorse the folks of MFRE. You can call Pat or Jean Ridle at (206) 324-0364 if you are interested.

New From Knox Cellars

We now have available a VIDEO showing the life cycle of the Orchard Mason Bee. For several springs I have rented a professional camera and photographed the bees at important times in their life cycle. With the cooperation of the Entomology Department at Washington State University and professor emeritus E.G. Klostermeyer, I obtained permission to use clips from their 1978 film which shows bees doing what they do inside the nesting cell. So now you can see the whole story of the Orchard Mason as well as visit us here in the garden at Knox Cellars and inside the workshop. I think you will enjoy it. The first two customers wrote back. “We enjoyed the video on the Orchard Mason Bee immensely”: George Traicoff, Hernando, Miss. and, “we were thrilled with the video and also your delightful house and garden” , John Lester, Bend, Oregon. The price for the 20 minute video is $15.00. If you want more information, you can go directly to the Order Form from here.

Buggy Grandchildren

This summer the clan spent our usual week at the ancestral summer home. With six grandchildren from age 10 to 2 1/2, some planned activities are required. The big hit this year was bug collecting. One daughter brought 9 x12 inch plastic picture frames for each kid. (DAX frames about $3.50 each). Grandpa brought 1/2 inch paper covered foam board cut to size, three butterfly nets, and a can of auto starter fluid (the killer). Other important essentials were a couple of bug books for identification, 3/4 inch straight pins for mounting, a big mason jar for a gas chamber, and moms, dads and a grandma willing to help catch, mount, and handle the prey. Sadly, Grandpa was pronounced Executioner. The kids of course were the hunters. It kept them busy and interested for several days and each child went home with his own bug collection to hang on the bedroom wall and a heightened sense of the variety and wonder in Nature’s Garden. Grandpa went home with a guilty conscience from gassing all those poor bugs.


The Cedar Question

Over the years hundreds of people have asked me if cedar is a proper wood to make nesting blocks from. I have always suggested that it is not, that while bees will use it, they vastly prefer almost any other type of wood. James Evans of Olympia, WA has supplied some information which supports my position and I quote from his letter. “Regarding my boughten cedar condo, last year it was hung to the left of three fir blocks–all spaced evenly and all with starter blocks (containing bees) nailed to them. Although bees investigated the cedar block none nested in it. This year, two homemade ’95 fir condos were hung to the left of the cedar block and the three ’94 blocks. Bees used the old and new blocks but not the cedar block. On May 7, I placed the cedar block 80 feet away from the other blocks where bees were working. In a “no choice situation”, at least one bee started using the cedar block ( 7 full cores on 5/31/95) My other condos are loaded with eggs. I will give you a full report later this year.” Thanks Jim. I really appreciate that kind of input. Have any of the rest of you got experience to add? Incidentally Jim ended with this cryptic note “Keep up the good work. The local honey bee population around here crashed this spring. Looks like the pollinator bees saved my fruit production”.


Bumblebee Nests

Rex Welland, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada has sent along an intriguing one sheet plan and instructions for making a nest that bumblebees will nest in. The design includes a hinged sub lid over a sheet of Plexiglas so one can lift the lid occasionally to observe the activities in the Bombus dwelling. I plan on making a few for my yard before spring. I would be delighted to share the plan with you if you will send me a self addressed stamped envelope. If you request one, I will include it in any order that you buy from me. No charge for this. Bumble bees are marvelous creatures and we all should be encouraging them.


Receive the Gift of Pollination

A truly unique gift for the gardener who has everything. Knox Cellars offers a wonderful gift package containing our “pollinator” with live hibernating bees, our book “The Orchard Mason Bee” with greetings inscribed by the author, and a fir 36 hole nesting block. This is a complete set to get any gardener started with a Orchard Mason colony. It is packaged in a charming natural package that is tied with raffia and shipped via UPS to any part of the continental USA. Full instructions for storage until spring are on the inside. ONLY $40.00. If you want more information, you can go directly to the Order Form from here.


Mason Bees in England

Thanks to Penny Senes of Gig Harbor, WA for sending me copies of a scholarly treatise on pollen bees containing a good description of Osmia rufa. This native of the British Isles is commonly called the red mason bee. It is apparently an opportunistic nester using a wide variety of places such as cracks, old beetle borings, and nail holes in fence posts, logs and dead trees. It often nests in the mortar of old walls, enlarging existing nooks and crannies. Less than 50% of Osmia rufa survive to begin nesting. Predation by birds takes its toll but other causes of death also play a part. Females which have not discovered a nest site spend the night in small cavities under bark or debris on the ground. The bees become cool during the night and while slow and torpid are sometimes killed by spiders in the morning. Spiders also prey on those bees that spend the night in a blossom. Once the bee has found a nest site she is safe at night. The remainder of Osmia rufa’s life history appears identical to that of O. Lignaria. No doubt the English could propagate this cousin of our Orchard Mason simply by setting out nesting blocks as we do. I had better find an outlet for my book in England. Thanks so much Jenny.