Back when we were living in Portland, on a tiny postage-stamp sized lot (actually, it was a rather large lot by Portland standards, where the rising housing demands resulted into thousands of “shotgun” houses being built on miniscule split lots across the city), we were interested in promoting beneficial insects to help pollinate plants, break down compost, etc.
We first discovered the black solider flies – these guys are AMAZING for breaking down the ickiest of food waste into gorgeous black gold (compost) for the garden. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a way to bring any of the solider flies with us when we moved, so we plan to order some larvae to help promote a colony of the flies on our homestead.
Then we stumbled upon mason bees – being gardeners, we were of course interested in the pollinating aspects of honey bees, but also being city-dwellers, and having young children, the prospect of having a live hive of stinging bees wasn’t really that appealing. (Also, as I’ve subsequently learned, raising honeybees is a veritable shitton of work! We would still like to do it eventually, but maybe once the kids are old enough to help a bit.) Then we came across mason bees – I think we first learned about them at the Portland Nursery (on Stark Street – if you live in PDX and haven’t been to the Portland Nursery, GO! It’s heaven on earth). We were perusing plants one weekend and inside the store was a display of tiny hoses, reeds and boxes of tiny cocoons. We chatted with the nursery employee about them for a bit and were sold: we came home with a wood mason bee home, a box of reeds, and a box of mason bee cocoons that day.
For two years, we would place the cocoons inside the bee house (which was mounted right outside our dining room window) and when the sun would warm up, the little cocoons would start hatching and tiny black bees would come flying out. The kids were enthralled – so were we.
In the fall of 2016, we packed up our family and made the trek across Washington State to Pend Oreille County (it abuts Idaho and Canada, to the east and north, respectively). We brought with us the kids (obviously), two cats, a dog – and a pile of mason bee cocoons.
Every summer, the bees work diligently to lay eggs, packed in between with mud (hence the name, “mason”) inside the reeds. Then they die, leaving behind their eggs inside of very protective cocoons. In the fall, we harvest the cocoons by cracking open the reeds (there are different types of structures, some of which have more long-term usage, which we are looking into) and collecting the little round shells that hold tiny bee larvae inside.
Then they hang out in our fridge for the rest of fall, winter, and early spring. Once the snow has melted, daytime temps are warmer and some plants are starting to blossom, the cocoons get set out for another cycle of hatching, gathering, egg laying and death. It’s so beautiful to get to watch this process play out, year after year. We’ve had this same batch of bees for 4 years now, and the new generation is just finished up hatching. (We had a few early bloomers hatch several weeks ago, right before a cold snap, and I fear they did not make it . . . nature is cruel sometimes.)
When they are hatching, if you listen closely, you can hear the humming and crackling as the tiny bees make their way out of the delicate, and yet incredibly durable, cocoons. The other day we caught one just as it was wriggling its hind end out of his temporary shell home, and saw the last little push the bee gave as he made his way free. The kids went nuts, they thought it was so unbelievably cool.