Category Archives: Cool Science

Wonders of the Winter Beach

Getting cabin fever? Well, bundle up and take a trip to a beach-front state park! Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Champlain, Long Island parks or the many parks on small lakes: Glimmerglass, Green Lakes, Long Point-Chatauqua Lake, Allegany, or many others.

This is the time to explore the many interesting patterns and colors of wintertime “icescapes.”


For now, enjoy some spectacular views from Southwick Beach State Park and its wild ice formations on the eastern shores of Lake Ontario. With no other visitors in sight on this day, there was no problem for this intrepid explorer to keep safe distances while enjoying the scenery.

During such visits, dress warmly and in layers, as shorelines can be chilly, as well as windy. But it is the wind that makes for fantastic ice sculptures along the shores. Sometimes the nearby trees or dune grasses will be laden with frost and salt spray. Or you may find some interesting driftwood and shells tossed up on the shore by the waves and wind.

Look way out to the water’s edge and you will realize that maybe that is not water but rather the frozen froth of waves forming an icy ridge on the beach.

Finding animal tracks in ice, snow or even frozen sand also is often easier than in other seasons. Look for footprints; can you figure out who has been there?

Which Track is That? A Look at Winter Animal Tracks Throughout State Parks

Winter is a wonderful time of the year, there’s snow and ice everywhere in our State Parks. Within that snow and ice, you can see traces of what animals have been there – maybe even just moments before you arrive! One of the traces that can help you identify which animal it came from is … Continue reading Which Track is That? A Look at Winter Animal Tracks Throughout State Parks

Ice can take interesting or fantastical shapes, as shown by the picture above at Southwick Beach.

How does the ice form shapes like this? A breeze pushes waves against the upper shore and the water at the top edge freezes as it hits the frozen sand. Then thin layers of water build up at the icy edge forming this wild pattern of ledges extending a mile down the beach.

In a different section of beach, the ice forms a pattern much like rickrack, a form of braided trim in a zigzag pattern that was highly popular in the 1960s.


And wintertime can create its own interesting illusions, such as this picture above, in which it appears the forest is floating in the sky above the water. This phenomenon is known as a “superior mirage” which tends to happen in cooler weather, when the air is colder above your line of sight than below. In this case, the air temperature is colder than the lake water. On this day the air was about 20 degrees and the water 40 degrees.

Read more about the science of a superior mirage on Wikipedia.

There is so much to see along our shorelines even in winter. Get out in the fresh air, explore some winter beaches and take pictures to share.


All photos of Southwick Beach State courtesy of Kathy Faber-Langendoen

Post by Julie Lundgren, State Parks Ecologist, NY Natural Heritage Program


Prepare to Explore more of State Parks in the winter by reading these previous posts from the NYS Parks Blog.

Evangola State Park: Lake Erie’s Winter Playground!

Along the shores of Lake Erie, Evangola State Park becomes a winter sports mecca as the lake’s famous lake-effect snowstorms blanket the park! Lake-effect snow occurs when cold, Canadian air moves across Lake Erie evaporating its open waters and causing intense, local snow bands which can drop one to two inches of snow per hour. … Continue reading Evangola State Park: Lake Erie’s Winter Playground!

Winter Tree Identification Part II: Evergreen Trees

Evergreen means these trees keep their “leaves” throughout the winter. Though we may call them pine needles, they are actually very skinny leaves that serve the same function as the leaves on a deciduous tree. Identifying evergreens during the winter months is almost the same as in spring and summer, with the added advantage of … Continue reading Winter Tree Identification Part II: Evergreen Trees

Targeting a Watery Invader at Lake Taghkanic

Thanks to a “hands-on” kayak mission against invasive water chestnut this summer at Lake Taghkanic State Park, this popular lake ought to be clearer of these aquatic invaders for next paddling season.

And timing is critical in dealing with water chestnuts, floating plants which can rapidly spread to create dense patches that can clog a lake, damage the native ecosystem and make it hard for canoeists and kayakers to paddle.

Water chestnut (Trapa natans) is one of the several Aquatic Invasive Species (AIS) that are monitored in hopes of reducing abundances in state waterbodies. Widespread in the state, water chestnut is now found in 43 counties.

The aquatic invasive water chestnut can be found in 43 countries across the state. Counties shaded green are known to be infested. (Photo Credit – NYS Department of Environmental Conservation)

Invasive species, like water chestnuts, are organisms that are non-native to an area, typically causing harm to human health, the economy, and the environment. If left unchecked, AIS can spread quickly from one body of water to another, threatening biodiversity and potentially impeding recreational opportunities.

The key to battling the an infestation discovered this season at Lake Taghkanic in Columbia County was to remove hundreds of plants before going to seed. Water chestnuts are annuals, and thus must reseed themselves each year to propagate.

Anyone who has been out along a shoreline and came across a strong, spiny, star-shaped brown nut-like “fruit” or seed pods has found a water chestnut nut. Bearing four sharp spines or points, each nut contains a single seed that can produce 10 to 15 stems.

Anchored to the water bottom, the plants have submerged, feathery brownish leaves on stems that can grow up to 15 feet long. On the water’s surface, these stems come to an end with a floating rosette, or circular arrangement of leaves. The leaves are triangular shaped with toothed edges.

These clusters can float on the surface due to buoyancy bladders connected to the leaf stems, forming dense floating mats that can be nearly impenetrable. Each rosette produces about 20 of the hard nut-like fruits in the late summer and early fall which, after dropping from the plant to the water bottom, lay in sediment over the winter to sprout in the spring

You can imagine the concern when water chestnut showed up in Lake Taghkanic State Park, a park focused on boating, swimming, water sports and beach activities. Controlling water chestnut at the park was vital to support these recreational opportunities as well as the native fauna of the lake, including one rare species known there.

Due to the fast-growing nature of water chestnut, it is important to control newly introduced infestations as soon as possible, also known as “early detection, rapid response” (EDRR). If left unchecked, patches of water chestnuts can spread prolifically.

A map of Lake Taghkanic, showing the area of water chestnut infestation highlighted in green. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)


Water chestnut is an invasive species of high concern for many waterbodies in New York State, having potential ecological, economic and health impacts. The plant can form dense mats on the water’s surface, greatly impacting the organisms below. These layered mats can block sun and oxygen from submerged plants, resulting in a die back of native species and fish populations. Recreation is also inhibited by dense patches of water chestnuts, making it difficult to swim, boat, kayak, or fish. The spiny nuts often drift to shore, creating an additional hazard for pets and people to step on.

Effective control of water chestnut depends largely on preventing seed formation. By manually removing the plants in mid-summer before mature seeds can drop, managers can halt such potential reproduction.

At Lake Taghkanic, staff from the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historical Preservation, state Department of Environmental Protection, and Capital Region Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) worked to rapidly respond to the infestation. This team of ten individuals were well-versed in the control of invasive species, and several team members had prior experience manually removing water chestnut.

Held July 16, the pull was led by Matt Brincka (NYS Parks Invasive Biologist), with other participants including Falon Neske (NYS Parks), Lindsey DeLuna (NYS Parks), Lauren Gallagher (NYS Parks), Rebecca Ferry (NYS Parks), Kristopher Williams (Capital Region PRISM), Lauren Mercier (PRISM), Lauren Henderson (PRISM), Steven Pearson (DEC), and Catherine McGlynn (DEC).

The team navigated to the water chestnut infestation in kayaks, maintaining social distancing and wearing face coverings when necessary. When manually pulling water chestnut plants, it’s important to reach as far down the stem as possible to pull the root system from the bottom sediment.

At Lake Taghkanic, water chestnut was mixed in among lily pads, presenting a challenge to pulling by hand from kayaks. (Photo credit – NYS DEC)

Once pulled, the water chestnuts were collected in garbage bags, drained, and weighed. Within a day, more than 100 pounds, or from 300 to 400 plants were removed! The information was recorded for upload to iMapInvasives so that the infestation of water chestnuts can be tracked.

Afterward, the team also surveyed the 3.7 mile lakeshore to ensure there were no other visible water chestnuts. Parks staff developed a control plan that will include monitoring and hand-pulling at Lake Taghkanic annually in order to deplete the seed bank (seeds can remain viable for several years at the bottom) and keep the problem at bay.

Over the years, NY State Parks has organized and participated in several invasive species pulls, additionally having a seasonally staffed AIS Strike Team and Boat Steward program. Reader more about these programs in the posts below.

Selkirk Shores State Park has been one focus area for State Parks staff in efforts to control a water chestnut infestation. In 2015, about 240 bags of water chestnut were removed there, visibly reducing the biomass by 40 percent. During the 2016 season, another 12.5 tons were pulled out. This removal resulted in a decrease in abundance of water chestnut during from 2017 through this year, further maintaining the value of this State Park.

Prompt invasive species responses, such as water chestnut pulls, work towards ensuring recreational enjoyment and preserving natural ecosystems in our parks. Early detections of invasive species are often reported by patrons.

The next paddling season may be months away, but remember: If you believe you have found a new population of an invasive species at a State Park, tell a park staff member or reporting it in iMapInvasives will ensure that swift eradication action is taken.

Protecting Our Waterways

You may have seen them in a park near you, these super heroes and heroines in disguise. Since 2008, New York State Parks have deployed Invasive Species Strike Teams. These Strike Teams conduct invasive species surveys and manually remove non-native invasive plants in areas of significance. The goal is to protect native plant and animal … Continue reading Protecting Our Waterways

Cover shot: Members of the removal team spread out in kayaks on Lake Taghkanic.

Post by Lauren Gallagher, State Parks Water Quality Unit

Help Brewing For Rare “Chitt” Snail at State Parks

Since Ice Age glaciers retreated from New York nearly 12,000 years ago, a snail slightly larger than a dime has lived in damp, shaded and rocky terrain at the base of a towering waterfall in Madison County.

A moist and mild micro-habitat, the “splash zone” around the namesake 167-foot cascade at Chittenango Falls State Park is the last wild place on earth where the Chittenango Ovate Amber snail is known to exist.  The species is named for its home; its ovate, egg-shaped shell; and its amber coloring.

A close-up of the Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. There are currently about 100 of the tiny mollusks known to exist in Chittenango Falls State Park, the only wild place on earth with a known population. (Photo credit – SUNY-ESF)
The spray from the waterfall at Chittenango Falls State Park creates the moist and mild micro-habitat needed by the snail, which has occupied this place in Madison County since the last Ice Age. (Photo Credit – New York State Parks)

This delicate mollusk leads a precarious existence, as a population now estimated at less than a hundred faces threats from floods, droughts, rockslides, another species of snail, climate change, and even the feet of irresponsible hikers.

The snail was abundant when it was first discovered at the falls in 1905. By the early 1980s, the population was estimated at less than 500 individuals, and the population continued to plummet in the 1990s. The snail is listed as an endangered species by New York State and a threatened species by the federal government. Historically, the species was found in a handful of sites from Tennessee to Ontario, Canada, but now is known to only exist in New York.

To fend off potential extinction of what is affectionately known as the “chitt,” a captive breeding program started five years ago, supported by State Parks, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse. Federal funding to support the program has come from the Great Lake Restoration Initiative.

Banding together on Facebook as the “Snailblazers,” these partners recently added another friend of the chitt – the Critz Farms brewery in Madison County, which has crafted an IPA dedicated to raise funds for the breeding program.



With each leisurely sip of the Endangered Species IPA, described as a “delightfully citrusy, medium-bodied beer,” funds go toward supporting a snail incubator program at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse and the hand collection of a mix of native plant leaves that form the diet of the finicky snail.

Since the program started, nearly 2,000 snails have been propagated in climate-controlled incubators at both SUNY-ESF and the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, said Cody Gilbertson, senior research support specialist at SUNY-ESF. Due to COVID restrictions this year, the zoo incubator program was consolidated into SUNY-ESF.

During field research at Chittenango Falls, SUNY-ESF researcher Cody Gilbertson holds an Ovate Amber snail (below). The captive-bred snails reside in a climate controlled unit back at SUNY-ESF in Syracuse. (Photo Credit – SUNY-ESF)

Of the captive-bred chitts, slightly more than 400 have been released into the park during this time, some as hatchlings and the rest as adults capable of reproduction. Even with these efforts, the snails are barely hanging onto their foothold.


About 500 snails reside in the incubators currently, protected as a “backup” population should some dire circumstances extinguish the Chittenango snails. Hundreds of snails have already lived their entire natural life spans – about two years – in the incubators.

When breeding started, there was an estimated population at the falls of about 350 snails, said Gilbertson. The most recent counts are now at about 100.

The habitat zone, a mix of boulders that have fallen from the limestone cliffs, is consistently moist from the mist of the falls. That nurtures water-loving plants, including a number of native wildflowers, including the snail’s favorite, Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), said Delaney Kalsman, project coordinator at State Parks.

Joe Pye weed, a favorite food of the snail. (Photo credit – State Department of Environmental Conservation)



Located along the park’s Gorge Trail, this area is fenced off and marked against trespassing. Anyone entering the area without authorization can be prosecuted under New York State Environmental Conservation Law and the federal Endangered Species Act.

Another count of the snail population is set for the summer of 2021, said Kalsman. The number of snails has been declining in recent years, with possible explanations including competition from a species of invasive snail and climate change.

“The environment is experiencing longer drought periods, reducing the flow and spray of the falls which the snail relies on,” she said. “When it does rain, large flooding events are happening at greater frequencies. In 2017, a major flood washed away large portions of Joe-Pye weed.”

Within such a small home, a potential extinction-level event can show up quickly. Such events like the 2017 flood, along with the other threats, put the chitt as “severe threat of extinction,” Gilbertson said. “This threat is further amplified because the entire wild population exists only at Chittenango Falls State Park.”

To propagate more snails, Gilbertson needed to understand what they ate from the flora and fauna around the falls. She learned the snails preferred the fallen leaves of black cherry trees collected in early spring, as well as leaves from pignut hickory, sugar maple and ash. And snails needed certain species of leaves at certain times, and at certain stages of decomposition. So, SUNY-ESF and Parks staff needed to collect leaves regularly and maintain a kind of “compost” menu for the snails. The leaves are stored dry and then rehydrated as needed.

“This diet for our snails is more natural than a synthetic paste or vegetables that is used in many other captive invertebrate programs. Survival was boosted by this natural diet,” she said.

A black cherry leave after being consumed by numerous snails. (Photo credit – SUNY-ESF)




State Parks staff is now designing a “garden” of native trees and plants in the park to supply the optimal forage that can be brought to the snails, as part of the efforts spearheaded by Kalsman, park Operations Manager  Shawn Jenkins, and SUNY-ESF FORCES (Friends of Recreation, Conservation and Environmental Stewardship) stewards Jordan Stransky, Sarah Petty, and David Rojek.

(And for the curious: Snails have a form of teeth, called “radula,” which is Latin for “little scraper.” The radula is a tongue-like ribbon with raised rasps, which the snail uses to scrape and tear away at whatever plant they are eating.)

Another issue to consider is that of a potential lack of genetic diversity, which could make the snails vulnerable to disease. To avoid having the captive offspring breeding only with other captive offspring, researchers periodically gather snails from the falls to be brought into the captive program.

Called “pulsing,” this method “brings new founders from the wild to breed and introduce hypothetically new genetic lines into our captive population,” Gilbertson said.

Snails mate between May and July, resulting in the female laying about a dozen tiny eggs. Each summer, about 200 to 300 snails are reared from those eggs. The hatchlings are so tiny that the safest way for researchers to move them around is by using paintbrushes, she said. The tiny creatures use their “foot,” a muscle that contracts to allow the snail to move, to grasp the bristles on the brush.

Each year, researchers bring more captive-bred snails to the falls to live and breed with the snails there. And this tiny population continues for another day, aided by the work of dedicated people at State Parks, other partners and now brewers and patrons of a farm-brewed IPA.

Happy Thanksgiving from the Chittenango Ovate Amber snail and New York State Parks! (Photo credit – NYS Parks)


(Cover Photo- Chittenango Ovate Amber Snail. Photo Credit- Cody Gilbertson, SUNY – ESF)

Post by Brian Nearing, Deputy Public Information Officer, NYS Parks


Resources

Read a five-year scientific review of the status of the Chittenango Ovate Amber snail by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW).

Discover more about the snail from USFW.

Learn more about the snail in a online book for children created by staffers at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo.

Donate to the zoo’s snail conservation program.

BioBlitz Weekend Strikes at Knox Farm

What is a BioBlitz? When I hear that word, images of scientists in white lab coats running madly about flash through my mind. Our first ever BioBlitz at Knox Farm State Park, while not so chaotic, certainly had people dashing about.

Unlike my visions, it was not a cadre of sprinting scientists in lab coats, but rather a gathering of researchers and volunteers clad in hiking boots, cargo pants and sun hats. With magnifiers and nets in hand, cameras and binoculars strung around their necks, these 32 intrepid investigators were ready to spread out. Their mission? Find and document as many living species as possible in the park – and do it in just two days

Participants gather for the BioBlitz at Knox Farm State Park. (Photo Credit – Claudia Rosen)

If this sounds like a hefty undertaking, it is. With 633 acres of grasslands, woods and wetlands, Knox is a large area to adequately survey in a short time. However, that is part of the fun of a BioBlitz. Since the word “blitz” is the German word for lightning, this event is about speed as well as efficiency.

These high-energy events are designed to bring together biologists, conservationists, hikers, naturalists, park goers and nature enthusiasts alike, so anyone can get involved. No expertise required… This is an opportunity to learn, explore and share all the incredible species that call our parks home. The best part is, when people spread out to tackle a larger area, the chances are better that someone will find something completely unexpected.

A view of the grasslands at Knox Farm.

The team assigned to identify plant species goes to work. (Photo Credit – Claudia Rosen)

The stage set, so began the first ever Knox Farm State Park BioBlitz on the sunny weekend of August 22-23. Six field teams, each led by an expert, went on a search to survey targeted taxa such as birds, mammals, reptiles/amphibians, plants, invertebrates, and fungi. Guided hikes were led for each field team so participants could learn and share from other team members. BioBlitzers also had the option to tackle an assigned territory alone to help cover more of the park.

Eyes on the sky as the bird survey team identifies their targets. (Photo Credit – Claudia Rosen)

A light is used on a sheet to attract moths to be surveyed. (Photo Credit – Claudia Rosen)

With keen eyes, the group found and documented more than 400 species! This was well above the expected number given the tight deadline. In total, our community scientists recorded 179 species of plants, 164 invertebrate species, 49 species of fungi and lichen, 39 species of birds, six species of mammals, five reptile and amphibian species, and two species of fish.

One highlight was the discovery of a new species of butterfly for the park, the Harvester. An uncommon species, the Harvester butterfly has the distinction of having the only carnivorous caterpillar in NorthAmerica, feeding on the woolly aphids of beech and alder trees, making it a great discovery indeed.

The Harvester butterfly, which has the only carnivorous caterpillar species in North America.

Findings ranged from many common species like painted turtle, red-tailed hawk, New York fern, and turkey-tail fungus, to obscure and oddly-named insects like the sword-bearing conehead, pigeon tremex horntail and hedgehog gall wasp.

The data gathered during our BioBlitz will be incorporated in our Parks biota databases, which can be used for determining park conservation and management decisions.

For those interested in learning more about the BioBlitz, check out the Knox Farm State Park BioBlitz event page and explore all of the incredible discoveries for yourself. Don’t forget, while this BioBlitz was an organized group event, you can have your own personal BioBlitz whenever and wherever you’d like. You can even have a BioBlitz in your own backyard! This is a great way to learn about local nature and discover the incredible diversity we have in our own neighborhoods.

Remember, before surveying any land you do not own, be sure to contact the landowner for permission, and make sure to have any necessary permits needed to collect specimens. Many bioblitzes rely solely on photographic records, and having smart phone or tablet can make record-keeping easier. At Knox Farm, we used the iNaturalist app.

This map shows the species sightings recorded by the BioBlitz at Knox Farm State Park.

For more information on having your own BioBlitz, check out this 10 steps to BioBlitz guide.

For those interested in learning more about Knox Farm State Park, which is located about 20 miles southeast of Buffalo in Erie county, there are year-round guided hikes are offered through the Niagara Region Interpretive Programs Office. To help find your way around on your own, click HERE for a map.

See you at the next BioBlitz!


Cover Shot- BioBlitz participants practice COVID safety protocols.

Post by Matthew Nusstein, Environmental Educator – Niagara Region of New York State Parks

Learn about previous BioBlitzes at New York State Parks…

BioBlitz results!

On May 3, 2014, over a hundred volunteers with scientific backgrounds gathered at Minnewaska State Park Preserve in Ulster County and Clark Reservation State Park in Onondaga county for two concurrent Bioblitzes, 24-hour inventories of the park’s biodiversity. Our objectives were to search the park for as many rare species and natural communities in the … Continue reading BioBlitz results!

Clark Reservation State Park Bioblitz

1 Park 70 professional scientific volunteers 365 acres Countless plants and animals Well, maybe not countless… In fact, on May 3rd and 4th nearly 70 volunteers with scientific backgrounds gathered at Clark Reservation State Park with one goal in mind: spend 24 hours searching for all the plants, animals, fungi, lichen, and even bacteria found … Continue reading Clark Reservation State Park Bioblitz

The Wonderful World of Mason Bees

In honor of National Pollinator Week last month, let’s give a tribute to a native New York bee. While there are hundreds of bee species in the state, this shout-out is for one species – the mason bee.


A mason bee (Osmia sp.) (Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons)

“What are Mason Bees?”

While there are over 400 species of bees in New York State, mason bees comprise only about 7 percent of that diversity. These small bees are important pollinators of crops, wildflowers, and many other woodland, meadow and wetland plants. Unlike honeybees, which are sial in nature, mason bees are solitary. They construct individual nests in hollow reeds or other plant stems, pre-existing cavities, or burrows found in dead wood. Their name stems their practice of transporting mud to nesting areas to build structures in which they eventually lay eggs.

Mason bees come from the tribe Osmini of the family Megachilidae. In New York State, mason bees include genera such as Osmia, Hoplitis, Chelostoma, and Heriades. Each genera has specific characteristics. Also, these mild-mannered bees only sting if provoked or cornered, so they are ideal for observing up close.

Osmia Mason Bees: When referring to “mason bees”, many people would generally reference them to the bees of genera Osmia. A key trait of these types of bees that they are an energetic fast flier. Osmia mason bees tend to be small-to-medium in size with a robust build and relatively large heads. Within the genera, there are three subgenera (or subspecies): Helicosmia, Melanosmia, and Osmia. In New York, there are at least 25 native Osmia species.

Blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) (Photo Credits – USDA Agricultural Research Service)

Hoplitis Mason Bees: They are the pollinators of woodland shrubs and trees, garden flowers and berries, while also visiting some varieties of commercial fruit. What makes them different from Osmia mason bees is that their bodies are slenderer. Hoplitis mason bees tend to be black to darkly-colored with pale abdominal stripes. These bees use chewed leaves, dirt, pebbles, or wood particles to construct walls between the brood cells of their nests. There are seven Hoplitis species found in New York.

The face of a Hoplitis spoliata (Photo Credit – USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab)

Chelostoma Mason Bees: They are the only type of mason bee native to New York State that is represented solely by one species, the mock orange Chelostoma, Chelostoma philadelphi

Mock orange chelostoma bee (Chelostoma philadelphi) (Photo Credit – USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Laboratory

Their appearance is small and ant-like, with disproportionately long jaws compared to the rest of its body. Bees that fall within this genus tend to be picky about which plants that they feed on and pollinate. Thus, the mock orange Chelostoma is a pollinator of the mock orange shrub (genus Philadelphus after which the bee was named). However, for those who are bee enthusiasts, there are also two non-native species of Chelostoma in New York that tend to feed on bellflowers.

Heriades Bees: Last, but certainly not least, is the resin bee, genus Heriades. What are resin bees? Resin bees and mason bees are quite similar to one another in terms of their lifestyles; they are both solitary bees; living in nests rather than hives. But unlike the other three genera, resin bee nests are located in the ground. Heriades bees can forage on a range of plants, not prioritizing one over the other when pollinating crops and wild plants. These bees tend to be dark in color with a slender-to-medium build, having sparse body hair that cover their bodies.

“What is the life cycle of a mason bee?”

While their lives are short, mason bee are very hard workers, making then truly a “busy bee.” 

There is only one generation of mason bee per year.

Inside each nest tunnel or cavity, there are about 5 or 6 cocoons each containing a full-grown bee awaiting the right time to emerge. Each cocoon within the tunnel is separated by a thin mud wall placed there by the adult mother bee the spring before. The end of each tunnel is capped with a thick plug of mud or chewed leaves to keep the young safe through the winter.

In spring, after the temperate hits a consistent high of 55 degrees, both male and females emerge from their cocoons. Male bees always emerge first, remaining close to the nest, leaving their mark while waiting for the female mason bees. They leave only to feed on the nectar from flowers and plants.  

Females hatch unable to fly, and immediately mate with the waiting male mason bees.  Females mate with several males during this period. After mating, the males die and complete their life cycle. Unlike their females in their species, male mason bees only live for a few days.

Osmia at nest’s entrance (Photo Credit – Wikimedia Commons)

A Female’s World

Female mason bees begin to nest about 3 to 4 days after mating, usually preferring to nest in preexisting holes. The bees plug the bottom of the hole with mud, then begin to bring both pollen and nectar from nearby plant blossoms to place in the hole as well.

After accumulating enough food for her young, the female lays eggs on top of the pollen and seals the cell with thin mud. She repeats this process until either the entire length of the tunnel is used or until she lays all of her eggs. The sperm that was stored from mating with the male mason bee acts as a fertilizer for the eggs, but only if she wants to have female offspring. An unfertilized egg will become male. Typically, two-thirds of cocoons will be male mason bees.

Hatching in a few days, larvae devour the pollen and nectar mixture in the nest. The amount of mixture that the female gathered determines the size of the emerging bees of the following spring. The larger the piles of pollen and nectar, the larger the bees.

In about ten days, the larvae spin into a cocoon and pupate inside. Towards the end of summer, the bees turn in to an imago, their adult stage and remains in their cocoon until next spring.  Their roles completed, the female mason bees die that fall and the cycle begins all over again.

“How do you make a mason bee house?”

Well I am glad you asked. This is a really fun way to attract mason bees to your yard.

An example of a solitary bee house was constructed by Sarah Witalka, a conservation steward for the Thousand Islands Region at Westcott Beach State Park, while working at its pollinator garden. If you are not that big into woodworking, you are not out of luck. Stewards at Westcott Beach made one with an old Gatorade bottle and hollow plant stems.

A home-made mason bee house (Photo Credit – Sarah Witalka, Conservation Steward for Thousand Islands Region)
 

Here’s how!

  1. Gather hollow stems from large flower stalks like goldenrod, daisies, black-eyed-susan, or Phragmites (also known as reed).
  2. If you do not know, Phragmites are an invasive reed that can be easily found by water and ditches. Keep the stems but leave the flowering head or seeds at the site or discard bag so you do not spread this invasive weed around!
  3. Score the stalks with a knife (always have an adult present to do this part), then snap the lengths.
  4. If using reed or grass, cut so that each tube ends in a node and is solid. Otherwise plug one end of each tube with mud.
  5. If that part is not done and the end of the tube was left open, a bee would not use it.
  6. Put as many tubes in the bottle as will fit, open end facing out towards you.
  7. Then use twigs to fill the spaces, so everything remains snug.
  8. If the original tubes were a little long for the bottle, a lip could be added in order to keep the rain off.
  9. Lastly, attach twine to hang it with.

Tips for placement:

  1. The front of the house should have a south or southwest exposure where it will get the most sun in winter to keep bees warm. REMEMBER! Bees are cold-blooded and they need the warmth of the sun to get going!
  2. Choose a secure and peaceful place, not one that sways or is noisy and full of movement; areas protected from high winds.
  3. Hang at eye level to keep them safe from critters and easy to check.
  4. Avoid installing the bee house right next to a bird feeder or birdhouse.
  5. Placed within about 300ft./100m of your garden, fruit & nut trees or berry patches to get the most benefit of these pollinators
  6. Plant or encourage NY native plants in your yard to benefit the native bees.
Osmia distincta is one of the more colorful mason bees (Photo Credit – USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab)
 

Mason bees are among the hundreds of pollinators in North America that you can learn about. Learn to appreciate the job that these insects are committed to do every single year.

If you would like to read more about mason bees, follow these links to obtain a broader knowledge on not just mason bees, but all kinds of native bees.


Cover photo- Female Mason bee on a flower (Photo credit- Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org, under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License)

Post by Kelley Anne Thomas, Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Environmental Steward and Student Conservation Association member;and Julie Lundgren, State Parks Ecologist, NY Natural Heritage Program


Websites and Links

Bee Diversity in New York Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Sharp-Eatman Nature Photography

Empire State Native Pollinator Survey 

The Honeybee Conservancy- Mason Bees

Xerces Society of Invertebrate Conservation

USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab