Thursday, December 3, 2009

Preparing Berry Bees for the Winter

Jerry, John, Glen and I visited Sturm Berry Farm on November 18 to see how the Osmia aglaia fared during the summer, to prepare the cocoons for winter storage and to clean the Binderboard® nests so they are ready to go out next spring.

Rosie removed the Binderboard® from the field in late September or October and stored them. When we arrived at the farm at 9:30am she met us with the Binderboard® in her truck, and escorted us to the garage of their house where we set up tables and equipment for the operation.

At first glance, the Binderboard® from the main shelter (under the power lines, see “Our Project Begins”, April 27) did not seem to have filled very well. Only about 25% of the tunnels were plugged at the surface. But when I put the board in the sun and looked down the tunnels, I realized that most had plugs recessed about a centimeter deep, and all of the boards from the main shelter were nearly full! Jerry was delighted. He has spent too much time cleaning Binderboard® that are only partially filled, and notes that it takes about as long to clean a partially filled board as a full one.

This photo shows two adjacent laminates that have been opened in Jerry’s cleaning machine. Some of the cocoons stuck to the top laminate, and some to the bottom laminate. In the fourth row from the left, all 9 cocoons stuck to the top laminate. Note that the mother bee left a small intercalary cell between the two innermost cocoons, and a small vestibular cell above the outermost cocoon. Intercalary cells have plugs on both end, but they are empty. Vestibular cells are also empty, except they are just behind the nest plug, the vestibule of the nest entrance, as it were.

The other nests between these two laminates had fewer cocoons, and intercalary cells were common. The middle tunnel, for example (7th from either side) has intercalary cells between each of the first 4 cocoons, then three adjacent cocoons, then a large vestibular cell just below the plug. I’m using the names that Karl Krombein gave to the parts of twig-nesting solitary bee and wasp nests in his ground-breaking book “Trap-nesting Wasps and Bees”.

Some of the cocoons contain adult O. aglaia, but some of the cocoons, more reddish in color, contained live prepupae, the final instar larvae. More on them in a future blog.

Rosie is getting a close look at Jerry’s cleaning machine in action. It mainly provides support for long Binderboard®, holding them in place during the cleaning process. Jerry is using a hand-held scraper to remove cocoons from all 13 tunnels per laminate in one motion. Actually, he is taking two swipes, one from the top to the center, and one from the bottom to the center. All the cocoons fall into the blue pan at the bottom. When the cocoons have been removed, Jerry moves the blue pan out of the way and replaces it with the grey pan. He uses a paint brush about the width of the laminate to brush bleach water on the laminates, and uses several scrub brushes to remove debris from the tunnels. The waste bleach water and debris fall into the grey pan. Then Jerry uses gripping teeth to open and lock into place the next two laminates. The gripping teeth are visible in the photo of the nests, above. In the view to the left you can see the cleaned laminates loop back around under the red shelf that holds the filled laminates.

The Binderboard® give us a good view of the nests, and Jerry’s platform speeds the process of cleaning the boards and preparing them for the next season. We were able to clean all of the boards at the Sturm farm in one 7 hour day with only one person scraping the nests. If bee populations continue to increase, this hand cleaning process could take more time than a grower wants to put into managing bees. Jerry hopes to add a motor to control the scraper and automate the cleaning process. That should cut down the time to process large numbers of bee cocoons and save the grower time and money.

Once the cocoons have been removed, it’s time to estimate our yield. Here’s Glen counting out cocoons in a ½ cup sample. We took 3 such samples. There isn’t much dimorphism between the sexes in size of the cocoons, unlike Osmia lignaria, so for this species we haven’t bothered calculating a sex ratio. However, we could by opening a small sample of cells to see what’s inside.
We found that there was an average of 310 cocoons per half cup, plus 17 cocoons with prepupae, about 5%.

Once the boards have been cleaned, we brought them into the heated mud room next to the garage to dry out.
At the end of the day we replaced the bolts and wing nuts, and tightened them as far as possible. The Sturms should tighten them more in a few days, and again in the spring when the bees are released.

And here is our final yield, divided among 8 cottage cheese containers, each holding a little over 1.5 cups of cocoons for a total of 13 cups. At 600 cocoons per cup, that’s an estimated 7,800 total cocoons. We released about 1500 O. aglaia cocoons raised on Sturm farm last spring, as well as about 1800 O. aglaia cocoons in straws that Dr. Jim Cane from the USDA Logan Labs gave us. The total release then was about 3,300 bees. We were able to more than double the population: a 2.3 fold increase. Perhaps we could have done better if there had been another Binderboard® to put out as the boards filled.

Dr. Cane sent O. aglaia cocoons to several other researchers and he reports an increase in all of our populations. That’s great news, and very promising for berry pollination.

Next year we’ll need more Binderboard® to support the increased population!
For now the cocoons are being stored on the porch of the Sturm home, where they will be exposed to outdoor temperatures. They are in a planter, covered with a wooden tray.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Equipment Needs for the Project

Grant funds should be available very soon, so the Oregon Berry Bee Project can move forward. The Sturms will be purchasing a webcam, solar panels and other equipment.

As part of the process of choosing equipment, our engineering expert, Mike and I had a long conversation about what we wanted to do with the camera. Here’s the requirement list that Mike generated from that discussion:

Provide internet access to view current image of bee nesting boxes at Sturm farm.
Provide internet access to view current image of bloom on vines at Sturm farm.
Provide timed FTP image transfer to single destination on a schedule.
Internet access to image must be through standard web browser interface.
Internet access to image must be password controlled.
System must be weatherproof and standalone.
System must connect to Internet infrastructure.
System to be easily addressable over the Internet using a DNS named address.
System to be placed approximately 420 feet from existing Internet infrastructure.
System to be placed approximately 350 feet from closest power infrastructure.
System to provide data on basic weather conditions within view of camera.
Nest activity (i.e., caps on nest tunnels) must be visible in camera image
System to be available during daylight hours - nighttime viewing not required

These were some of the characteristics of the system that Mike came up with based on what we wanted to do with the camera, and its location:

System to implement solar array and battery unit for power supply
System to implement an IP camera
System to implement a radio link to camera
System camera resolution >= 1MPixel
System to implement DDNS (DYDNS) Named host on router/gateway
System camera must have built-in OS/Software to facilitate FTP and image transfer w/PW access

Given these guidelines, Mike researched cameras, solar panels, and other equipment.

Originally my thought had been that we might use two different cameras, one to watch the bee nests, and the other to monitor the bloom. I also originally thought that we would power the camera with a cable, which would have forced us to put the bee shelter within 300ft of the Sturm’s barn. When Mike suggested that we try solar power, we gave up on the idea of using two cameras so that we would have money available for a solar panel.

Instead, Mike recommended that we use an AXIS 215 PTZ Network camera. Here’s the specs:

Camera model: AXIS 215PTZ
Zoom: 12x
Iris: 3.8-46mm, /F1.6
Auto Iris: Yes
Auto Focus: Yes
Format: MPEG4
Output: 704x480
Security: Multilevel
LUX: 1 Lux
Pan/Tilt: 360p 180t
CCD: 1/4" CCD
Axis PN#: 0274-004

The Zoom listed is in optical values only. Digital zoom is ignored for several technical reasons.
Lux - the minimum amount of light required to produce an image. The lower the number, the better the sensitivity, although for the purposes of this project, a low-light camera was not considered useful. Outputs shown are maximum values in pixels. The higher, the better defined the image will be. This camera will cost us about $1000.

The zoom and pan tilt functions will allow us to move the camera to preset positions getting close ups of the bees’ nests or longer shots of the berry vines in bloom.

This camera model is not intended for outdoor use, so Mike will be building an equipment shelter to house everything. As for our desire for weather data, we will place a digital thermometer in the bee shelter that the webcam can read.

In addition we will be ordering a solar panel & battery charger, along with the deep cycle battery and the wireless link for the camera. The system will be integrated and tested at Mike’s lab prior to installation at the Sturm Farm.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Incubate emerging berry bees

Back in April Dr. Jim Cane sent me this image of a incubator for O. aglaia. "Basically a box with a seedling grow mat on the floor and a thermometer. Big box in this case because we are loosely stacking in our foam nesting blocks with nests. No risk of overheating because the low wattage grow mats can’t heat to more than about 80F. I do not yet have a consistent response to duration of incubation…some years just a few days, others nearly a week."

" simple yet handy observation you can make are the weather conditions under which you do or do not see foraging activity at nesting blocks (Osmia aglaia) or at flowers (groups you can recognize, like honey bees, bumblebees, etc.). Shade temperature, sunny or not, calm or not, active or not, hour of day.

"My impression with O. aglaia is that 60F, calm and sunny is about their minimum threshold for flight. In contrast, here the other day I had blue orchard bees flying at my nest blocks at 45F (!), again sunny and calm in between snow squalls."

We should try to get more of this data next year. Hopefully once we have a webcam running, with a thermometer in the bee shelter, we'll be able to gather this information remotely.

I wonder if our solar panel will generate enough power to run a grow mat as well as the webcam? Otherwise a grow mat is not a viable option for us.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Checking Bee Activity

Our project was on hold for the month of May while I spent time helping my mother recover from eye surgery. What was supposed to be a 5 day trip turned into a month long visit. The Oregon Berry Bee Project is getting back on track now.

On Thursday, June 4, Steve and Mike visited the Sturm farm to see how the bees were doing. Steve noted that lots of adult bees were sitting in the emergence boxes waiting to emerge. The boxes were in the back of the shelter. He thought perhaps they didn’t have enough light to see the emergence hole. When he opened the box, many bees emerged. Soon there was lots of bee activity at the Binderboard® nests. That afternoon he saw bees plugging the first complete nests, so presumably some bees had already emerged.

Jim Cane warned me that the bees might need incubation to emerge in time for raspberry bloom. Perhaps warmth, not light was what the adults in the emergence box needed. Perhaps both warmth and light.

Steve also noticed that quite a few O. aglaia were on the ground sunning. Mike took some great photos, below and top of this post. When I first saw O. aglaia nesting in alfalfa leafcutting bee blocks in Medford, OR, I recall many bees sunning on the ground as well. We’ll have to spend some time next year trying to understand when and why they do this. (All of these photos are female O. aglaia)

Note: These females are about 1/4 inch long. There are also metalic blue individuals.
By late afternoon Steve estimated that about 90% of the bees in loose cocoons from last year had emerged.

On June 4 the Raspberry vines had lots of developing berries and only a few flowers left. Steve estimates that raspberry vines were 90% fruit and10% blooms. The emerging O. aglaia probably had a distance to fly to blackberry and marrionberry vines which were in full bloom. We’ll have to keep that in mind and be sure to come in May next year to observe raspberry pollination.

Steve set up another shelter for O. aglaia closer to both the marionberry and blackberry vines, located approximately 400 yards from the original site. Rosie had two more leafcutter Binderboard to put in the shelter, and Steve used one. Steve put the straws with O. aglaia into that shelter, since many of the bees in straws apparently had not yet emerged. Steve placed the straws in a watertight container which he then attached to the shelter to keep it out of the rain. As it turned out, a terrible weather cell hit the farm and surrounding areas that very same afternoon and evening!

I’m getting the impression that O. aglaia emergence is better timed with blackberry than with raspberry. We will have to warm them more than we thought to get them out for raspberry bloom. On the other hand, we could use O. lignaria for raspberry pollination; their emergence could easily be delayed.

Steve and Rosie toured the fields, observing the “catch” Binderboards on the perimeter, and found that there was a small amount of activity, and a sealed chamber at two of the six sites visited. The Himalayan blackberries were in full bloom, like the cultivated blackberries.

Don commented that this is the best pollination that he has seen on his three acres of black raspberries. They are now four years old.

Meanwhile Mike, our webcam expert, has prepared a list of equipment that the Sturms will order as soon as the grant money comes through. More about that next.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Columbia Gorge bee habitat

Driving home from Corbett along the Columbia Gorge on Saturday I was struck by what great Osmia lignaria habitat there is along the highway. Big leaf maple was in full bloom - the lime green trees in the photo on the left. O. lignaria loves it. It has tons of pollen in small light green flowers in long racemes. I think it also has some nectar, but I'm not sure.

Plus there were periodic wild cherry or plum trees scattered along the side of the road all the way from Corbett to Hood River. Bees are probably nest limited in this area. I'll bet a transect of bee nests along the highway would yield lots of bees, if anyone has a few cocoons to seed the area wants to take the time and the mileage to set them up and take them down.

That reminds me; any of our readers from western Oregon, Northern California, and western Washington can be on the lookout for O. aglaia during cane fruit bloom. They are smaller than the blue orchard bee, and come in metallic blue, green and bronze colors. Hopefully we'll have good photos later this season. So far we haven't any proof that this species is present in Washington, so we will be very interested if anyone can prove that they are there. Good photos will help, but ultimately we'll need either adults collected from the flowers or cocoons from nests with good location records. We know they visit Himalayan Blackberry, so that's a good place to look for them during bloom.

Placing trap nests

In addition to placing our main bee shelter in the field this past Saturday, we also placed small trap-nest Binderboard around the periphery of the fields to see if we can attract Osmia aglaia or other cane fruit pollinators to manageable nests. The bees that use our trap nests will be added to our main managed population next year.

The first place that we visited was a neighbor's barn on the south side of the Sturm's field. We had a few Binderboard there in 2007, and we attracted Osmia lignaria to nest, plus some other species. It's a great place for O. lignaria because south of the barn is a small grove of wild cherry or plum trees, in full bloom last Saturday. Plus, the barn is just the sort of environment where twig nesting bees look for tunnels in wood. This time we introduced some additional O. lignaria cocoons, as well as one 98-hole Osmia Binderboard and one 63-hole Binderboard facing the blooming trees. With any luck, the bees will emerge soon and forage on the cherry, then move over to the raspberry field when it comes into bloom. The photo shows the east side of the barn. We put two small Binderboard, one 14-hole Osmia Binderboard for O. lignaria and one 39-hole leafcutter Binderboard for O. aglaia, on the top left corner of the pile of wood. Click on the photo to see it full resolution., You can just make out the angle of the metal roofs of the Binderboard. They are far enough from the released bees that we can hope they will be used by the native bee population.

Next we drove around the west side of the farm, and left a few small Binderboard on fence posts near large patches of Himalayan Blackberry just outside the farm boundary. That's Rosie in the red plaid jacket putting hooks into a rotting tree stump. Tree trunks are often a good place for trap nests, because beetles attack the tree in the first few years after it dies. However, this tree trunk was in a more advanced stage of decomposition; perhaps too decomposed to attract nesting bees. We'll see.
Joyce Mills (in blue jacket) helped place a Binderboard on a fence post. We put 39-hole leafcutter Binderboard at all of the sites where we stopped, 6 in all. We also put a 14-hole Osmia Binderboard on the tree trunk above and on one of the fence posts near a flowering cherry tree (last photo - flowering tree in the middle right of the frame).

We left the Sturms with 6 more 39-hole and 2 more 14-hole Binderboard to take to their farm in Nahalem. Rosie put most of them out on Sunday. Thanks, Rosie!

Monday, April 27, 2009


Welcome. This blog will follow the progress of our WSARE project to develop the native bee, Osmia aglaia, for pollination of cane fruit, raspberries and blackberries.

Our two year, Farmer-Rancher Grant was awarded to Don Sturm, a 3th generation berry farmer. His family has run Sturm Berry Farm ( in Corbett OR for 50 years. He and wife Rosie have 140 acres of raspberries, blackberries, black raspberries and blueberries in Corbett, and they have leased an additional 150 acres in Nahalem, OR near the coast for black raspberry production.

We want to find out if the solitary bee, Osmia aglaia, is a cost effective, practical, and sustainable addition to honey bees for cane fruit pollination. Increasing problems with honey bees such as colony collapse disorder, varroa mites, diseases, pesticides and movement of bee colonies around the country has taken a toll on honey bee health and availability for pollination, and has increased pollination costs for many growers.

The technical advisor for the project is Dr. Karen Strickler (, a pollination consultant who specializes in solitary bees. Solitary bees do not form a colony like honey bees do, with the queen laying eggs and workers foraging. Rather, each female solitary bee makes her own nest, forages for pollen and nectar, and lays her own eggs. Some solitary bees in the family Megachildae, including the genus Osmia, nest in tunnels in wood, and their populations can be managed for crop pollination.

Osmia aglaia is found in western Oregon and Northern California foraging on Himalyan Blackberry. Dr. James Cane of the USDA ARS Bee Biology and Systematics Lab in Logan UT has shown that Osmia aglaia is an efficient pollinator of raspberries and blackberries. He believes it “could be a sustainably managed, economical bee for cultivated cane fruits.” (HortScience 40(6)1705-1708, 2005) He has been researching this bee and trying to increase their populations for commercial use on several berry farms in Oregon, Starting with a few thousand in 2005 he now has 21,000. Dr. Cane estimates this is enough to pollinate about 20 acres of the approximately 11,000 acres of cane fruits growing in Oregon (USDA NASS statistics.).

Dr. Strickler was able to obtain a small population of several hundred O. aglaia to introduce to Sturm Berry Farm in 2007 from the grower who originally supplied Dr. Cane. In addition, she visited the farm in spring 2006 and placed a number of small nest blocks around the periphery of the farm to see what native bees are already present in hopes that some of them could improve pollination. About 2,600 O. aglaia bees were retrieved in the fall of 2007. They were reintroduced to the field in 2008, but only 1,500 bees were retrieved in fall 2008.

Using native solitary bees for pollination fits well into the sustainable agriculture practices on the Sturm farm. The Sturms do not use any insecticides on their berries. Beneficial insect populations have been sufficient in the absence of insecticides to control insect pests. The lack of insecticides makes the farm a favorable place for pollinators as well. Because they offer pesticide-free berries, they have developed a large customer base who we hope will appreciate native solitary bees for pollination.

The photo was taken in March, 2007, when Dr. Strickler first visited Sturm Berry Farm to introduce O. aglaia, and to set out trap nests around the periphery of the farm. One of our Binderboard nests was attached to a fence post. Posing for the camera were clockwise from bottom left: Glen Mills, Don Sturm, John Vinson, and Jerry Mills.

Our Project Begins!

We visited Sturm Berry Farm on Saturday, April 25, 2009, to choose a location for our main bee shelter where we will introduce the O. aglaia that were collected last year. We were joined by Mike Carter (left in the photo) who has volunteered to help us set up a webcam to observe the bee shelter and bloom so that those of us who are not in Corbett can advise the Sturms about managing the bees, and others who are interested can also watch. Mike has a company appropriately called "Beeline Services", and he has experience with security cameras, IT systems, and photography, as well as an interest in bee keeping. It's the perfect combination of skills for our project. Mike is hoping to put together a system involving a solar-powered wireless net cam.

At Rosie Sturm's suggestion, we set up our bee shelter under one of the powerlines that runs through the middle of the farm. The shelter faces south, and Mike plans to attach the netcam to a post just south of the shelter, looking north.
In the photo left you can see the white roof of the Sturm's barn about 400 ft away to the northeast. The Sturms have a computer and router in an office in the barn. Mike plans to install a "rubber duck" on the top of an electric pole just outside the barn which will pick up wireless signals from the webcam.

We left 4 large Binderboard nests inside the shelter, ready for introduction of Osmia aglaia.
The bees are warming up in the Sturm's home, where they will experience higher night temperatures than in the field. This should speed their emergence. If the raspberry is in bloom when the bees are ready to emerge, Rosie will move them to the bee shelter. If the bees start to emerge before bloom, she will put the cocoons back in the refrigerator to delay emergence for a few days .