Sunday, November 25, 2007

Attracting and photographing Woodpeckers

I have always been fascinated by Pileated Woodpeckers since I was a child and we had them in the yard in Ocean Park, South Surrey. It took me a while to figure out was hammering on the trees and making the jungle noises.


Twenty-five years later after moving were the jobs are I settled in Black Creek here on the east coast of Vancouver Island and there are Pileated Woodpeckers here along with Hairy's, Downy's, Northern Flickers and Red-breasted Sapsuckers. It took years before we seen all them.


The first Woodpecker we attracted was a Hairy, we had put out a feeder with some sunflower seeds and the Hairy would grab one seed and fly over to a fir tree and wedge it in the bark then peck at it to open up the seed and then eat the meat, a lot of work for little reward.


Next we put out some suet feeders, the Hairy's and Downy's enjoyed these and we noticed a new shy bird on the lawn making holes, it was a Northern Red Shafted Flicker, as soon as it seen me looking out the window it was gone.


I started making peanut butter suet and drilling holes in logs, I then stuffed the holes with the peanut butter suet, the Woodpeckers really liked this and the Flickers were getting less shy we could stand at the window and watch them without them flying away, the Hairy's and Downy's were not shy at all and would come to the log even if you were standing close by.


A few years ago we seen a pair of Pileateds come into the yard, we had seen them in the neighborhood but not in the yard, they rooted around in the garden not paying attention to the feeders.


That fall a young female Pileated showed up and tried out the feeders, I had added a tailboard to one of the wire suet feeders and she seemed to prefer that one, she was a regular all winter and then in the spring she got up on one of the trees were there was a bird house and started drumming, it was a solidly built bird house and made a nice sound when drummed on, probably the loudest thing in the yard she could find. I guess she had found a mate and the drumming was to bring him over because he showed up right away.


Now we had two Pileateds showing up, they are territorial and will chase out other ones and even chase away the young ones in the winter.

Later in the spring the female became scarce but the male showed up regularly loading up with food then flying away making regular trips, unlike Hairy's, Downy's and Sapsuckers Pileateds hold the food for the young in the crop the others hold it in there bill so you can see when they are getting a load for nestlings.


Then one day we seen a fledgling on the tree, pink top and dark eyes, the male will hide the fledgling on the other side of the trees at first then as it gets older he will feed it in view.


A little later a female fledgling was being brought also, the dad took his job very seriously and the fledglings were not allowed to feed them selves at first and would be chased away from the food if they tried to eat.


That was last year and the same happened this year again, we had fledglings and parents all through the summer and fall, pretty hard to tell them apart now. usually one shows up at a time but sometimes there will be two or three Pileateds at once.


The other Woodpeckers bring the fledglings along as well so I keep feeding the Woodpeckers all year round so we can see them.

The Red-Breasted Sapsucker comes to a Weeping Birch tree in the front yard, they will occasionally come to suet and like running water. The fledglings are brought to the Weeping Birch and left all day, sometimes there five birds on there.


The only Woodpeckers I have seen bathe are the Flickers, they seem to prefer the concrete bird bath over the running water of the water fall, the Pileated male would use the bird bath for drinking every day during the summer.
 The Sapsuckers were attracted by the waterfall and probably were using it when we were not around.


Its been a multi year project to get the woodpeckers coming regularly but it has really payed off, we get to see them all year round and really enjoy seeing the fledglings in the spring and summer.


For taking nice pictures I like to pick out a nice looking log, with no light colored spots and nothing distracting, sometimes I will use a moss covered one as the green goes well with the red on the birds.

I make stands for holding the logs and drill a hole in the bottom for a steel peg so it will attach to the stand and with a 3/4" forstner bit I will hollow out a cavity that I fill with peanut butter suet.


Eventually the Pileateds will drill holes in the log and it will need to be replaced, this is good since you can only have so many pictures on the same log.


For Flickers and Pileateds a blind is at first essential, later as they become accustomed to your presence and you be able to do with out if your lens is long enough. I have a permanent blind in the backyard that I can move around, I also have a pop up blind that I use, they are light weight and easy to setup.


A lens in the 300-400mm range is ideal, a long lens can be used and will help with isolating the background.


Since you are choosing were the birds are to land pick a spot with a nice background, you don't want it too smooth but nothing distracting.

For lighting I mount a couple of flashes to the front of my blind, then shoot on cloudy days or in the shade, I like to expose the background around the middle of the histogram and fill flash the foreground with the flashes on 1/4 manual power, if I want the background lighter I will slow down the shutter speed and for the foreground I will vary the aperture, the camera is set to rear slow sync.

Balance fill flash means I don't want the flash to over power the subject and have the backgrounds dark, so less ambient light there is less flash that can be used, brighter the ambient light stronger the flash that can be used.

Don't use on camera flash, get the flashes off to the sides.

Occasionally you will get some ideal soft natural light, disconnect the flash and put the camera on high speed and hammer away.


Woodpeckers move quickly when feeding but they stop often to look around and when they do they are very still, you can get pictures of them down to 1/20 sec but they only pause for a second so you actually have to press the shutter when you think there going to pull there heads back and take a look around, they will also move there heads from side to side which will make it harder to get focus. It takes some practice to get the timing right and the keeper ratio isn't all that high, just delete the blurry ones and keep the ones that have nice sharp eyes.

Hope this is helpful to someone and any feed back is appreciated.

To see larger versions of the pictures click on them, there are also a lot more woodpecker pictures at my web sight .

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Reversed Lens Macro photography.

Reversing a lens on camera is an inexpensive way to get high quality pictures at higher than 1:1 magnifications.

Most modern macro lenses go down to 1:1 magnification, for example, Nikon Dslr 1.5 crop cameras have a sensor size of 23.7mm x 15.6 so if the lens is set to 1:1 and the object your photographing is 23.7 wide it will fill the whole frame when you take the picture. Now add a 2x teleconverter to the macro lens and set it too 1:1 take a picture of a 12mm wide object and it will fill the frame, your magnification will be 2:1, but since you're using a teleconverter you are losing light and quality, you still will get a good view through the view finder.
Reversed Lens and R200'sSome drawbacks and advantages of different methods of gaining magnification.

Macro lens are great because you focus from 1:1 to infinity, there the easiest way for closeup photography, want some more magnification add a teleconverter, you will keep your working distance and lose a bit of light.
Green Lacewing Larva, reversed 28 lens
Using tubes, close-up lenses, stacked lenses, reversed lens, all are harder to use than a macro lens but they all produce good results and can be used with a macro lens for getting greater magnification.

Extension tubes, you lose light and the ability to focus at a distance, the magnification effect is more on shorter lenses and less on telephotos, tubes work will with reversed lenses.

Stacked lenses, this is when you use a macro coupler and reverse a lens on the end of another lens, good way to get really high magnifications, working distance is very short and hard to light. I stacked my 28mm on the 200 f4 micro and I was getting 12:1 magnification, it was very hard to work with.

Reversed lens, view finder is dark and short working distance and a single point of focus, very sharp results, compact light setup, especially when used on the lighter cameras like the D70, easy to hold in one hand, on the D200 its harder to hold in one hand because of the extra weight.

Close-up lens, Canon and Nikon make some nice ones, longer the lens greater the effect, working distance is shortened and you lose no light, my Nikon 6T and the 200 f4 micro will get me 2:1 on the Tamron 90 its only 1.4:1, attached to the 70-300 ED it gives almost 1:1.

So why bother with a reversed lens if its such a pain to use, the reasons are magnification and picture quality, and the fact that its the cheapest way to get into macro photography helps also.

Lenses that are suited for reversing.

Prime lenses with an aperture ring like the 50mm, 35mm, 28mm, 24mm, 20mm are ideal, zoom lenses with aperture rings in this range may work also.

approximate magnifications depending of the lens version and make.
50mm lens will give you 1:1 magnification.
28mm 2.1:1
24mm 2.6:1
20mm will get you 3.4:1

Now one of the great things is it doesn't have to be a lens with the same mount as your camera, I started with a 28mm Yashica lens, it worked great, it was a lens that had been sitting around for twenty years doing nothing, you may have something similar lying around, its a great way to put old lenses to use, ebay is another source and also camera shops, there are lots of old lenses that are good optically and can be had for very little money.
Cardinal Flower, Reversed 38mm lens
A reversing ring is an adapter with f mount on one side that fits in to the camera and a male 52mm thread on the other side that screws into the front of your lens. Nikon sells a nice one called the BR-2a its a solid metal machined piece that is will worth the money and its even reasonably priced.

You can also make your own from a body cap and a old 52 mm filter, drill a 3/4" hole in the body cap, remove the glass from the filter, glue the filter to the body cap and also fill in the flange with epoxy were the locking pin locks in the body cap, drill a small hole for the pin to go into.

There are also clone reversing rings available on ebay.
Reversed Lens and Diffuser
Lighting, the working distance is short so lighting can be tricky, I use the built-in flash with a diffuser made from the side of a milk jug, rubbermade cutting board material is even more diffuse and works also.

Your flash will fall off quickly at these distances and the black backgrounds don't look all that great so try to position so you have a background that is close, you can even place something in the background like a leaf, this will give you a lighter background.
Reversed Lens Action Shot
Technique, I shoot hand held but for static objects a tripod and focus rail can be used, you will be dealing with depths of field in the less than 1mm range so you will have to practice and come up with ways to stabilize your body when shooting.

Standing up bent over an object generally doesn't work, you body motion will be greater than the depth of field, you will need to lean on something and brace your elbows.

Sitting down is best with your elbows against your knees, start in bright sunshine and set your aperture ring to f8, once you develop your technique and learn some tricks you can use f11 and f16 for more depth of field.
Lady Bug Larva Reversed 28 lens
Find a subject, I am mostly interested in insects but flower parts are good way to start since there static and you don't have to worry about stalking, get in position and line up your camera to were you think the subject is, move in slowly, you won't see anything in the viewfinder at first it will all be a blur, keep moving in till the subject appears, look for a fine detail when this detail snaps into focus click the shutter now pull back and do it again, keep at it till the insect is gone or if a static object take lots, depth of field is small so parallel your subject as much as you can.
Crane Fly Profile, reversed 28 lens
Depth of field is so small you may want to take some focus layers and combine them later in Photoshop or specialized software like Helicon focus.

Lens hood, you may want to protect the end of your lens, you can take a rear cap for a lens and drill a 3/8" hole, this will also help with flare.

Using the aperture lever, if you want more light for focusing so you can use apertures like f11 and f16, move your hand to the front of the lens and with one finger move the aperture lever, line up your focus then gently release and take the picture, this won't work if you have a lens hood on though.
Fly On Daisy, reversed 28 and tube
Stalking insects, to get with in the two inch or less working distance takes some practice, first thing is move slow, no fast hand movements, find a subject that is busy eating, mating, sleeping, sunning, cleaning, if there busy its easier. Find a cooperative subject and don't waste your time chasing one that keeps flying away.

Once you have found one get into your stable position, if the insect is on something I can grab onto I take hold of the object with my left hand, moving slowly, I then bring the object towards the lens, this usually doesn't bother them since there used to being blown around in the wind, your hidden behind your diffuser so you don't look like a predator. I bring me left hand close till it touches the diffuser, I get focus on the subject and with my fingers on my left hand I can rotate and twist the the flower or branch till I get good a position, if the subject is moving around I can move it around to keep up with it.

Here is a depth of field chart I made up, like all the pictures click on it for a bigger version.
Macro Depth of Field ChartReversed lens work is challenging, requires practice and technique, but its very rewarding you will get sharp high mag pictures that are second to none.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Hummingbird Photography Part 3 High Speed Flash.

Now that we have a basic understanding of Hummingbirds, and have them coming to a single spout feeder on a regular basis were ready for taking pictures.

Flash stops wing motion on this Rufous Hummingbidrd

The best way to get good depth of field and freeze the motion is with multiple high speed flashes, now don't think that just because your not willing to acquire five flashes and do a complicated setup means that you can't take good Hummingbird pictures, there are other techniques that can be used and we will get into them in later parts of this article.

First some flash basics.

Flash duration is quicker than shutter speed, so when using high speed flash what you are doing is using the flash duration to freeze the motion.

Closer the flash is to the subject, brighter the flash at the same power setting.

Closer the flash to the subject greater the light fall off.

Flash duration examples.

Nikon SB-800
1/1050 sec. at M1/1 (full)
1/1100 sec. at M1/2 output
1/2700 sec. at M1/4 output
1/5900 sec. at M1/8 output
1/10900 sec. at M1/16 output
1/17800 sec. at M1/32 output
1/32300 sec. at M1/64 output
1/41600 sec. at M1/128 output

Nikon SB-600
1/900 sec at m 1/1
1/1600 sec at m 1/2
1/3400 sec at m 1/4
1/6600 sec at m 1/8
1/11,100 sec at 1/16
1/20,000 sec at 1/32
1/25,000 sec at 1/64

Flash sync speed on modern cameras is 1/200 to 1/250 sec. some cameras and flash have an fp sync option but this is not what you will use for this since it is a reduced output setting that uses flash pulses, its not suitable for this type of setup and freezing motion.

As you can see even at full output the flash duration is up to four times quicker than flash sync speed, we will be trying for the 1/4 to 1/8th range.

At 1/8th power there won't be enough light so what we do is put the flashes closer, two to three feet away and use more of them, I think five is a good number, more can be used.

Basic setup.
Background
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f flash flash
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e

f
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Feeder




flash flash







flash
Camera


So thats two flashes on the background two at 45 degrees on the feeder and one on camera to trigger the other flashes and light up the gorget.

The background should be minimum five to six feet behind the feeder so it will blur out, we will get into background details later. If you have six flashes use one for a back light.

What we want in a flash.

We want Manual power control, optical flash trigger, decent battery power, four AA's, fast recyle time.

Sync cords can be used also but there a pain but I do use a combination of optical triggers and sync cords.

You can also use radio triggers, they have become inexpensive and don't rely on line of site, since this was first written that is what I have changed over too.

Flash and camera compatibility, older flashes and modern cameras don't mix very well and you can damage your camera if the trigger voltage is not compatible, so only use the manufactures recommended flash in the flash shoe or attached with a sync cord, when using optical triggers you don't have to worry about this since there is no direct contact with the camera.

Now you can go out and buy five of your camera manufactures flashes for example Nikon, SB-800 has built in optical slave called SU-4 compatibility, full manual control, sync socket, very nice flash but very expensive, it also has ittl fully automatic capability, but we wouldn't use it in this application because it uses preflashes for metering and communication and which will startle the bird and you will get a bunch of strange positions.
Photographing hummingbirds Anna's example

Now what about the SB-600 its costs less but it doesn't have optical slave capability, so this would have to be added.

Probably the ideal flash is the Nikon SB-26, there available used for $80-$100, full manual and built in optical slave, four AA's, perfect flash for this application.

Going down the scale, look at Vivitar 283 and 285, the 283 will Need the VP-1 module and a optical slave added, the 285 will need a optical slave.

Optical slave triggers.

These are sensors that detect the flash pulse and trigger the flash they are attached too, they can be attached to the flash with a hot shoe or sync socket.

Features to look for in an optical flash trigger, sync socket, swivel hotshoe, you want to be able to put the trigger pointing backwards from the direction the flash is pointing, this is very important or they can be a real pain, build quality, I like the ones that are filled with epoxy since you will drop them since there small and the flimsy ones will just break.

Wein is a top quality brand but I have bought most of mine on ebay.

High end trigger would be Pocket Wizards, there radio communication, really not needed for the short distances used here but if you have them already they should work great.

Just too update the flash information, SB-600's or SB-700's in manual su-4 mode and radio triggers would be a good way to go.
Laser trigger and studio lights hummingbird photography

You can also use studio lights like Einstein E640, they have a short duration mode, not all studio lights have the short duration of flashguns so they are not suitable.

The picture above was taken with the E640's and a laser trigger. Einstein's run the same price as a top end Nikon SB-910 and you don't need batteries, you plug them into the wall, you can run them off a battery back if your not close to power.

Light stands.

You will need something to mount everything on, light stands are the easiest to work with, just small light ones will be good for this application, you can use tripods, any one will work, you can buy hot shoes with 1/4" threaded socket in the bottom, these come with a sync cord attached also and these can be used for attaching optical slave triggers, your flash might have even come with a small stand that has a threaded hole, I use my older tripod heads also and there great for getting the exact angle.

There are fully adjustable flash brackets that are made for light stands also and these are ideal.

I also use quick clamps to attach flashes onto the lawn furniture, step ladders etc.

Camera settings, start at 1/200s, f11, iso 200.

You want to set the aperture so that if the flashes didn't fire the scene would be dark, if you shoot in the shade you can use a lower aperture, but you are so close and they are so small, to get a decent depth of field try for f11 to f16.

That covers the basics, I kept it brief and will gladly fill in any details, feel free to ask any questions.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hummingbird Photography Part 2 Attracting Hummingbirds.


Hummingbird photography Rufous on shrub


We see Hummingbirds at different stages in there lives, during migration when there passing through, when there setting up there territories for the breeding season, nesting time and when fledglings leave the nest and go out on there own.

Depending where you live can make a big difference on how many you see, if your on a migration route you will see lots at certain times of the year, if you are in a nesting area there will peaks when they first show up and then when they fledge.

Once you start feeding them you will get an idea of when there numbers are the greatest, more Hummingbirds around easier it is to get some good pictures.

Its a good idea to find out when Hummingbirds show up in your area and put the feeders out a week before, when they first show up can be a good time for pictures, they will be in good shape and there will be more  once they start nesting and work out there territories.

Some basics on Hummingbird behavior, the males are here for the females, they show first set up a nice area with a good food supply and go look for females, they have a courtship dive that is different for each species of Hummingbird, its a good thing to watch out for and is pretty interesting, the male will go straight up about a hundred feed then come straight down and just before he reaches the ground he turns in a "J" shape, making a noise at this point, the noise is actually caused by feathers, once he has impressed her they go off and do there thing, he will carry on looking for other females and she will build a nest and lay a couple of eggs and raise the young by herself.

Diet is small insects, nectar from flowers and sap from trees, the migration of the sapsucker is around the same time as the Rufous migration and its an important food source when they first show up in there breeding grounds.

The young are mostly fed insects so you don't see the females at the feeders much when she is raising them, but when they fledge the population increases in a short time and you will see a lot more action at the feeders.

The adults migrate first leaving the juveniles to find there way back to the wintering grounds on there own.

Now that we know a bit about are subject we can start to figure out how to attract them, the basics is food, water and shelter, just like any other bird.
Hummingbird photography Anna's at feeder


Food

Hummingbird feeders with 4:1 mixture water and sugar, just plane white sugar, no coloring is needed, anything different and your risking the birds health. Keep the feeders clean and change the mixture often, every three days once the weather warms up.

Insects, fruit flies from composting kitchen scraps is good especially Banana peels.

Flowers, this is a big subject some crazy people will re-landscape there whole yard for attracting hummingbirds, I would go with a combination of Native plants for your area and proven Hummingbird favorites like Bee Balm, Chilean Glory Vine, Honeysuckle, Nasturtiums, these are some of my favorites but what will grow well in your are may be different, plant some in pots so you can move them around for good position when you want to take pictures with the Hummingbirds. Since this is about photography think about the direction of the light and the backgrounds when you plant, that way you can get nice pictures of the birds at the plants.

A good place for plant info is the Hummingbird Forum

Water.

Hummingbirds get there fluids from nectar but they love to bathe, running water and water sprays is what they seem to like best, if the spray is on some foliage they will bathe in that also.

A water feature with shallow spots and splashing water is liked by them.
Hummingbird Photography Rufous bathing in waterfall.


Some more feeder info as it pertains to taking pictures, single port feeder is the best, one with a thin spout, you want the bird coming in from one direction and not going to the farthest feeding spout and looking around the corner at you, no perch since since were trying for flight shots, if you have a multi port feeder you can tape over the ports not being used and remove the perch, but they are creatures of habit and will continue to try and perch and feed out of the other ports so its good to get them used to a single port feeder with no perch.

Another method is when you have a well established feeder, set up your camera and flashes, have a flash on a background that will blur out nicely, have one, two or more flashes on where the feeder is, now take down the feeder and hide it, replace in the exact same spot a flower with some sugar water placed into it. The hummingbird will come around the corner go to the exact spot the feeder was, not seeing the feeder the hummer will pause and look around, spot the flower and check it for nectar, if it gets a good feed it will keep coming back, change up the flowers for variety.

Hummingbirds will try to protect the feeders from other Hummingbirds you can put out more feeders out of site of each other so they will get a chance to feed, but keep one were you want to take pictures so they are used to going to that one.

They remember where the food is and fly straight back to were it was last time, you can move the feeder around a bit and the females will find it right away, after hovering in the spot that it was in, but the males will get confused and will take longer to learn the new location.

Shelter

Except when migrating, Hummingbirds spend most of there time perched, usually up in a tree, if its cold and wet and windy they will seek a protected area, a bit of rain doesn't seem to bother then and they seem to enjoy it.

They like a vantage point watching over the food supply so they can chase away any other birds that get near there food, there very protective and not only chase other Hummingbirds but I have seen them chase ducks, Pileateds and Red Winged Blackbirds.

A lot of times you will see them on a bare branch were they get a good view of there surrounding area, hawking bugs and coming down to feed every twenty minutes or so, other times you don't even know there around till you go near their feeder and all of a sudden there in your face checking you out because you went near their feeder.
Rufous Hummingbird perched on Coneflower, Hummingbird Photography


Knowing your subject.

I went into behavior because its good know your subject, it helps for attracting and for taking pictures, for example if you know what native plants they use in your area then you would be able to do a set up including the native plant for a more natural picture.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Hummingbird Photography Part1 Intro

Everything about Hummingbirds is fascinating, there different than other birds in so many ways, there wings and hearts beat way faster, they can run there metabolism full speed while searching for food or slow it way down while resting or sleeping to conserve energy. They don't walk and fly even to move a couple of inches.

You hear them more than see them since they move so fast, we put out feeders to bring them close to us so we can see them and enjoy them.
Hummingbird photography wings back on Caliope

Wouldn't it be nice to take a picture of one and print it out bigger than life size so we can get a good look at one, see there jewel like colors, get a good look at those claws they keep tucked in when flying, see there eyelashes, see the things we will never see since there so small and there really not going to let you walk up to them for a good look.
Rufous Hummingbird perched on a small branch


Its really not that hard to take pictures of them, there is just a few things you need to know to get good ones, but every picture is a surprise since they move so fast in the time it takes your brain tell you finger to press the shutter button and the camera takes the picture the wings probably have beaten in there figure eight pattern a couple of dozen times, so you never know if the wings are going to be up or forward covering the face, there is a certain amount of randomness to how each picture will come out, you can even just let the wings blur till there transparent all depending on the look you want.

Taking good pictures of Hummingbirds takes some planning, chasing them around usually doesn't work, they end up too small in the frame and blurry.
Hummingbird photography catching Rufous at flower

So its best to decide on ahead of time the elements of the picture that you have control of, somethings you can't control like the position of the wings so you just have to take lots of pictures cull out the bad ones and keep the good ones.
Hummingbird photography set up the hose spray and wait for the to come


The things you can control are:

Lighting.
Background.
Foreground.
Position of the bird.
Angles between camera and the bird.
How much the Hummingbird fills the frame.

Once your in control of the lighting you can decide if you want frozen wings or a nice transparent blur like you see them in the wild.

But if you don't have any Hummingbirds it would be really hard to take there picture so Part 2 will be how to attract hummingbirds.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Mason Bees

Male Mason Bee with mites
Mason Bees (Osmia lignaria) are an early spring pollinator, they are a small blue black solitary bee that we see in our gardens when the fruit trees are in bloom.

With the crash of Honey Bee populations in North America their role has become more important since with better pollination we will get larger more abundant fruit tree yields and our other
plants and trees will be happier.

Mason Bees are very efficient pollinators, better than Honey Bees for a couple of reasons, one is they fly in colder weather so their better for early spring pollination, also they gather the pollen differently, instead of pollen baskets the pollen gathers on the stiff hairs of their abdomens, since its packed looser than on a pollen basket it tends to rub off when visiting flowers allowing for better pollination.

We can increase the population of Mason Bees in our yard by providing them housing, they like a clean hole 5" to 7" long in wood, 5/16" in diameter, one female be will use one or more holes, she will keep laying eggs till she dies.
Mason Bee on Heather
Depth of the holes are important since the female eggs are layed first then the male eggs, if the hole isn't deep enough there won't be the correct ration of male to female.

Holes drilled in wood will eventually fill with parasites like the mites in the top picture and the bee survival rates will decline.
I like to use stacked routered boards for bee houses, they are easy to clean and to remove the cocoons for cleaning, I can see the difference on the bees when I take the pictures a lot less mites!
Life Cycle.

The male bees chew their way out of the cocoons when the temperatures are warm enough to wake them up in the late winter early spring, the males then wait for the females to emerge and mate with them as soon as they are out.

Once mated the females find a mud supply and a hole, they first seal off the back of the hole with mud then proceed to collect pollen and build a pollen ball that they lay there egg on, once the egg is laid she will seal off that chamber andMason Bee House start collecting pollen for another pollen ball, she will continue this for as long as she can, once the hole is filled she will seal the end with mud then start another hole.
The eggs will hatch and the larva will consume the pollen, then spins a cocoon out of silk, by fall the fully formed bee will be in the cocoon waiting for spring and warmer weather.

Bee Houses.

I like to make my bee houses out of cedar, I rout the slots with 5/16" half round milling bit, its hard to find 5/16" round router bits. I just rout a long board then cut the boards to length after, then slide them in the box, its all dark inside just like the bees like it, you can wrap your boards in black tape if there is any light shinning into the holes.
Where I live a south facing wall under the eaves works best, keeps it out of the rain, and they need the heat from the sun to get active.

Its also good to put a predator guard in front, it can be some hardware cloth with 1/2" holes or a cover with a hole for the bees to get through. A woodpecker can do a lot of damage. 

You also can build in a compartment for the cocoons so they will be safe when you put them out.
Mason Bee cocoon trays
Cleaning and Storing the Cocoons.

First I take apart the bee houses and remove the cocoons with a plastic scraper made for the job, I separate anything that doesn't look like Mason Bee cocoon. then separate the cocoons from the mud.
Mason Bee cocoons


Mason Bee cocoons


Cocoons in there trays, the yellow material is pollen and the white spots are mites.

Mason Bee cocoons




Mason Bee cocoons

First wash the cocoons in tepid water to remove the mud and soften up the other contaminants.
Mason Bee cocoons
Cocoons after first wash, still lots of mites and pollen attached.




Next I dump out the dirty water and fill the tub with a weak bleach solution ( four liters of tepid water and a cap full of bleach), I place the cocoons back in and agitate them around, I use a small sieve and scoop some up and swirl them in the sieve this loosens the attached material, then I rinse under tap tap and place on some paper Mason Bee cocoonstowel for inspection.

Mason Bee cocoons

I check for mites and other contaminants, dump out the old solution and fill the tub up with some clean weak bleach solution a
nd repeat till there nice and clean, look for small dots on the paper towel, you want less than 10 per square inch, these are the small mites.

Looking a lot cleaner.
Mason Bee cocoons
This years cocoons drying getting ready for storage, I would have had more but the woodpeckers consumed some fo them.
Mason Bee cocoons









Storage

I place them in the fridge in a sealed container, with some paper towel, once in while I will take them out and give them some air, to much moisture and they will go moldy but you don't want them to dry or the bees will die, if they do go moldy rinse them in week bleach solution again and they will be fine.


Thoughts
Almost all my cocoons had healthy bees this year so this worked well, so I did the same thing this year and took pictures to document the procedure, please feel free to ask questions or contribute more information, or share what you do.

I recommend the book Pollination With Mason Bees
by Dr. Margriet Dogterom, I use it as a reference.