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Tiny homes for vital bees

By on June 26, 2021 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments
Making homes for solitary bees is easy and cheap to do, said Greg Van Stralen. Photo by Anita Van Stralen

Solitary bees live alone, but without them, we would be in a world of hurt

By Yvette Davis

Greg Van Stralen didn’t know his third career would be as a home builder. 

After working as a title officer and a biologist, he now builds tiny homes. They measure about three inches deep and ½ to 5/16th inches around. 

Construction goes pretty quick — he can make a few dozen per hour. Though a little small for you and me, there’s plenty of wiggle room for a bee.

A former wildlife biologist with the Department of U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Greg spent 20 years of his career focused on native species and their habitats. One of his working goals was to empower people to make a difference, something he continues to do these days by teaching people how to help our local bees.

Most of our backyard flowers, fruits and vegetables are not pollinated by honeybees, but by various native species of bees, wasps and hornets. Miner bees, mason bees, carpenter bees and leafcutter bees are a few examples. 

Unlike the honeybee that lives in a hive, most of these tiny critters live alone.

These solitary bees do not live in a colony, nor do they have a single queen. They prefer to hunker down for the winter in a crevice or hole, after sealing up the entrance with wax or mud. The females lay eggs in the crevices, separated by walls of pollen that supply food to the larva. When spring temperatures reach about 57 degrees, the bees emerge from their homes and get to work. 

It’s estimated that one mason bee can do the pollinating of one honeybee. Without them we’d be in a world of trouble, Greg said. 

“We are in decline in bees globally. The western bumble bee is threatened and may soon be listed as endangered, so that makes it important that people help bees. If we lost the solitary bees we’d lose most of our produce in the United States.”

Helping our local pollinators is easier than you think. Even kids can do it. All that’s required is a piece of untreated wood about eight or nine inches in diameter and about four inches thick, a drill, a hanger, and a protected south facing wall. 

Greg prefers any natural wood that’s not cedar or a pine that has a lot of resin. Cherry wood donated by a local orchard worked well, and maple. Well-dried fir and pine are usable.

 Greg drills various sized holes of ¼, 3/8, ½, and 3/16 inches into the wood about a half to three quarter inches apart, and is careful not to drill all the way thought the wood. 

Place the bee homes facing south or southeast. Filled-in holes indicates a bee has moved in for the winter.

Mason bees prefer a 5/16th inch hole, but varying the sizes will help attract other bees to the box as well. Leave a space of about ¾ of an inch around the outside edge. He normally attaches a hanger to the back, which he said is his only expense for the project, and mounts them on a nail about six feet above the ground on a protected wall facing south.

“It needs to face south or southeast so it gets the spring sun and they can get warm enough to come out of hibernation and start pollinating,” Greg explained. 

Under the eaves of a home or outbuilding where the unit won’t get rained on makes a perfect site. Then, watch in the fall and see if the little holes are filled in, which means they are occupied for the winter. 

Greg said his houses have about a 75 percent occupancy rate, while his neighbor’s has been running at 100.

Normally bee houses last one to two years before the bees abandon them due to parasite or mite build up. 

Some folks make paper liners and put them in the holes and change them annually, others wash out their bee houses with bleach and water to kill the harmful pests. But it’s quick and easy to build new ones each year, and provides an interesting science project for the kids or interested backyard gardeners. 

No time to make a bee house? Costco now sells a Swiss Alps bee house made of bamboo and pine. To aid the bees, plant native flowers to attract them, and keep a moist patch of soil near their house to assist them with their homebuilding.

Greg said that for these houses, no permit is necessary and lumber prices are not an issue.

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