YEAR 2000 – VOLUME 9


The Buzz In The Berry Patch
Israel In The Spring Bee Survival Techniques
Keep Those Bee Tubes Horizontal Late Bees
Canned Bees Hole Depth Is Important
Black Plastic Plugs Available Continental Distribution
Oxford Bee Company Bumblebees Move Into Knox Cellars
Osmia Californica Leafcutter Construction
Minutia Multiplied Orchard Masons Love Cherries
Flowers Titillate Bees


Volume 8 (Winter 1999/2000) Volume 7 (Winter 1998/99)
Volume 6 (December 1997) Volume 5 (June 1997)
Volume 4 (August 1996) Volume 3 (October 1995)

The Buzz

It’s been another busy and growing year since last we wrote an Urban Farmer. We have been hard-pressed to keep up with the packing and shipping, the preparation of bees and products, and the increasing volume of mail, phone calls, and contacts of our ever-growing business. It is with great pleasure that we announce Chelan-Douglas Development Services (CDDS) of Wenatchee, WA, will do the shipping for us from their new “bee factory.” The handicapped clients of (CDDS) have assembled and packed our ‘System’ nesting tube products for several years. At a new, larger facility they will warehouse, assemble, and ship all of our products. This change will provide meaningful employment for a number of handicapped folks and help to fund a very worthwhile social service agency. It will allow us to concentrate on other parts of the business. The return address on shipments from Knox Cellars will be 701 Poplar St., Wenatchee, WA 98801. You will still contact Lisa and Brian at their respective addresses in Redmond and Bellingham.


Lisa and Brian will attend the 2001 Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show (MANTS) at Baltimore’s Convention Center, January 9, 10, 11. We will be showing our bee products and our retail display to garden center/ nursery buyers attending this large East Coast wholesale show. We will appreciate it if our friends on the East Coast mention our products to their favorite garden center owners and tell them to look for us at MANTS.


In The Berry Patch

This is written at the old family summer home on San Juan Island. Here, in July, one of the hallowed traditions was blackberry pie cooked on the old Monarch wood stove. The stove is gone now, but the skeins of tiny tart berries still grow half hidden among the bracken ferns and salal of the island vegetation. The pursuit of these tiny summer jewels is both a culinary act and a nostalgic one. Hunkered down in the brush in the hot sun the sounds and especially the smells bring back memories of my childhood. I thought I caught a whiff of my father’s pipe smoke drifting across the patch and expected to hear the query “is the bottom of your bucket covered yet?” The thunk of the berries hitting the bottom of the old MJB coffee can finally ceased as I found a motherlode of berries growing over an old stump. I shifted into picking with both hands, carefully stripping black jewels from the thorned vines. Now the can began to fill more rapidly. The silence and peace of the woods was solace to these now citified ears; but listen again, the woods were really filled with sounds-the chirr of a grasshopper as it flew, small clicks here and there from who knows what creatures-but most noticeably, a veritable symphony of buzzing bees.

Bumblebees were everywhere foraging the white salal blossoms which hang in urn-shaped abundance amidst the dark shiny leaves. Large yellow ones, probably Bombus fervidus fervidus, tiny black and white ones, Bombus van dykei? At least three species of Bombus adding to the chorus and to the pleasure of the morning.

Now my search for a new skein of berries leads me to a handful of shiny black morsels under the crown of a low shrub, and as my hand penetrates the tangle of grasses, shrub and vine, an alarmed buzzing rises. A handful of greyish pursuits rise from under the berries to circle me warily. My first impulse was to bolt, for it is not uncommon to encounter a nest of yellow jackets (Vulgaris vulgaris) nesting in the berry patch, and the proper response is rapid retreat. For some reason I held still and the insects, either wasps or bees, circled my head threateningly but did not attack. I must come back here with my butterfly net and catch one of these creatures and see just what they are. I picked the berries over their nest and rested motionless until they calmed and returned to their nest. Then I made a stealthy withdrawal. Before long the coffee can was three quarters full, enough for a pie. As I walked back to the cabin I gave thanks to the native bees who each year seek out the skeins of blackberry blossoms and make this summer delight possible.


Israel In The Spring

The spring of 2001 will find Brian chasing around the slopes of Mt. Carmel, Israel, with a butterfly net. Christopher O’Toole has invited Brian to join him as a volunteer field assistant during his two week stint in the final year of a three-year Oxford-Israeli research program. They will be collecting bees for later identification and research at Oxford. Apparently the dry shrub and pine-covered hills of Mt. Carmel harbor one of the world’s most diverse and plentiful bee populations. Each day they will be collecting bees in a different, prescribed collecting territory. Each afternoon they will pin and prepare the catch for the Oxford collection. Housing will be in a Druse Arab village near Haifa.

The opportunity to learn about bees from an internationally known bee entomologist such as Christopher O’Toole, and the adventure of a stay in Israel is a wonderful thing to anticipate. An Israel adventure report will be a feature in a forthcoming Urban Farmer.

Bee Survival Techniques

Have you wondered what happens to your Orchard Mason Bees when a period of bad spring weather prevents their foraging. How can they survive when the weather stays below flying temperature for extended periods.

Amazingly, the female recycles her eggs in order to survive. She resorbs eggs as needed-converting them to life-giving energy. Since she only has 34 eggs, cold weather reduces her reproductive output. If you wondered why some years produce more bees than others, this is one of the reasons.


Keep Those Bee Tubes Horizontal

Another bit of fascinating information from Dr. Philip Torchio. You must keep those bee nesting holes perfectly flat. If you tilt them one way or another, or worse, position them vertically, some of the larvae will spin their cocoons oriented backwards.

Imagine the havoc created in the spring when the first bee, thinking it is emerging, begins to chew its way toward the back of the hole.


Late Bees

Just when we think we understand the basics of Orchard Mason Bee behavior Mother Nature humbles us again. We have repeatedly written that Orchard Masons in the coastal Pacific Northwest are through with their emergence period by the first week of June. This year on July 3rd we got an email from Dayle Houk of Bainbridge Island, Washington.

He had a substantial population of what he thought were Orchard Masons nesting at his colony. He sent me a couple of dead bees picked up in front of his nesting holes. A look under the microscope quickly confirmed that they were indeed Orchard Masons. I then requested that he send a live bee. That also proved to be an Orchard Mason. Finally Dayle reported seeing the last bees on July 10th. What explains the extreme time difference?

Canned Bees

An idea we developed to help the Oxford Bee Company get started seemed so promising that we have adapted it for North America. We will be abandoning our wooden ‘Pollinators’ for the new ‘Canned Bees’ cylindrical nester.

This small, mailable, compact, and attractive cylinder holds nineteen of our ‘System’ nesting tubes. We will slip three or four natal tubes of hibernating bees into the guard tubes to provide a starting population of 20 bees. The cylinder has an attached hangtab which allows you to simply expose the tab and hang the compact ‘Canned Bees’ nester on a nail.

The two-inch diameter tube is covered with a waterproof aluminum skin, which in turn is covered with an attractive label containing directions, an illustration of the Orchard Mason Bee, and spaces for address, return address, and postage.

Hole Depth Is Important

Lyle Dyck sent us a sample nesting block to see if we could determine why none of his bees emerged this spring. The block was four inches long. It contained six holes drilled into the end grain. Each hole was nicely sealed with grey clay. Looked like a perfectly healthy nesting block, but no bees had emerged from it. None of his substantial colony of bees emerged this spring.

We split each hole down the center to get at the cause of failure. The holes were about 2 inches deep, but nicely filled with cells and cocoons. There were 15 cells in the six holes. In such shallow holes there was not room for more. Two of the holes had three cells, the rest, two each. Three cells had been parasitized by mites, one was empty, and all the rest contained a healthy looking cocoon.

We carefully cut open each cocoon and examined the contents under the microscope. There were 11 bees in total. Four of them were mature males with no obvious reasons for their demise. Seven of them were immature males in the last pupal stage, their undeveloped wings tucked close to their still blackening bodies.

They would have reached that stage in August most likely. Why did they die? Lyle had the nesting blocks placed where he had successfully raised bees for three years previously. I could not find any sign of abnormality or disease in either nest cell or cocoon, nor on the bees bodies. This was a very frustrating postmortem except for one thing. Every bee was a male. This exercise was a perfect example of the results of inadequate hole length. Dr. Philip Torchio determined several years ago that the optimum male/female ratio is only reached in a hole six inches or deeper. Any hole shorter than that will cause the nesting female to lay a higher percentage of male eggs. It is for this reason that our Knox Cellars ‘System’ nesting tubes are six inches long. With them you should achieve three females for every nine filled nesting cells, that’s Mother Nature’s proper sex ratio.


Black Plastic Plugs Available

Those of you that use our ‘System’ nesting tubes are familiar with the small black plastic plug which holds the liner into the guard tube and plugs up the back of the nesting tube. We had this plug designed and a mold made so they can be manufactured economically in great numbers in an injection molding machine.

We are now experiencing a growing demand for these plugs and wish to announce they are available for purchase as an individual item from Knox Cellars. We recently filled an order from an entomologist for 100,000. We have them in stock and will sell any number upon request (subject to a minimum of 500). The price depends on the number ordered. Call us for a quotation.

Continental Distribution

I find it interesting to contemplate that Europe, Asia, and North America each host a closely related early spring Mason bee. Ours, of course, is Osmia lignaria, the Orchard Mason Bee. Europe is home to Osmia rufa, the Red Mason bee; and in the northern areas of Asia, Japan, Korea, and Manchuria are found Osmia cornifrons, the Hornfaced bee. The life history of each of these great spring pollinators is the same, they all nest in found holes and seal their cells and nesting holes with mud.

Oxford Bee Company

A group of entomologists at England’s prestigeous Oxford University has formed The Oxford Bee Company with the purpose of raising money for native bee research. Christopher O’Toole, the co-author of “Bees of the World,” and curator of the bee collection at Oxford, tells us that universities in the United Kingdom do not fund native bee research. To address this shortcoming the Oxford Bee Company has nest trapped their native Mason bee, Osmia rufa, this spring. They plan on selling starter colonies of these spring pollinators along with nesting habitat just as we do with Osmia lignaria (the Orchard Mason bee).

Because the life history of both bees is virtually identical, O’Toole and his associates purchased 20,000 Knox Cellars ‘System’ tubes and installed them in various locations around England. The bees took readily to our tubes we were happy to hear. We wish our English friends the best of fortune in their efforts to introduce the gardeners and orchardists of the U.K. to their native mason bee. Osmia rufa, as the name implies is a reddish colored bee, common to northern Europe and an excellent pollinator of fruits and berries just like its North American cousin.


Bumblebees Move Into Knox Cellars


Bumblebee approaching the entrance to “Humble Bumble Home”.
(Photo courtesy of The Bellingham Herald)

On the 15th of April, I was working in the new pollinator garden I planted just outside the workshop windows. I became aware of the continual passing of bumblebees and I looked up to see several large bumbles approaching and then entering the hole in the board under the shop window. The hole leads to a 4-inch plastic pipe that is the entrance to a large ‘Humble Bumble Home’ sitting on a shelf above the workbench. I had enjoyed several colonies of bees in that nest box-colonies I had captured and brought home-but never before had bees moved in voluntarily.

What a joy, a quick lifting of the wooden lid, and I could see through the plexiglass observation sub-lid that these bees had occupied the nest box for many weeks. The nest already filled about half of the nine by ten inch nest chamber.

In an effort to gauge the number of bees in the colony, I decided to count the foragers that entered and left the entrance hole over a timed 10-minute interval. That first afternoon I counted 29 lovely red-tailed Bombus rufocinctus. I was to repeat that count many times over the coming weeks and months as a technique to chart the expected rise and inevitable fall of the colony’s population. My theory was that an individual bee’s foraging time would be more than 10 minutes, and so by counting bees for 10 minutes each day I would not be counting a bee twice. The population count rose gradually to a high of 59 bees on May 1st, and then began a slow descent to 19 by June 1st. I guessed that the colony had 300 members at its peak.

On June 18th, following a week-long period of bad weather, I had not seen a single bee entering or leaving the nest hole all morning. Knowing that the colony had been declining rapidly, I presumed that it had died out. I wanted to save the comb for display before wax moths and other interlopers consumed it, so I put the entire Humble Bumble Home in the freezer. This I knew would kill the parasites and not harm the comb.

Within the hour I noticed several Bombus rufocintus buzzing on the inside of the shop windows. I immediately knew I had acted prematurely. I plugged the entrance tube through the window, caught the bees and released them outside, and sure enough, they immediately made their way to the entrance hole and tried to crawl through the now plugged tube. All in all, seven foragers returned to find their way to their colony blocked. As an act of mercy I caught each one and put it in the killing jar to be later pinned and attached to their display colony. I felt terrible about prematurely ending the life of the colony, but it had seemed so lifeless. I was to feel much worse several days later when I removed the ‘home’ from the freezer and carefully lifted the covering of upholsterer’s cotton insulation from over the comb. There I found another 32 dead bees, some of them hovered in death in the warming position over unhatched larval cocoons.

The knowledge that they would all soon have died and that I could pin them to and display them on the comb was only partial expiation of my guilt. I will never know how much longer they would have lived, or if there might have been a resurrection of colony strength as the good weather returned. At least I will have a magnificent, large golden comb populated with many of its now-mummified inhabitants to show children and others just how the bumblebees nest.

This was a fine bumblebee year at Knox Cellars, for a colony settled in another of the two regular-sized ‘Humble Bumble Homes’ attached to the north side of our home. Two colonies out of three is about as good as it gets.


Osmia Californica

Lisa and I have Osmia californica working in our gardens as I write this on July 19th. We refrigerated the bees until our Orchard Masons were just about finished in the first week of June. We put out the bees in our ‘System’ nesters and in a very few days we began to see males cruising the tube openings.

O. californica males are quite similar in appearance and size to Orchard Mason bees, however they have a mantle of grey hairs on the thorax which give them a distinct greyish appearance as they flit about.

The females, again similar to the Orchard Mason, are noticeably blacker, and larger. While very similar, the difference in appearance is distinct and you will have no problem identifying them. O. californica appears to be a heat lover. They stay in the nesting hole awaiting warmer temperatures long after the Orchard Mason would have been out and working; but when the proper temperature arrives they become just as active.

We have been listing the flower species that they frequent and so far have observed them on dahlias, coreopsis, allium, scabiosa, gaillardia, daisies, thistle, heliantheum, nasturtium, and coneflowers. While previously it was known that these bees favored flowers of the huge Compositae family; our observations above noted find them on Liliaceae, Dipsacaceae, Tropaeolaceae, and Cistaceae.

These bees seal their nesting cells and plug the nesting holes with a combination of mud and leaf mulch and so they could be called part Mason bee and part Leafcutter. A common perennial of the genus geum near Lisa’s colony is their favorite leaf for cutting, and many of its leaves are heavily lacerated as though by pinking shears. The geum is of the Rosaceae family. Those of you who bought O. californica from us last year, please let us know on what you see them foraging, as science doesn’t have a good understanding of what they might pollinate.

A note to O. californica raisers-these interesting bees are parsi-voltine meaning that some of them will stay in hibernation for two winters rather than one. The first winter as pupae and the second winter as hibernating adults. This is apparently nature’s insurance against disastrous environmental conditions that might wipe out the entire bee population one year. The species will live on in the bees that are still hibernating to come out in the following year.

We think that warm weather during the nesting season and later during the period of metamorphosis turns the bees toward a one-year cycle, while cold temperatures during June, July, and August will tend to encourage parsivoltinism. If you would like to enhance your native bee experience you can purchase these interesting bees from us. We will have approximately 200 starting colonies for sale this season. See our catalog.


Leafcutter Construction

Have you ever wondered what that little leafcutter bee does with the piece she just cut out of your rose leaf. Listen to this description from “Bees of the World,” by Raw and O’Toole. “She alights on the leaf and investigates it with her antennae, occasionally nipping the edge of the leaf with her jaws. If the leaf is suitable, she straddles its margin with her legs and rapidly cuts out a piece with her heavily built, toothed jaws, which act like a pair of scissors. She always positions herself with her head pointing toward the base of the leaf and the whole operation takes no more than two or three seconds.”

“Female leaf-cutter bees use at least two and sometimes three different shapes of leaf fragment. The first three or four pieces a female brings to the nest are about the same length as the bee herself and are elongate, almost rectangular in shape. She uses these as the foundation lining for the rear of the cell. The female places them at the rear of the nest tunnel, with their ends and sides overlapping to make a cup-like end lining. She sticks the leaf fragments together by crimping the edges of the leaves so that sap oozes out and this possibly with a glue of salivary origin, acts as an adhesive.”

“Once the female has lined the rear of the cell, she lines the side walls with oval-shaped leaf pieces which are usually longer than her body. She always positions the leaves so that their smoother, shiny surface faces into the cell. If the diameter of the nest tunnel is too large, then the bee uses additional pieces as a loose packing until she achieves the preferred diameter of the species, and only then does she stick leaf pieces together to form the rigid inner lining.” After provisioning the cell and laying her egg she “then seals the cell with a series of four to 12, perfectly circular pieces of leaf.” Perhaps we should be calling them ‘Tailor Bees’ instead of leaf-cutter.


Minutia Multiplied

This great stuff is from “Bagging Bugs In A Bioblitz,” an article published in the Scarabogram, the monthly newsletter of the Scarabs, a group of bug fanciers in Seattle, WA. The report described the various efforts of a group of scientists to count every species found in an unlikely location over an intense 24 hour search. The location chosen was Keney Park in Hartford, Connecticut. Here was my favorite piece of a fascinating article.

“With a coffee can, a slight, white-bearded man named Carl Rettenmeyer cut out a disk of grassy soil and leaf litter ‘about the size of a quarter-pounder with lettuce’. This sample would sit overnight on a screen in a funnel, with an electric light overhead to make things uncomfortable, and a killing jar below to collect whatever came creeping out.”

“By Saturday afternoon, the ‘quarter-pounder’ of lawn alone would yield 23 separate species, and 89 individual animals, including mites, thrips, and an awful lot of springtails, ‘little bitty things smaller than the head of a pin.’ ‘The area of the sample is 11.044639 square inches,’ Rettenmeyer said. ‘Now multiply that by … .’ Then he came up with his best estimate: that there are 50 million individuals in just the top inch of soil in an ordinary acre here, and 35 billion animals in the 695 acres of Keney Park.” Now that’s bio-diversity.


Orchard Masons Love Cherries

The U.S.D.A. Logan Bee Lab recently published a report of their 1998 experiment with O. lignaria in the Kendell Family Cherry Orchard in Utah. Sweet cherries require intense pollination and previously Kendell had been using six honeybee hives per hectare. The scientists at Logan released an estimated 2,600 female and 5,200 male O. lignaria. The results were impressive. Over a 15-year period the cherry orchard’s highest yield had been 7,250 kilograms of cherries. The Orchard Mason-pollinated crop was 14,875 kilograms. Equally important, 94% of Kendell’s 1998 production made the ‘perfect’ grade. The final bonus, the Logan Lab achieved a 5.4-fold increase of female bees and a 3.7-fold increase of males in the completed nesting cells harvested from the orchard.


Flowers Titillate Bees

Flowers have evolved in many ways to attract bees-bright colors, sweet nectar. But now Australian scientists have discovered that some plants have developed chemicals to mimic the sex pheromones of female bees so males will try to mate with the flowers and pollen will be transferred from one plant to another. The compounds that create the scent in the flowers are exactly the same compounds in similar proportions that the bee produces in her pheromone. Beware that musky perfume boys.