Why Fall Harvesting Cocoons is so Vital!

Harvesting cocoons is one of the most important activities you can do to help your mason bees in the fall. Why? Here are a few analogies: If you don’t weed your garden and let your vegetables survive on their own, how many carrots would you harvest vs. having weeded? If you bought a new car, but didn’t change the oil, how many miles could you drive before your engine failed? Your bees within the nesting holes are no different.  Pests build up within the holes.  If you don’t separate the good guys from the bad guys, the bad ones inevitably
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Separate the empties from the full and partially full straws

(You don’t want to open empty mason bee tubes!) The first step is to sort out all of the full tubes and any partially full that you can see. For traditional mason bee tubes with solid backs, you’ll want to use a depth gage: Use a long plastic straw or wood skewer to determine if a mason bee used the tube. Insert the “depth gauge” into an empty tube and mark on the gauge where it meets the top of the empty tube. Now use this gauge to measure the rest of your tubes.  If the mark on the gauge
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Look at the outside of the mason bee tubes for anything suspicious

Are there holes in the mud plugs?   Are there holes on the sides of the straws? If the answer is yes for either of the above, separate these suspicious straws from the healthy straws.   Now, separate about 15-20% of your straws from the rest.  These will be used to test the healthiness of your colony.
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Open up the nesting material

EasyTear mason bee tubes: These should open quite easily.  Begin tearing at the entrance with your fingers.  You might need to use a sharp knife or razor blade to start the initial tear.  Be careful! Now unravel the entire straw.  You may find the cocoons sticking to the tube remnents…  Don’t throw any away! Traditional style guard tube with inserts: Take off the back plastic plug (if present) Try to push the insert out of the hole from either the front or back of the guard tube.  If the guard tube has no plug, then pull the insert out by
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Begin to observe!

Separate the cocoons from everything else and place them gently in the box or bowl. You should find nothing that is harmful to touch.  (you might find an earwig or another pest…) You should find two different types of mason bee cocoons:   1.  Defined cocoons (the majority)   Defined Cocoons.  Male- left Female- right (Note the brown fecal matter from the larva)      2. Undefined cocoons Undefined ~ wispy silk There’s a bee in there, but it didn’t build what it should have… Female cocoons are larger and typically toward the inside of the straw. Everything else should be:
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Pest observations

This is the tricky part of harvesting, and the primary reason you’re harvesting. “What’s going on in your nesting material that is harming your mason bees?” A couple of points on pest observation.  A few pests are fine (unless you find chalkbrood) A lot of pests should have you concerned. An old mason bee tube from a few seasons ago may have opened cocoons deep inside with new cocoons from this past season on the outside. For a complete breakdown of pests, review our section on pests. If there is a pest in the straw, you should be able to poke
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Let’s now look at the suspicious straws

Open them up as described above.  This is a video showing the opening of a thin walled straw tube with monodontomerus signs.  We found a surprise beneficial insect midway through the investigation! Look at damaged cocoons from where the holes started. Track down the pest and compare it to pictures in the Questions, On Pests section. You may not have found a pest, which is fine.  They may have finished, exited, and found a new straw. Move on through the remaining suspicious straws! If you come across chalkbrood, mono, or carpet beetle larvae, you may want to consider opening up all of the
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Cleaning cocoons – do or don’t

Some on-line resources tell you to wash cocoons in water or clean them with sand. If you found pollen mites, the sanding method works fairly well as created by Gordon Hutchings of British Columbia. Get a bowl of sand and stir your cocoons into it.  Be slightly gentle, but ensure that you get the sand and cocoons very mixed together.  The cocoons are fairly robust at this point.  Sift the sand out with a colander. Having a few mites around your mound of cocoons is not damaging.  It’s the concentration of mites in the straw that prevents the mason bees from
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Checking for “done-ness” of Spring Bees

You have a trade off to consider: If you delay placing your bees in refrigeration, they will be using some of their stored fats during the warm weather to survive.  That has them more weak in the spring, or not surviving. If you place underdeveloped bees in refrigeration, they will die because they weren’t developed properly. If you let your bees survive on their own, warm moments have them using their stored fats… which has them coming out earlier due to hunger or not surviving. Opening a few males, which are less valuable, will help you make the right decision
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Storing your cocoons for their hibernation

Your adult bees in the cocoons need to hibernate until spring. Consider a fat bear and skinny bear going into their cave for hibernation. As their metabolism slows, they are surviving on their stored fats to make it through the winter. Which will survive a long winter best? Your mason bees are no different. An insect’s metabolism slows down when they are cooler and they absorb less fat. If they are adult bees now, they have begun to absorb their fat. Placing them into a refrigerated environment sooner has them surviving better.  A recent 2010 science study completed by the ARS/Bee Lab
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