Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What kind of bees live in a house like this?
A. NOT honeybees! These houses are for native solitary bees. There are thousands of species of bees native to North America. About 70% nest in tunnels dug in the ground, and the rest prefer hollow stemmed plants or other holes found in nature. The most common "cavity nesters" in Montana are mason bees (Osmia spp.), leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.), carpenter bees (Ceratina spp.), yellow-faced or masked bees (Hylaeus spp.) and cuckoo bees (Nomada spp.) Many wild bees don't look like "typical" bees at all, but rather resemble ants, flies, hornets...or even little flying metallic robots!
Q. How do you get the honey out?
A. You don't! Native bees don't make honey. Instead, they provide pollen reserves to feed their young.
Q. Will my bee house attract wasps?
A. No! Aggressive paper wasps are no more likely to take up residence in your bee house than in any other cranny they find. They nest communally in paper combs, and won't move into your bee tubes. There are, however, native solitary wasps! Like our native bees, these wasps are non-aggressive and fascinating to observe. Read more...
Q. Do these bees sting?
A. Rarely. Without a hive or honey to defend, native bees are extremely docile. Many don't have stingers at all, and those that do will only sting if severely threatened. The stings are relatively painless...more like a mosquito bite than a bee sting, really. Even if you're allergic to honey bee stings, there's little cause for concern. There have been no recorded cases of people going into anaphylactic shock from native bee stings. Read more...
Q. Do I have to order bees?
A. You can, but it's not necessary. Unlike European honey bees, solitary bees occur naturally in the environment, and are actively searching for cavities to nest in. It might take a little while for the wild bees to find your nesting box, but once they do they'll come back year after year.
Q. How long will my bees live?
A. Native bees have a pretty short life span. Using mason bees as an example, the cycle goes like this: in the spring, as soon as temperatures are warm enough, females will emerge and start looking for flowering plants to collect pollen from. Back at the home tube, they'll stash a little pollen bundle along with a freshly laid egg, pack in some mud, and start again. Pollen, egg, mud...pollen, egg, mud...until the tube is full of about 8 cells. The two or three cells closest to the tube opening contain unfertilized eggs which will result in male bees, and the inner eggs will hatch females. Mama bee will continue filling up tubes until her life span is reached, around 6 weeks. When the eggs hatch, the bee larvae eat the little pollen reserve and spin a little cocoon to begin the metamorphosis process. The larvae pupate into young bees, which wait out the winter inside their nesting tube. In spring, as soon as temperatures are warm enough, the fresh crop of bees will emerge. Males come out first, mate with the females and die. And the whole cycle starts again!
Q. Do native bees compete with honey bees, or vice versa?
A. Yes and no. Yes, wild bees and honeybees are after the same resources; nectar and pollen. But in many ways, they go about gathering these resources very differently. Honeybees are great pollinators of farm crops. They bounce down field rows from one flower to the next, returning to a hive that can be conveniently moved anywhere in the country that has warm weather and a flowering crop. Commercial agriculture as we know it is entirely dependent on honeybees this way. But remember, honeybees are native to Europe. They didn't evolve alongside the plants that grow naturally here, and as such, are terrible pollinators of native plants. They can only operate in a narrow range of temperatures and dates, and aren't adapted to the myriad of flower shapes and sizes found in the wild. There are thousands of species of native bees, each born to fill a special little niche in nature. And in fact, native bees actually help honeybees become better pollinators themselves (read more on this UC Berkeley study).
The best way to ensure there's enough food for everybody is to grow a variety of bee-friendly plants that flower throughout the season.
Q. When should I hang my bee house up?
A. As soon as the weather warms up to the mid-50s, wild bees will be out foraging and looking for a place to nest. Around here that usually starts around March, and ideally your bee house should be up before then to provide a warm welcome!
Q. Does it need to hang in a special place?
A. Since bees can't fly when it's too cold, they like their nests to face the warm morning sun (south or east). But super duper hot midsummer sun could cook them, so a little shelter is nice. Maybe on a tree that lets in spring sunlight, and provides some shade when it leafs out in the summer. They should be about 5-10' off the ground, in a stable place that doesn't get too jostled around, and be near a source of mud and flowering plants. That said, you can hang your bee house pretty much anywhere! They're perfect for small yards or porches, in the city or country, in any type of ecosystem where they can find food. Providing a little more habitat for the bees can never hurt.
Q. What are they built out of?
A. I use a variety of recycled materials, depending on what's available. This is a great way to use misshapen, warped or otherwise "imperfect" reclaimed lumber that isn't fit for more precise building projects...the bees don't care about wonky angles or bent boards! I also try to find blue-stained lumber cut from trees killed by bark beetles. Might as well make something beautiful out of that ecological mess. Each house is coated with an inert mineral oil for a little extra protection from the weather. For the tubes, I try to use invasive species, making a nice combination project of weed eradication and pollinator conservation. I've experimented with Fuller's teasel, water hemlock, elderberry, sunflowers, milkweed, corn stalks, raspberry canes and some others.
Q. How long does a Wild House of Bees last?
A. With a little upkeep, you can use your Wild House of Bees for many, many years. Since the smell of varnish repels bees, the wooden frame is coated in non-toxic mineral oil to prevent rotting. If you wish, you can paint on a new coat every few years to keep the wood nice and sealed. You can find it at any drug store for pretty cheap. The only other thing that may need upkeep is the nesting tubes that fill in the frame. Replacing these tubes every few years will help discourage pests and parasites from taking up residence inside, and get rid of any tubes that begin to rot...they are, after all, just hollow plant stems and sticks! The back of your nesting box can be easily removed for cleaning out and replacing tubes. You can cut new ones of your own if you have a source, or order them here.
Q. I don't live in Montana...will it still work?
A. Absolutely! Wild bees are looking for nesting places all over the country and indeed, all over the world! The nesting tubes in the Wild House of Bees will attract the native species found in your area. Most of the info found here is specific to Montana but still applies to other areas. If you have any questions about wild beekeeping in a different region, let me know and I'll point you in the right direction.
Q. Where can I buy one?
A. Each Wild House of Bees is made to order by hand, so no two are exactly alike. They generally measure 9-18" tall by 9-12" wide, with prices ranging from $25-80 + S&H, depending on work and materials involved. Custom orders are always welcome! Check out upcoming Events & Exhibitions, or visit Flora montana on Etsy to order one today.
Visit the An Introduction to Wild Bees for more information, or dig a little deeper with this compilation of Resources for the Wild Beekeeper. Good luck on your wild beekeeping adventure!
~Happy Bees, Happy World~