Today’s issue of Urban Farm Lifestyle Magazine, is Part 2 of a two part interview with Dave Hunter of Crown Bees. We will learn how we can prepare for our Bees and where we can find more information on the topic.
The Solitary Bee Story
by Dave Hunter of Crown Bees
July 23, 2015
David: It sounds great. I know that you have a program going that’s trying to help our farmers. Can you explain a little bit about if I wanted to have some mason bees, what would the process be for my contribution to help in that endeavor?
Dave Hunter: As we’re starting to work with farmers, we’re mostly on the west coast and a little bit in New York.
As we get enough bees raised in those areas, we’re very picky with the farmer because the farmers do a lot of spraying.
There are a couple of nuances that are important to help the farmer be successful.
We are collecting bees from backyard gardeners. We’ve got a thing called Bee Mail.
Once a month, in fact I’m writing it right now, we tell you what to do. After a full season, you’ve got enough information there that you should have more cocoons then you started with.
After a couple of years, you’ve got way too many. This is like fresher bread. You start passing cocoons off to your friends but after a while, they’ve got too many.
We’ve got a program called the Bee Buyback Program that you just send us your cocoons in the mail. We’ll receive them and we’ll send you free stuff.
You’re getting free tubes, reeds and wood trays. We’ve got gift certificates. We’re trying to buy back as many bees as we can.
Then we’re taking those bees and either moving them back to home gardeners to get them started or, once we get enough, we’re then working with farmers just to put the bees in their fields.
David: I’m in Virginia. Are mason bees prevalent out here? Are they prevalent across the country?
Dave Hunter: The one species, Blue Orchard bee, is in almost every province and every continental state except for Florida, too humid, right along the gulf coast.
The Blue Orchard is wonderful all through there. Up around the east coast, back in the 80’s, there was a Japanese bee, called a Horn-face bee, that was given to the U.S.
We shot that all through Virginia, all through the Carolinas, all through the northeast. You’ll find, at the exact same time, you’ll have a Japanese bee, looks brown, and a U.S. Bee, black, using the same wood trays, the same holes.
A lot of times, if you build then they’ll come but we’ve done a lot of damage to our yards. We’ve taken away most of the holes, all those old trees that the woodpeckers poked holes into are gone.
We’ve just sprayed the heck out of our yards. There’s a lot of toxins out there that have nailed a lot of the bees.
If you’re lucky enough to have them nest, wild nests in those holes, good for you. You’re typically more of an urban area where we learn that we have to re-introduce them so you’ve got to buy the bees.
Go past the spring bees, and there are other bees. The Pumila is a little tiny bee that comes out around the spring.
There are a lot of other hole-nesting bees. We don’t know quite where they are but we do know what they are. We do help people find them and raise them as well.
David: As far as trying to help the bees along, what about pesticides, herbicides and those types of things? Are there effects on them from the use of that?
Dave Hunter: Yeah. What you’re finding, when you see something labeled bee safe, that means whatever company we are, a chemical company, we have only tested it on the honey bee.
Actually that’s not saying a lot. There has been research out there done by Penn State. When you try them on different bees, all of a sudden the one that’s safest for the honey bee isn’t safe at all for bumbles or mason bees.
Or vice versa, one that’s most lethal to honey bees, the mason didn’t really mind it. That bee safe product is only for honey bees. That’s one path.
The second one we’re learning is that honey bees and bumble bees, your social insects, are chained, unfortunately, to their hives. As I’m spraying crud around that hive, the bees have to fly through it to get to their hive.
The mason bees and the solitary bees, they’re not chained at all. In fact, they’re not very loyal. If there are chemical smells in the air, there’s TruGreen.
We’re learning very specifically that TruGreen is a great product that, when you put that down, you’ll find no mason bees in your yard or anything down wind. They all just run from that smell. Good for them that they can.
David: Oh, boy.
Dave Hunter: Yeah, right? A couple of different stories, out around me, very nice house. They’ve been raising bees for me for years.
I’d give them a couple hundred, get back 400 to 600. Two years ago, gave them a couple of hundred, got back 5.
Wow, what happened? Well, we’re not quite sure. This year, gave them a couple hundred, got back 600.
I said, “So what happened last year? Did you guys spray anything?” She goes, “Oh, that’s funny. We had a spray on the front of our lawn. We didn’t think they’d mind. We only did front lawns but not the back where the bees were.” All right.
I’m out in New York. I’ve got a policeman that’s been raising for a good 8 or 9 years. Every year he’s been getting more and more.
Last year, he had 1,000 cocoons at his house. This year, zero.
Kevin, what’s going on? He called me up. I said, “Did you spray the chemicals?” He said, “Oh, not at all.” I said, “Any lawn service or anything?” He said, “Well, yeah. We did TruGreen out there.” Okay, that’s it.
Then, even just go past that. I’m in commercial orchards out here in eastern Washington. We had 2 identical cherry farms, 20 minutes apart.
Same weather, identical bees, identical cherries, we had the perfect mud in there, had perfect holes. One place did just fine. The other place, not one bee nested. The farmer was really upset.
My partner, Jim, talked with him. “You promised me this and the bees didn’t do squat.” Jim gets back in the car and calls me up. He says, “And man, I stink.” I said, “What do you stink like?”
He goes, “Chemicals.” How long were you outside? He said, “Fifteen minutes.” Well, go find out what the farmer sprayed. He goes out there and the farmer said, “I didn’t spray anything.”
Jim said, “Well.” No one is spraying around here right now anyway. He says, “How come I smell like chemicals?” Oh, well, I’ve got 50 acres of cherries and all around me are apple fields. They spray.
David: Oh, boy.
Dave Hunter: When we have zero bees nesting, had they killed them, you’d have some dead bees in the holes.
The bees just vamoosed. All that said, I think the solitary bees are probably, if they’re not nesting, there’s a problem, maybe.
David: Are the solitary bees having any trouble with the mites that I’ve heard about with the honey bees?
Dave Hunter: There had been a lot of talk about all those things. No. Those are all honey bee things.
The honey bee, different story, I know why that’s failing. It’s a quick story, actually quite simple. To answer your question, the mason bee has its own little problems. There’s a pollen mite that just eats the pollen.
That’s really about all it does. If you don’t harvest your holes every year, the pollen mite might get left in the holes.
As the mason bees go out in the spring, as they emerge and go out to fly, they keep on reintroducing the mites out to the field and they just get more and more mites in their holes.
There is a mite and its job is to eat pollen. With mason bees, that’s the one thing. No other diseases really that we’re aware of, yet.
We do find that the honey bee is the dirtiest insect out there. Out of the 65 viruses, fungi and mites, all those maladies that are hitting, diseases and stuff, I think there’s one common core.
Everyone keeps looking at the symptoms, not the common problem. If you go back 100 years ago, when the honey bees didn’t have these problems, what did it look like? Honey bees got big, they split, they swarmed.
They sent out scouts and on average, they relocated that splitting swarm half a mile away. That’s normal.
Why a half mile? I’m guessing foraging probably, because they’re competing for all that food out there and probably disease control. That’s natural.
The following year, the split swarm, they don’t go back to where they were. They keep on spreading out. They send out scouts to make sure they’re in a different location.
When you look at what we’re doing today, we’re putting, since it’s not a great pollinator, we’re putting about a hive per acre, sometimes on a cherry farm, five hives per acre.
Not a big deal, but as you zoom out you realize that in an orchard setting, the honey bee gathers all that pollen within the field within about 3 hours. Now, it’s starting to push out in a 2 plus mile range looking for more pollen nectar.
Now, you’re up there in Google Earth and you’re looking down and you see that hive or 5 hives per acre and you look at that 2-mile range, you’ve got 250 to 300 million honey bees all searching at the same time.
We’re learning that those diseases, nosema, deforming virus, some of these mites, they’re left in the flower for a queen bee to get.
We’re also learning the dirty bees, the ones who are sick, will also go into clean hives. They go into the wrong hive.
The analogy really is you and I have got a convention to go to and we’re going to walk into this gym. It’s a small gym and we’re going to stuff in 5,000 people, close the doors and before they close it, they’re going to push in 10 people with the flu.
Now, I wouldn’t want to be at that convention. That’s what I think is going on with the honey bee. It’s not a great pollinator so we need to get a lot of them. When we cram so many in one place, they’re just spreading diseases.
When you go into a 2-mile range, how many backyard gardeners that are raising these bees don’t know any better? That’s when somebody’s got 15 hives, and that’s a lot of bees that are overlapping.
You’re easily spreading diseases from one to the other. That’s my take on it.
David: It sounds a lot like the problems that you have in confined feedlots.
Dave Hunter: How could it not be the same? And in large cities, with the plague or whatever. It’s not natural.
When you put the mason bee in there, they’re flying radius is 300 feet. There’s hardly any overlap.
When you’re able to introduce honey bees and mason bees you’re able to “half”. You don’t need them but a farmer doesn’t want to go away from them just yet, you put half a hive in an acre.
Now you’ve reduced and you’ve put in a full compliment of mason bees or even half mason bees, you’re able to reduce that overlap of the honey bees substantially.
That’s the commercial side of things. When you put the mason bees into cherry fields, you get increased yield. You get too many apples, you have to thin more. We finally put them on kiwis and pears.
The farmers are saying, “Holy cow. I’ve never had these many pears.”
David: It sounds to me that for not getting a product of honey from them, we’re gaining a lot more food from them.
Dave Hunter: Absolutely. Now, we’re not getting wax. There is propolis. There is some cool things a honey bee does.
You’re just getting pollination from the mason bee. The other part that’s nice. Go picture an orchard.
Go picture a 20-acre mono crop. You’ve got 1,000 apple trees or whatever all in a row. Your wild bees, solitary bees and everything, they come in from the edges of the orchards and they go back to the nest.
They don’t go that far into an orchard, maybe about 150 feet. My orchard is 1,000 feet by 1,000 feet. The only way I get the middle of my orchard pollinated is by using honey bees because the wild bees don’t come into the orchard that far.
With mason bees, I can carry the cocoons in my hands, and put them in the middle of the orchard. It is an or-equal, you can actually move the mason bee precisely where you want to.
We also find that the mason bee flies a little better in light rain, if it’s colder or windier. It flies more because it has to pollinate. It has to get food in its six weeks or it doesn’t lay its eggs.
Whereas a honey bee, it’s kind of hot or kind of cold. I’m just going to hunker down and wait until it gets better in my hive. It’s kind of windy, hang in my hive because I’ve got enough food, all this honey behind me.
I don’t need to go out and get into it. Whether you’re in your backyard or out in the orchard, it’s a better pollinator, but no honey and no media press. No one knows about this bee at all, David.
David: With it being now the first of July, what would be my next step to get started?
Dave Hunter: We were talking about the spring mason bee. One little caveat about this bee, the bee as it does its 30 trips worth of pollen gathering, lays an egg, then seals that chamber with mud. That’s critical.
If I don’t have mud, that bee species has to have mud. Go back in your backyard. You’ve hung this thing up and you’ve got lawn, beauty bark and asphalt.
That bee, it’s looking for holes, it’s looking for pollen and if it doesn’t find clay-like mud, it’s going to fly off. I can’t nest there.
Go put down beauty bark or sand or whatever, same thing I can’t fly there. It has to be able to go into the ground. Typically, it will go into mole holes or mouse holes.
It’ll pull off the side wall, clay mud. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it’s going to grab that clay mud and carry it in its little mandibles, those little pincer-looking things. Fly back to its house and plunk that down.
About six trips of mud gathering has me to seal that hole. If I don’t have that clay mud, I don’t have that mason bee.
In your orchards, a lot of orchards are along river beds and lake beds where its too sandy. When we’re working commercially, we actually bring in just sticky mud, one big handful or 2 per acre, putting them in the ground and putting a little dripometer on them, keeping that mud moist.
Works wonderfully. For the backyard gardeners, we’ve got dried mud we can mix in their soil. Every state, maybe not Arizona, but every state’s got mud, clay mud.
Put a little hole in the ground, just a shovel hole, slap that mud on the shady side, a south wall. Now, you can raise mason bees. That’s mason bees spring. After the summer, July 1st, there’s no mud out there natively, so you’ve got leafcutter bees out there, a real cool bee.
It cuts a perfect little circle out of rose leaves and fig leaves. Look at a rose leaf, about that thickness is the right consistency. There’s a bunch of leaves that match that requirement.
They’re doing pollen, egg, leaf bits. They’ll fly back with a curled little circle of leaf in its feet and stuffs it into the hole, chews it up a little bit, a little saliva.
When you’re actually done, you’re looking at this in the fall, it looks like a little cigar, a green, leafy cigar, real thin. Within these leafy cocoons are pollen and eggs. The summer, July all the way through to maybe early August, you’re now putting out leafcutters.
We had an attorney, out in Long Island I think, that did an experiment last summer. He had a home garden, a real tall wall and then an office garden.
He said, “I had the identical garden on both sides because I wanted to do a test.” Tomatoes, zucchinis, asparagus, all those different things. On the one side of the wall, leafcutters. The other side of the wall, whatever showed up.
He says, “I’ve never had so much vegetables off this one side. Doubled my tomatoes, way more peas and everything. Asparagus, no difference. Zucchini was surprisingly no difference.” He ordered a whole lot of leafcutters for a summer garden.
David: Sounds great for the backyard gardener.
Dave Hunter: Yeah, it’s an easy one. What we’re trying to help the backyard gardeners with is to realize that, sure, you’ve been told about the watering, the sun, the soil and everything. You plant your plants.
But most gardeners are just hoping that there’s a bee that’s going to hit it. We’re now allowing that gardener to pollinate their garden.
Whether you’re pollinating your azalea or you rhododendron
or your rose or your dandelions, every flower our there is asking to be pollinated.
David: That’s right.
Dave Hunter: The mason bees and leafcutters, these are generalists. They don’t care what flower is out there. They’re grabbing pollen from heather to tulips to cherry trees. Leafcutters are grabbing whatever they can around them as well, sunflowers, it doesn’t matter.
David: With being kind of new to this, what would you recommend as far as getting started, gaining information, or a reference type material?
Dave Hunter: Referencing my website is, I’m not saying anything major, my website is the most complete probably in the world. We’ve got a learn page.
It just tells you everything about both types of bees, mason bees and leafcutters. I’d float through there. Secondly, I’ve got a thing called Bee Mail, just once a month we say hey, do this.
If you sign up for that, every other day we just give you a little, short mini tour. Here’s what about holes. Here’s what about mud. Here’s what about leaves.
It’s all for free. We just want to teach you to be successful. I would at least start there. Instead of just drilling blocks of wood or getting bamboo, bamboo is just as bad, there’s some really crappy things out there. You can’t really open bamboo. It’s just too structurally sound.
We’ve got complete kits, all the accessories. It’s all right there. There’s some cool stuff. I think with my own wallet, I might want to spend money here and not there. You can hunt around and find exactly what you want.
Then, if you’ve got questions, just ask us. Toss us an email.
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