Native mason bees can be housed to protect them from pests, diseases and predators. They are excellent early season pollinators for orchards and other early season fruit crops. Mason bees can do more work than non-native honey bees, even on a cloudy rainy day. Also, mason bees are solitary non-aggressive bees, which makes them ideal for folks with pets or children. The initial step for the care of mason bees is to build a nest block or mason bee house.
I’ve combined my original design with the rolled paper liner technique first published by Randy Person. You can read more about his process, and see an alternative nest block design, at:
Randy has also assisted in improving this Instructable. He attributes much of his knowledge to his long association with Dr. Margriet Dogterom, author of Pollination with Mason Bees, and proprietor of the bee-related website Beediverse.com. The original idea for the coiled liners came from Dave Pehling of the Washington State University Extension Office, followed by several years of testing and refinement by Randy.
I have included a video of the build along with a PDF version of the plans.
Step 1: Tools/Materials
- Table Saw
- Drill press/ hand drill
- Band saw (optional)
- Drill bits (3/8”) – paper will bring actual size down to 5/16”
- Wood clamps
- Paint brushes
- Tape Measure
- 2” x 6” x 52” Long untreated lumber - cedar or redwood is not recommended for the house portion
- 16” x 16” x ¾”tk wood
- Wood glue
- Paint (optional)
- Natural Stain (optional)
- Parchment paper
- ¼” wood dowel x 7” Long
Step 2: Drawing Views
You will be building to this drawing.
Step 3: Cut Wood
Cut 2”x6” lumber as shown in drawings. Cut plywood for roof and backer plate. Note: plywood was the material on hand. Solid lumber may be used for a longer lasting roof and back plate.
Step 4: Drill Holes
Drill holes completely through the 5.5” depth of the 2” x 6” per drawing. A drill press is recommended. Standard drill presses are limited to a 2” or 3” travel. After first pass, use scrap wood under the lumber section that you are drilling. The holes will have to be drilled multiple times to greater depth with each pass. I had to use a hand drill to get the last ½”- see video.
Step 5: Assemble Main Section
Glue lumber together as shown. Clamp the lumber and wipe off any excess glue. Make sure the back of the house is flush. A back plate will be screwed on during the final assembly.
Step 6: Paint Roof
Paint the roof pieces with exterior grade paint.
Step 7: Finish (Optional)
Use natural (non-toxic) stain for the main house. Note that there are several Instructables on natural stains.
I chose an instant coffee version:
- ¼ cup hot water
- 3 Tablespoons instant coffee granules
Step 8: Attach Roof
Attach roof to the main structure using glue and screws or nails. Touch up paint as required.
Step 9: Parchment Tube Materials
Use 1/4" dia. dowel and parchment paper for baking to make the removable tubes. Dimensions for each strip are 6” long x 2.5” wide - this can vary up to 4" width. If you are using different dimensions, parchment should be cut at least 1/2” longer than the depth of the house. Note: Do not use paper, wax paper or recycled cardboard for DIY tubes. Mold can destroy the hibernating bees.
Time saving tip: To easily cut multiple pieces of the parchment without tedious measuring, make a winding board. Use a thin, stiff material, like solid cardboard, or even thin sheet metal. Cut one dimension to your desired length, with the other at least half as long as your paper roll. Then just wind the paper around that core, making a sharp crease at each turn. After you get 5 or 6 layers wound, use a sharp knife at each crease – two cuts can get you a dozen large sheets. To trim them to individual size, stack the slippery things carefully, lay a stiff straightedge along your desired cut line, and use a very sharp knife or rotary craft cutter to cut through the whole stack.
Step 10: Roll the Tube
Roll each parchment tube tight against the dowel. Proceed to the next step for each hole to be lined. Repeat these steps until you have all the holes lined. Note that this might be easier if you live in Washington, Oregon or Colorado :).
Step 11: Insert the Tube
From the front of the house, insert the paper wrapped dowel in the hole as shown. Carefully slide the dowel out of the hole on the back side of the house while leaving the parchment paper inside. The parchment paper tube should be flush with the front side of the house and stick out the back about 1/2". Note: If the paper is not snug along the sides of the hole, slide the paper tube back and forth until the tube is snug inside the hole. Just be sure to leave the ½” sticking out the back side of the house.
Step 12: Bending the Tubes
When all of the holes are filled with parchment paper tubes, turn the bee house face down. Bend each tube sharply down towards the bottom of the house as shown in photo/video. Once all the ends are bent down, proceed to the next step.
Step 13: Attach Back
Trim or adjust the bent tube ends making sure nothing will stick out the sides of the backer plate. Attach the back plate tightly with screws.
Step 14: Finished Mason Bee House
Step 15: Annual Cycle
This Instructable is primarily on the construction of the mason bee nest house. Raising the bees involves more, which is the subject of longer articles or short books available at many locations. Briefly, the annual cycle looks like this:
Winter – build or maintain your nests to provide clean holes for Spring.
Spring – enjoy watching the bees emerge and begin to forage and fill the nest holes. If you’re using a new nest to “trap” local bees for the first time, include the thrill of the hunt!
Summer – protect the growing bees from predation.
Fall – pull the tubes, remove and clean the cocoons of pests. Prepare the clean cocoons for over-wintering.
**Photos and writing courtesy of Randy Person**
Step 16: Installation
- The mason bee house needs to be placed outside before early spring flowering starts. Know the conditions and time when your fruit crop blossoms in spring.
- If installed on a post, it should be placed at least 3 ft above ground level. Installing on a building is another excellent option since the roof overhang or eave provides extra protection from the weather. House height isn't a critical factor. There have been reports of success from 3rd story apartment buildings.
- The house should be firmly attached so that it does not sway or vibrate. The bees like a firm and secure house.
- The bee house should face east to south-east to catch the morning sun. This orientation will provide early emergence for the bees as well as a full day of foraging amongst the flowers. Comment from Randy Person: "The bees need warm to get going. It’s fun to watch them on a 45-50 degree morning in early spring. Most of my houses face due east, and on a clear day, the direct sun brings them out early. Then they just crawl around for a while, basking, until they warm up enough to get going. East bees will have a one to two hour jump on the south bees. BTW, while they are basking, look closely for males and females. The guys have a white moustache, visible even without a hand lens. They look like little Einsteins."
- It should be sheltered from strong winds and rain. Using a building for a mount provides a good windbreak, making it easier for the bees to be back to the holes in windy conditions.
- The house should be located within 300 feet of the pollen source, i.e. orchard, berry patch, blueberry bushes, etc. In a typical yard, one nest locations will likely do the whole yard, and benefit the neighbors, too. Someone with a larger area, like a small 5-acre holding with trees at various locations, might want more than one.
- Depending on your mount location, tilting the house slightly down might aid in water drainage and mold prevention. However, this step is not necessary if you have good protection, either from the building, or with an extended roof and sides if in the open.
- Provide a source of mud nearby but not directly underneath the house. Ideally, it will be clay soil. During dry weather, place a dishpan of dirt at a slant, with water in the bottom, so there’s a ready source.
**Photos courtesy of Randy Person**
Step 17: Maintenance
- A protective screen may have to be installed around the house to prevent predation from squirrels, wood peckers, and other predators. If a screen is added, don’t bang the nest around with developing bees inside. The mesh screen should not be used when the bees are actively foraging and nesting since the fine wires can disturb the bees.
- For occasional painting and repair, only take down the house after the bees are no longer present and active for a minimum of a month. It is important to note that the newly hatched grubs are very small and they can fall off the pollen ball, not be able to get back up, and so will die. If the bee house is taken down, the house should be stored in a garage, storage shed or barn at ambient temperatures.
- At harvest time, remove the back and slip the liners out. After months in place, they will stay intact, even without any glue.
- The bee cocoons should be cleaned and inspected. It’s best to just unroll the papers, dump everything in the water, and wash them. The bee cocoons should be cleaned by rinsing with cool water. Rinse once, in and under running water, while swirling in a sieve to dislodge and wash away attached dirt and mites. It’s a mechanical, not chemical, cleaning.
- Let the cocoons dry out by carefully by setting them on a dry surface in a single layer. Line a shallow box with a full section of newspaper. It will quickly wick away the water, and then dry. Allow 24 to 48 hours before storing in any enclosure. Residual moisture can lead to mold.
- Place the cocoons in a small plastic container; then place the container in an unheated garage, storage shed or barn. Basically, a plastic container, with adequate but limited air exchange works best.
- Clean the wood bee house. Use a dowel to remove debris still in the holes. Clean the bee house with a mild solution. Over the winter, reline the bee house holes with new parchment and reattach the back plate.
- Set the mason bee house outside well before the orchard trees start flowering.
- At the same time, and also in the orchard, place the cocoons in a hatching box for spring emergence ensuring another season of bees (and hopefully more of them!).
**Photos and much of the writing for this step courtesy of Randy Person**