Steven Jakobi

Those Amazing Mason Bees

by janem on September 3, 2017

by Steven Jakobi

A 60-tube commercial mason bee nest kit, partially occupied in June. Photo courtesy Steven Jakobi

A 60-tube commercial mason bee nest kit, partially occupied in June. Photo courtesy Steven Jakobi

Three years ago, I got a mason bee nest kit for a Christmas present. I confess that up to that point I had never heard of mason bees. The kit sat on a shelf for a year or so, but last year I decided to give it a try. I followed the instructions on the insert and I placed the nest in a sheltered area according to recommendations. Nothing happened. The contraption sat there without any insect activity all spring and summer and fall. I would periodically look at it, shrug my shoulders, and move on with my outdoor chores.

All of that changed this year. The mason bees discovered this wonderful nesting place and most of it has been occupied. Now I am excited because I have been reading about these amazing bees and their contribution as pollinators, and I welcome them to my garden.

A non-stinging species, the orchard mason bee is native to North America. It is one of several hundred kinds of bees world wide but, unlike the European honey bee, it is a solitary insect that does not have a queen, workers, soldiers, or other members of a hive. After a female breeds with one or several males, she begins to lay her eggs in tree bark crevices, cracks or channels in rocks, or tubular nesting places. Several eggs are deposited in one nesting site. Eggs that develop into females are laid first in the deepest part of the cavity and those destined to be males are at the outer edge. Then the outermost opening is plugged with mud, which forms a tight, secure cover over the eggs. It is for this reason that this animal is called a “mason bee.”

Mason bee at her future nursery. Photo courtesy Flickr: stanze

Mason bee at her future nursery. Photo courtesy Flickr: stanze

Like other bees and most wasps, mason bees have a complete life cycle that includes larval, pupal, and adult stages. Males emerge first from the nest and wait for the appearance of females. Once mating has taken place the males die, but the gravid female begins to collect large amounts of pollen for her eggs. As each of six to ten eggs is laid, a cache of pollen is deposited as a food source for the emerging larva. Each egg is in its own compartment, separated by a mud barrier from the next, so that there is no competition for food among the newly hatched babies.

It is during the collection of food for her eggs that that mason bee provides invaluable service to agriculture as a pollinator. Some people suggest that this bee is ten times more efficient as an agent of pollination than the honey bee. So it is not the production of honey, which the mason bee does not make, but the cross-pollination of flowers of vegetables, fruits, and other economically important crops that makes the mason bee so useful.

My Christmas present nest kit was a commercially produced tubular structure that probably cost a lot of money. I went to YouTube to look at home-made nest kit ideas and I was not disappointed. There are videos of people constructing nests from paper towel- and toilet paper cardboard rolls, by drilling 5/16 inch diameter drill holes into blocks of scrap wood or fire wood, tubular nests made by rolling cut up shopping bags pieces on a pencil and taping the rolled up sections, and many other methods. I am very happy to have discovered this small, attractive, non-stinging bee and I have many ideas for home-made nests to encourage their presence in my back yard and garden.

 

Steven Jakobi is a Master Gardener Volunteer for the Allegany County Cornell Cooperative Extension.

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Slugs: The Bane of Gardeners

by janem on July 15, 2017

 by Steven Jakobi

slug-photo-courtesy-Flickr-Chris-Booth-

Crocheted slug (we couldn’t help it!), photo courtesy Flickr: Chris Booth

They come out on cool, wet nights. They devour seedlings and fruits of large numbers of crops, and can seriously damage or kill mature plants in the garden. During warm, sunny days they hide under rocks, logs, or in weedy areas. They are prolific producers of eggs, and baby slugs are ready to eat your plants as soon as they are born. Gardeners hate them and have devised many methods to control their numbers, because total elimination of these “houseless snails” from gardens is nearly impossible.

World-wide, there are many different kinds of snails, and they are not all vegetarian. But the ones that homeowners care about are the ones that will damage or destroy ornamentals, vegetable plants, and consume or disfigure harvests of many fruit varieties. Slugs (and snails, which often also occur in the same garden) are masters of climbing plant stems and leaves because they produce thick, sticky mucus that allows them to adhere to and move over almost any surface. Slugs also use this mucus for protection, since the slipperiness of their bodies makes it hard for a potential predator to hang onto them. The body of the slug is mostly made of water, and the slime also keeps them from drying out rapidly.

Slugs can range in size from a fraction of an inch for a newly-hatched individual, to several inches long for some varieties. They come in many colors from pale gray to rich, walnut brown hues and every other color and shade inbetween. All slugs have two pairs of antennae, which they use for vision and a sense of smell. They have rasping mouth parts, and the damage they inflict is mostly visible as irregularly shaped holes in leaves and on fruit surfaces. Every slug has both sets of sex organs, but two individuals most cross-fertilize to produce viable eggs.

An internet search for slug control typically yields dozens of different approaches, ranging from “organic” methods to chemical treatments. Most people are familiar with the “stale beer” method of luring slugs to the liquid, only to drown. But, dear reader, save the beer for another use; slugs are drawn not to the alcohol, but to the yeast in the brew. It is a lot cheaper to make a bowl of water with a bit of baker’s yeast than to buy even the least expensive brand of beer. Other methods include the use of cornmeal (to bloat the animal’s intestine), attracting them with pet food, cabbage leaves, strawberries and other fruit, and several other lures to gather and then destroy them. Some people prefer a copper coil barrier or diatomaceous earth (made from the abrasive glass like bodies of microscopic organisms), but these methods can become expensive and don’t always work satisfactorily.

When my wife and I first established our garden at our present location, we spent every late summer evening on “slug patrol.” Armed with disposable gloves and a bucket of soapy water, each of us collected hundreds of slugs daily to try to reduce their numbers. The effort eventually paid off, and our slug population is now manageable in most years. I say “most years,” because winter and early spring conditions have a lot to do with the ultimate summer size of the population. Mild winters allow for greater survival rates of eggs and adults, and cool and wet springs can increase their numbers manyfold in a short time.

Lately, I have begun to add iron phosphate to my arsenal to combat slugs. Sold under various trade names, this chemical is harmless to plants and wildlife or domestic pets when applied in accordance with the pesticide manufacturer’s label, but slugs seem to enjoy eating it. I have watched many a slug happily rasping on the solid pellets of iron phosphate as soon as I scatter it on the ground. Then they crawl away and die in a day or two.

There is no silver bullet for controlling slugs. Any cultural method (e.g. eliminating or reducing weeds around the garden, staking tomato plants, etc.), along with a good estimate of their numbers, combined with several different types of approaches to keep their populations in check can ensure that an adequate and attractive crop of fruits and vegetables will be harvested during the growing season.

Steven Jakobi is a Master Gardener Volunteer at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Allegany County.

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