How Building a Bee Hotel Can Help Protect Your Local Pollinators
May 20th was World Bee Day – initiated by the UN in 2018 to bring awareness to the importance of these hard working, and incredibly essential pollinators – and for many of us who attended (or tuned in to) various events world-wide it came with some frightening tales of doom and gloom about the reduction of pollinators and other insects around the world. However, a glimmer of hope could be found in the people, as question periods rang with voices of concern, asking eagerly “what can we do to help?”
The good news is, there are many things we can do to help our local pollinators on a small scale, in both rural and urban areas. For starters, reducing the use of pesticides and herbicides in farming and in our personal gardens will allow all kinds of pollinators to make a comeback, especially since we know that pesticides are a major factor behind the loss in pollinators.
Next up is creating a biodiverse habitat in your backyard. In many modern gardens we plant non-native and ornamental plants with little benefits to birds and insects alike, and we also just leave our gardens a little too tidy. Some solutions? Do your best to buy flowering plants native to your ecoregion. These plants are adapted to your climate, host to specific insects and have nectar rich flowers to attract and feed your pollinators. You could even let your herbs go to flower, adding tiny blooms to your garden and a variety of flowers for all sizes of native pollinators. Having a variety of different plants will make sure your garden habitat stays “open for dining” all season long. As for being too clean? Well, leaf litter, old logs, small piles of sticks, and a bit of overgrown shrubbery or grasses provide habitat and microclimates for all kinds of insects, so leaving at least a corner or two with a bit of a “mess” can help provide more essential habitat to insects.
Before we move on, something important to note here is, if you are reading this and thinking that you don’t have enough space to help, think again! Even a few flowers in a pot on your balcony or windowsill can be a pit stop for pollinators making their way through our urban jungle. Every little bit helps!
Now, if you are looking to go a little further to help your native pollinators, especially bees, you can consider making or buying a bee hotel.
What is a bee hotel? In short, a bee hotel is a man-made construction that provides important habitat for solitary bees that can help to make up for our overly tidy yards and gardens. To understand how and why they work we need to know a bit more about solitary bees.
With more than 20,000 bee species around the world, you’d be surprised to learn that most of them do not live like the honeybee we are most familiar with. In fact, the grand majority of them are actually solitary bees – ones that live on their own and don’t produce honey – that are extremely important to pollination, especially of specific native flowers. Solitary bees are not aggressive and cannot sting. These bees live and work on their own, and when they go to lay their eggs, they would normally use dead trees, sticks, reeds, or other hollow yet closed off spaces where they can seal off their offspring with food provisions to last until they are ready to emerge as adults, usually in spring. In urban habitats, these bees use cracks in buildings, old bolt holes, or whatever else could be a good fit to help protect the vulnerable young from predators and parasites alike. A bee hotel can be an important replacement for habitat in places where these kinds of habitat get removed or disturbed too often for the offspring to make it to adulthood.
There are many kinds of solitary bees, from mason bees to leaf-cutter bees, and orchid bees, and though each one has a slightly different life cycle, many of them can use bee hotels in similar ways. After mating, a female will collect pollen and nectar to store with her egg, lay the egg on top of this “loaf” and seal it off, often with mud or other materials. Here the egg will hatch, and feed on the pollen and nectar until they reach adulthood, and the weather signals that there are likely flowers ready for them outside. Interestingly, females get laid further back so if a predator gets in, they are likely to be eaten last, but also so males can emerge first and be ready to mate with females once they come out afterwards.
So, knowing all of this, there are some key aspects that make your bee hotel a good habitat for these solitary bees. Luckily, there are a lot of tutorials out there and even places to buy bee hotels (though you should be careful they follow the below criteria), but in short… a good bee hotel is:
- Made with tubes of natural materials like cardboard – no plastic please!
- The correct depth with tubes that are about 15 cm (6 inches) deep – important to help there be enough female bees!
- Made with untreated wood
- Not painted on the inside – the outside is ok!
- Constructed with a solid back and a roof to help keep the tunnel entrances dry
- Mounted in place and is stable – you do not want the hotel to move in the wind!
- Patterned on the front to help the mother bees locate their tubes quickly – burning the front of the wood works great for this and a darker surface will heat up better in the sun!
- Built with removable tubes (see about cleaning below)
- On the smaller side, too large of a hotel will accumulate parasites of solitary bees – it is better to have more smaller bee hotels spread out than one giant one!
- Assembled with various diameter tubes to accommodate various species of solitary bees
- Protected from weather and rain but somewhere where it will receive sun
- Nearby your native flower garden
- Cleaned out each year – this includes removing nesting tubes, leaving them aside to let bees emerge and putting in fresh ones for the next season
If you want to know more, listen to this podcast episode from The Anthropo Scene Podcast with special guest Sabrina Moore as she tells us all about solitary bees, her bee hotel journey, and explains the do’s and don’ts of bee hotels.
Want even more information on bee hotels and some great tutorials? Check out this great post by Colin Purrington.
Photo credits: Sabrina Moore