The Monarch butterflies have arrived on Clayton Street and are laying eggs! The first adult was sited May 11, the first egg was discovered May 24th, and I found the first larva today, May 27th. This is a bit early for me.
If you want to find newly hatched Monarch larvae on a milkweed plant, the first thing to do is to stand back and look for tiny holes in the leaves.
Big caterpillars are easy to find because they leave behind partially-eaten leaves that are hard to miss. Sometimes, you can even see the caterpillars hanging out on top of or under the leaves.
But the new larvae are so small that you are likely to squish them if you go turning over the leaves. So look for tiny holes in the center of the leaves, like these .
So, once you spy a little hole then you can carefully turn it over to search for the cat.
Instar is the term for the phase between two periods of molting in the development of an insect larva. Read more about the 5 stages of Monarch larva development here at the National Wildlife Foundation.
I currently have eggs or larvae on 50% of my milkweed plants. Are you seeing any Monarch butterflies in your garden?
Good morning, Beekeepers!
I've been hearing that our "90 Days of January" has some of you down and you are worried about your little mason bees. Please don't worry.
Mason bees have survived changes in climate for millions of years. This year's cold spring temperatures mean they can't get out and pollinate as soon as WE might like, but it's not unusual for them to still be asleep in their cocoons right now - especially the females. Most of my females have not yet emerged even though they have been outside since mid-March.
We had some warm days last week and we saw lots of bee activity then it turned cold and some of you thought your bees left. Remember that bees are cold-blooded which means that when the temperature drops, their metabolism slows and they literally can't fly or really even move. Most likely, your bees are asleep in one of your nesting tubes or under a leaf somewhere nearby just waiting for their bodies to warm up enough to get back to flying, mating, and laying eggs.
After tonight's frost, the weather is supposed to be in the 60s and 70s with nighttime lows in the 40s and 50s (in Central Indiana.) Your bees may be getting a late start, but very soon they will emerge and do their important work. I promise!
If your cocoons blew out of the nesting box or were snacked on by birds, I still have a few dozen left in my fridge. I need them to be out by May 1st so email me if you want more. I will ship them free in Indiana.
Enjoy your bees, send me photos, and be sure to email with questions!
Cindy, in West Lafayette, checked on her mason bees in the garage yesterday and was surprised to discover that many of them have emerged from their cocoons and are ready to fly! She gave them some cotton balls soaked in 50/50 sugar water and sealed them up in a box in her refrigerator.
Most of the bees should be able to survive another week in the fridge until around March 15th, when daytime temperatures will be consistently in the 50's and the maple trees will be blooming. Then, Cindy can take the box outside and place it under her mason bee nesting box. Hopefully, Cindy's bees will mate and return to her nesting box to lay their eggs and produce next year's bees!
My parents were kind enough to humor me and let me install a bee house in their yard two years ago. Today, their Flora, Indiana bee hotel has become very popular with the area's wild bees.
Dad's bee house started as a ramshackle affair I constructed out of a wooden box purchased at Goodwill with an expired license plate for a roof. (I love the idea of those little bees sleeping under a tin roof.)
I introduced blue orchard mason bees to the house in the spring and alfalfa leafcutters in the summer of 2015, but had no luck enticing the emerging females to stick around and nest.
In 2016 we introduced these spring and summer bees again, and once again, had no nesters in April or May. In July, Dad called to report lots of bees flying in and out of the house. I went for a visit expecting to see many happy little alfalfa leafcutters nesting but was surprised to see an unknown species of very large leafcutter bees had moved in. These leafcutters were approximately 3/4" long, which is much larger than the alfalfa leafcutter bees I had introduced. And they were rambunctious! They cut big, jagged leaf pieces and bumped into each other a lot more than the other leafcutters. Alfalfa leafcutters are small and almost dainty, but these bees are more like Mack trucks.
I submitted photos and a description to bugguide.net with a request for identification. and within two days the wild bees had been identified as megachile pugnata, also called the sunflower leafcutter bee.
I opened several of the nesting tubes of "Dad's bees" last winter and found they have a much different nest structure than alfalfa leafcutters. The photo below is a comparison of an alfalfa leafcutter bee nesting tube and this wild leafcutter bee.
The females do not make egg chambers with the leaf pieces they cut and collect, as do alfalfa leafcutters. These bees chew up the leaves and combine them with clods of dirt and some whole leaf pieces to construct walls and seal the end of the tubes. The egg chambers are also spaced further apart than alfalfa leafcutters.
Rita, a bee enthusiast in Brookston, Indiana, was also seeing these bees in her nesting box. Rita sent photos of the bees and reported, "I have some that are much larger than others, but they all seem to be using the same size tubes, and look the same once filled."
Sunflower leafcutters were also present in my nesting boxes here in West Lafayette this summer. I was able to take this video of one cutting a section from a redbud seedling.
The larvae spin a cocoon that is attached to the inside of the tubes and if we open the tubes, the cocoons tend to tear - so I don't open them. Instead, I keep these tubes together in a paper bag in the unheated garage all winter and just put them out in the nesting house at the same time I start putting out the alfalfa leafcutter cocoons. Once they have emerged, I make sure the tubes are empty then dispose of them.
This is the first documented wild bee to nest in one of our nesting houses and it's been found in Carroll, Tippecanoe, and White counties. Sunflower leafcutter bees are considered manageable pollinators for sunflower crops and a great deal of research has been published on that topic. You can download a full .pdf here to read more about them and learn how they make their nests.
Are you raising solitary bees? Have you had local wild bees move in? I would love to hear about your experiences.
Barbara, in northern White County Indiana, started raising leafcutter bees this summer and has had much success. So much so, in fact, that she had to look out for leafcutters when mowing.
"At one time there were bees coming and going constantly, it seemed," Barbara said. "I have counted 16 tubes filled. Right now no activity, but two weeks ago the bees wouldn't stop working while I was trying to mow. A vibrating John Deere did not phase them! I have all these wonderful flowers for them and they wanted the clover in the grass! I told my daughter that 'I brake for bees!'"
Barbara released two bunches of 50 alfalfa leafcutter bee cocoons at this nesting house this summer and she and her daughter Shanna have been fascinated to watch the gentle bees at work. A friend built their bee house from lumber Shanna purchased out of the scrap bin at Menard's.
"We just caulked and stained it. Overall, very inexpensive," Barbara said.
Barbara's nesting house faces east-northeast. She put chicken wire over the front to prevent birds or other large pests from disturbing the nesting tubes.
She also added some natural nesting materials to the tubes she bought from Bees Gone Wild.
"We broke up twigs and placed them between some of the tubes, below tubes and some in the 'attic,' Barbara said. "I had read that the bees can tell where their tubes are better if you do that."
Thank you, Barbara and family, for supporting wild pollinators in White County!
It's been cold and rainy for the past week here in Indiana and the mason bees have been forced to stay in their nests. Today, the sun is out and it's 57 degrees and I spotted a few females out collecting pollen.
The female in this photo was resting on a bird feeder in the sun only a few feet away from her nesting house. I put my hand out to her and she crawled on to my finger. She was moving slowly and appeared very weak. I took her over to the forget-me-nots, which are about the only thing blooming in the yard today. I expected her to be hungry and wow, was she ever! She put her whole proboscis, or tongue, into the flower and stayed there. Eventually she moved on to another flower and another but was still weak. She allowed me to move her to another cluster of flowers and she foraged there long enough for me to go inside and get my camera.
Mason bees are typically very busy gathering pollen and wouldn't spend so much time nectaring, but this female was clearly very hungry after so many cold days in her nest. After about five minutes of slurping nectar, I moved her into a flower cluster that was getting direct sun. I wouldn't try this with most other bees, but then again, most other bees wouldn't let me. Mason bees are gentle, non-aggressive, and they don't mind being around people. She foraged there, started fluttering her wings, and flew off. Just another satisfying day as a native bee detective!
“A multitude of small delights constitutes happiness.” — Charles Baudelaire
Would you rather have a clean dog or a muddy dog jump up on your sofa? That's an easy question because no one wants a messy sofa. But in nature, messy is sometimes better. This video from last year's garden shows one reason some wild bees, such as mason bees and leafcutter bees, are more efficient pollinators than honey bees. Notice how the leafcutter bee's abdomen and legs are covered in yellow pollen?
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For comparison, I searched for video of a honey bee foraging on the same type of flower. This pretty footage of a Western honey bee from Dr. Mark Shepherd does a great job. Notice how neat and tidy the honey bee's body is?
The honey bee collects pollen on its body hairs then moistens the particles with nectar and brushes them down into pollen baskets on its legs. Honey bees are excellent pollen collectors. The leafcutter bee, by comparison, has no pollen baskets and carries the dry pollen back to her nest on her body hairs without moistening it. Leafcutter bees are excellent pollen spreaders. This is one reason research shows wild bees to be 2 to 3 times better pollinators than honey bees.
If we can increase the number of wild bees in our communities, there can be more of them to pollinate our crops. Better-pollinated crops generally produce more and larger fruit. And more fruit equals fewer hungry people!
Ask me how you can become part of this equation by raising these gentle, valuable pollinators this summer in your own backyard.
I collected these filled mason bee nesting tubes this morning to make room in tiny little House #4.
I set up House #4 last year as an afterthought and it has become a very happenin' place. It's like the dive bar of the Clayton Street bee scene.
This morning, nine of the tubes were sealed, so I carefully took them out while the temperature was still in the 40s and the bees were still sleeping inside. (Mason bees need the temperature to be above 54 degrees to fly.) I replaced the tubes with empty tubes, and brought the filled ones in to label them and store them in the garage. I even photographed them to show how proud I was of the bees' hard work.
However... One of the tubes wasn't actually sealed at all and still had a mama bee inside waiting to warm up and finish her nest. Ooops! When I saw her little antennae pop out the end while I was typing, I snapped a photo but she was shy and ducked back in.
Just another adventure in the life of Heather Harvey, native bee detective! But seriously, when we say mason bees are gentle bees - this is what we're talking about. I carried the tube back outside and put it back in the house. Mama and her brood are back where they belong with the other hipsters in House #4.
Here's what was happening at House #1 yesterday morning. When I counted the bees last night, there were 11 sleepy ladies guarding their brood. I hope to have some night video up soon.
"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