"Ooooh! Look at that!" The very first reed Rita opened was completely filled with carefully-constructed egg chambers made of leaves. We were like kids at Christmas watching this beautiful work of nature unfold. This nest was created by a female leafcutter bee that used her mandibles to cut oval pieces of leaves, flew them back to the nest, and stuck them together with leaf sap and bee saliva to make a cozy chamber for her young to develop. She then filled each chamber with a loaf of pollen and laid an egg directly on that food source. The larvae hatched, ate the pollen, and each made a cocoon inside the chambers where they are currently developing into adult bees. If all goes well, eleven adult bees will hatch from these cocoons into Rita's garden sometime in late May or June.
Laurel and JJ also opened their nesting tubes and had mixed results. JJ had what appeared to be beneficial wasp larvae in some of her nesting tubes. She is going to isolate these nests so she can see what emerges in the spring or summer. Laurel found a couple of spiders nesting in the tubes, but no bees. It's not uncommon to have a small harvest the first year because there are so many variables involved. Nest location, light, temperature, timing, proximity to food sources, and just general bee preferences. Every bee is different and has specific likes and dislikes about potential nesting sites.
JJ shared a thoughtful insight about the all-female group's hardiness in the midst of the potential creepy crawlies just waiting to be uncovered when she said, "I think it's great that we are able to sit here and talk about all these worms and grubs and poop and nobody is screaming." In fact, there was zero screaming - only a bit of reasonable trepidation - as we finished with the tubes they brought from home and started opening the mason bee tubes from the nests that I manage. Mason bees provide for their young in the same manner as leafcutter bees, but instead of leaves they use mud to make their egg chambers.
The mason bee tubes tend to be messier to open because the larvae push feces and any leftover pollen out when they are spinning their cocoons, but seeing all of this detritus inside is also pretty interesting. Along with the cocoons we discovered a few pollen mites and parasitic wasp larvae, which are frequent hangers-on in native bee nests. We cleaned the cocoons by shaking them in some sand to remove these pests.
In the three chambers at top left you can see the yellow pollen loaves but no cocoons. Either the female didn't lay any eggs in these cells, or something caused them to die before consuming the pollen. To the right you can see the mud partitions separating each cocoon. The cocoons are silver, the black bits surrounding them are larva feces, and the yellow bits are leftover pollen. At bottom right is the crumbled mud cap the female created to seal the tube from predators.
Why do we harvest the bee cocoons? Native leafcutter and mason bees are snuggled up in their cocoons right now in your yard and they don't need our help to come out and do their important pollinating work this spring. But, by giving them boxes to nest in and bringing their cocoons in during the winter, we can help ensure their health and survival by: maintaining their temperature if we have a warm winter; keeping them safe from hungry birds; checking for pests and chalkbrood; and sharing them with others to promote the "keeping" of native bees. With as much as 40% of the world's bee population facing threats to its survival, this little bit we can do for the bees in our neighborhood can really add up.
Besides, it's fun to learn something new, as we discovered at the Bee Harvest Party. And it was fun to learn from each other. The ladies traded tips about building nesting houses and the best places to install them in their gardens. They even decided that, like the female bees, they had a preference for one type of nesting tube over another. There was also a glimpse of the empowerment that can happen when a group of women take on a new project. One of the guests admitted that her husband usually does the handy work around the house, but it was important to her to build her own bee house. This was a project she wanted to do, from start to finish, on her own. She not only finished it but she brought it to the party to share her design ideas.
At the end of the party, everyone took home the cocoons they harvested to increase their own native bee communities. They will keep them sheltered in a cool garage or the refrigerator until mid-March when the maple trees bloom and the bees will have a plentiful food source.
I am so appreciative of these ladies coming out on Sunday to share their interest in bees and ideas for aiding their survival. If you or your organization are interested in learning more about native pollinators and hosting your own bee education event, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org