Mason Bee Box
Posted by joeabbott on March 12, 2016
For the past couple of years, Suzy and I have hosted mason bees on our property … you may, too, but just might not know it. Mason bees look an awful lot like common house flies and, to my knowledge, do not sting or even have a stinger. They don’t create “hives” (like a wasp), don’t need a special home, and will inhabit any crack in the wall that they can mud-up. And yet, they pollinate.
With the collapse of bee colonies worldwide, we chose to do what we could. And while mason bees might not be part of the species that are troubled, we like bringing pollinators to a property that is replete with things in need of pollination.
A little about the mason bee
I knew very little about the humble mason bee until Suzy suggested we put a “bee box” in our yard and was a little surprised that we didn’t get a tall set of white boxes with individual screens to pull out for gathering honey; instead, we got a small, 4”x7” box that we hung off our fence and filled with a block that had a bunch of holes in it about the diameter of a fat pencil. We also received a couple of blocked pvc tubes that had a small hole at one end and contained lots and lots of mason bees in their cocoons. By keeping them in the refrigerator until they were ready to come out (until the outside weather was suitable), we could ensure we had a good crop of bees.
The picture to the left shows a setup very similar to what we got: a box that was painted black (the better to capture heat), a set of wood blocks with routed channels … when placed next to each other and wrapped tightly they create grooves) … and a pvc pipe with a hole in one end to contain the bees. Additionally, note the overhang on the top to help keep the elements from the bees.
The mason bee will emerge from hibernation and start gathering food and mud, or laying eggs in the nearest available crack or crevice … depending on whether it’s the male or female bee we’re talking about. It’s the “gathering food” part that pollinates all the plants. By positioning the pvc tube with the hibernating bees in them adjacent to the tubes in your bee box (either special-made paper tubes, bamboo sections, or blocks of wood with channels routed in them), you can assure yourselves of a bee harvest at the end of the season.
I should also note that the mason bee is an early-season bee, meaning in this part of the world, they’re very busy mid-May through June and that seems to be about it. We placed our backyard bee box in one of our sunniest spots adjacent to lots of early blooming flowers, but we also noted a “hive” of “wild” mason bees using the cracks in the siding of our house (in the hollows created by the corner caps and the lapped siding) out front … not really near anything especially in bloom.
So there’s a lot to like about this little bee: early season, gentle, and pollinates the early season flowers… about as perfect as it can get.
My bee box
After two years of literally renting our mason bees and the boxes (the charge was nominal and went back into the mason bee program and general education), we decided to have a go on our own. First, we’d try to offer the bees out front a new home so we could manage that population, and through Suzy’s master gardening association, she had a friend who gave her some mason bees … so we’d put those out back where we placed the rented box.
My job was to build the bee box.
While a simple rectangle mason bee box is certainly functional and I could build it in my sleep, I wanted something with a bit more personality. We’d looked at other designs and I’d liked the look of a teardrop-shaped house but I wasn’t sure I was ready for building fair curves that would look good. Then I thought: honeycomb shaped! Or, at least six-sided … and, with a little patience, I could make a couple of the panels a bit longer and have a built-in overhang.
Something like the above.
The model looked great but then I had to build it.
My challenges were my limited skills, and figuring out those darned angles. I knew the sum of the angles would have to be 360°, based on my high school geometry classes, which told me I’d need a 60° cut for the sides. After scratching my head and thinking, “that’s not right”, I figured I’d be cutting 30° in each side considering I was sharing the 60° between the two parts. OK, made sense … kinda.
After cutting a few boards I became more convinced that 30° was the right angle and, after I had six boards and they all seemed to mate nicely together, I was happy my public education hadn’t been for naught. The hard part came when I wanted to add a spline between the boards to strengthen the joint.
I could detail the debacle that ended in me rage-quitting my building session, but needless to say it didn’t go well. I had glue everywhere, things didn’t line up, and I’d ruined a set of boards. Grr, sez the tiger. It seems the celebration of my high school education was both short-lived and premature. And just because the problems I was bringing on myself wasn’t enough, my saw’s power switch started to malfunction and, even when in the off position, the blade would keep spinning.
Anyhow, I finally figured out what to do and how to do it … even if I can’t completely explain the math or why it works out … and I managed to make the cuts with the requisite precision on my Shopsmith (it has a narrower than average blade to help cut through thicker wood without bogging down as easily … but this makes the kerf narrower than the standard 1/8” … which was the size of my spline material). Also, I rigged up a foot-pedal switch for starting/stopping the saw.
And then I got the boards all glued up without adhering any of my body parts to the table or saw. But it was nip and tuck there for a while.
The two images above are when I was dry-fitting them. While it wasn’t completely gap-free, it was close enough for a simple bee box. From the image on the right, you can also see that I didn’t quite have the angles right on the top, outer sections. I wanted a smooth transition between the lower segments and the upper (which had the overhang). Which I could sand out after it was glued together.
In the above images, I still had some sanding to do for the transition, but I had the splines in and was gluing things up. The splines I’m using here are simple hardboard … not the strongest option, but I had it in sufficient quantity, it was a consistent 1/8” thickness, and it would suffice. In all, it worked rather well.
After I had the sides all glued up, I placed the box on-end on some thin plywood and traced out the shape. Then I cut it out and glued it on the and to cap the overall house. Easy as can be.
Below is a second bee box I created using the same design but with different scrap wood that I had around. The small wooden box at the top is where Suzy will put our bees … it’s a little larger than we’ll need but it seemed small when I was making it. The tubes we’re using in this one are the paper variety, but in our other box we are using bamboo tubes.
We may opt to paint these black (again, for heat retention) but I think the bees will be happy.
Not much to say for signing off on this one: I have a good design, I know I can make more easily, and it was fun (mostly) to put this one together. Now we just need to see if the bees agree!
Thanks for dropping in.