Mason bee nest construction in nine steps

I've been tending mason bees for several years now, and I've hit upon the best recipe for making a nest for them. It requires no glue or special purchases, like 6x6 lumber (pricey!). I call them "40s"* because I estimate that once filled, they'll hold about 40 female mason bee cocoons (the girls do all the work, afterall ;-)

scrap 2x6 lumber (pine is good, redwood is better) (the face to back length should be 5.5" to 6", no longer, no shorter**) (2x8 scrap lumber is excellent, too)
aluminum tape (not duct tape!)
Saw dust (don't worry, you'll generate plenty)
paper straws (6" each)***

Drill press
21/64" drill bit
Corded Power drill
long 3/8" drill bit


Important! Obey basic safety. Wear gloves, cover your ears, and wear eye protection when operating any piece of spinning equipment. Ask for help when you need it.

Step 0: Scrap lumber
2x6 scrap lumber works great. Cut out 6" strips, as many as you want. I've used a circular saw to do this, but if you have a miter, you can whip out several in only minutes and they'll be really, really straight.

Step 1: Prep the holes
Choose the smoothest, straightest face to make all the markings. A face in this case is one of the sides that is 6" from the other. Don't use the quote six-inch side of the 2x6 close quote. In Step 0 cut a true 6" segment.

1/4" from in from each corner, use the t-square to draw a line across the smoothest face. 3/4" inches along the edge, draw another. (See photo) Then at 3/4" intervals along the lines, put a dot to indicate where you will drill a hole. A 40 will hold 14 holes, 7 per row. (Obviously, a 2x8 scrap wood will hold more)

Step 2: Drill the pilot holes
Using the 21/64" drill bit on the drill press, drill a pilot hole at each dot. Take your time, as the straightness of these holes will determine how much patching you have to do later (Step 5).

Now, hold the block with gloved hands, and--per hole--lift the block into the spinning drill bit and continue lifting it until it goes to where the bit meets the chuck. This ensures a straighter, longer pilot. Since a drill press will at most press 3", you've now created a pilot that is greater than 3", probably 4", and definitely more than halfway through the block.

Step 3: Drill all the way through
Using the power drill with the long 3/8" drill bit (I do this part outside on the lawn), punch each hole through until it passes all the way through the block. Technique varies on how to do this efficiently, but vices could help, and because of the way the bit is threaded, it may be necessary to withdraw the bit, blow away the saw dust, and continue drilling.

Step 4: Expand and finish holes
Now that the holes go all the way through, return to the drill press and turn the block bottom-facing up. Using the same technique as in Step 2, bring the back of each hole through the 21/64" bit. You've now definitively drilled 21/64" through all 6" of the hole. Don't worry if it doesn't look even on the back. The bees won't see it (and don't care), and people won't see it (who might care).

Step 5: Patch
In the process, you may have broken through the wood block before reaching the back. This is OK! Cut strips of the aluminum tape to the length of the area-to-be-patched, and peel off the non-sticky plastic back. Save the aluminum tape, and then cut the plastic strip to fit just around the hole. Then use clippings of the the aluminum tape to seal it to the block. It won't look pretty, but like I said, the bees don't care. Also, if there are any major cracks, seal those as well.

Step 6: Seal
Seal the back of the block with aluminum tape. Make sure there are no gaps where a predator might be able to get in.****

In the picture on the right, there are two nests. The one on the left is patch-free. The one on the right has several patches. Both will work wonderfully as mason bee nests.

Step 7: Saw dust
Pour saw dust into the holes so that it sticks to the tape in the back. This will prevent nesting bees from injuring themselves on the sticky part of the tape as well as give the hole the same odor as the rest of the block. Turn the block over to let out the excess sawdust. Repeat the process a few times to ensure that not sticky tape remains.

Step 8: Set outside
Place a few straw with cocoons in the new nest. Fill the rest of the holes with blank straws. Set outside. When the bees emerge, some of the females will nest where they were born. Every other day check to see if the emerging straws have been emptied (all the cocoons will looked chewed through). If so, completely remove it and replace it with a blank to ensure that you have a clean straw for a female nester.*****

Step 9: Zen
Some time around noon or later, place a chair in front of the nests a few feet away. Bring a cold six pack. Sit down, drink, and watch the bees do more work that you. They are amazing!

* Each straw holds when full about 8 bee cocoons. There are 14 straws per nest. About 3 of those eight cocoons are females. 14*3 is 42, so I could call them meanings of life, but 40 is better.

** I didn't come up with the length, bee researchers did. Any shorter and the females will layer fewer female cocoons, any longer and they won't fill it up.

*** I have a supplier that I buy bees and straws from. At this point, I only need straws, as my colony is self-sustaining. Email me if you would like the name of my supplier.

**** I've seen predators (wasps, spiders, other bees) go through cardboard straws, but I've never seen them cut through redwood or aluminum tape.

***** I've seen on more than one occasion a female so intent on having an old straw that she cleaned it(!!) before nesting in it. While not a bad idea, if there had been an infection in that straw, her brood could catch it.

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