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Pollinator walls, bee towers, and insect hotels

It seems that everyone is building for the bees these days, from private citizens, to transportation departments, to architectural design firms. The proliferation of bug structures, no matter how humble or how grand, indicates that humans are finally getting it: insects need a place to live too. As we cover more and more of the earth’s surface with buildings, roads, airports, and crops, it becomes vitally important to provide living quarters for the insects that serve us.

The structures are as varied as the insects that inhabit them. They may be smaller than a birdhouse or may cover the side of two-story building. They may be designed to attract bees, potter wasps, other pollinating insects, or even vertebrate pollinators like hummingbirds and bats. Some offer housing to non-pollinating beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings. The options are endless and the designs are original and creative.

Germany seems to be the leader in bug structures, followed closely by Great Britain. Because those countries are small compared to places like Canada, the United States, and Australia, they were quick to realize the importance of coexisting with the beneficial insects and the need to provide shelter for them in the built environment. The insects use the habitat for shelter, safety, nesting, raising young, and finding food.

A feature that distinguishes walls, towers, and hotels from structures like mason bee condos or bumble bee nests is the wide variety of nesting choices. Pollinator walls may contain hollow reeds, wood with pre-drilled tunnels, cracked or drilled masonry, straw bundles, rolled corrugated board, clustered stones, or dry leaves. The “invertebrate habitat” shown below was built by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust. It contains many types of habitat and was built completely from recycled materials.

Invertebrate Habitat by Cheshire Wildlife Trust

The next photo shows the winner of the 2010 Beyond the Hive Competition in London. This “bug hotel” was built by Arup Associates and is designed to encourage many types of invertebrate inhabitants.

Insect hotel by Arup Associates.

If you decide to build your own habitat, here are some important issues:

  • The structure should be in an area sheltered from bright sun and high wind, such as close to a building or under a shady tree. If you hope to attract some native bees, at least past of the structure should be in the sun.
  • Insects need water, so a reliable supply such as a pond or creek should be nearby. Alternatively, you can provide an artificial source–just don’t let it run dry.
  • Many solitary bees and wasps need a source of mud.
  • The fill material should be varied in type (stones, masonry, dead leaves, reeds, wood, twigs) and have many little cracks and crannies, nooks and crevices.
  • The design must be structurally sound so it doesn’t topple from wind, rain, or snow. If you live in an earthquake zone, keep the structure low and wide instead of tall and narrow.

Structures don’t have to be large. The one shown below is small enough to become part of the garden. This was an entry in the Beyond the Hive competition by Helaba Landesbank Hessen-Thueringen.

Small but effective.

The possibilities for building insect habitat are endless and can satisfy the artist in you. So give it a try. If you like, send me a photo and I’ll post it here on my site.

Pollinator housing attached to a building. Photo by Wildbienen.

Rusty
HoneyBeeSuite

Comments

mbee

Rusty, I fell in love with these bug hotels over the winter and was determined to build one, until it occurred to me they would also provide shelter for rodents. Eek. We have enough trouble as it is. Do you know if this has been a problem for other bug hotel developers?

Rusty

mbee,

You know, I read dozens of narratives about bug hotels over the past week and, yes, rodents were frequently mentioned. But most of the comments were along the joyous lines of, “And other creatures like mice and rats live in them too!” So, I guess it depends on your point of view. One person insisted the pollinator structures diverted mice from her basement. I sort of doubt that, but if it makes her happy . . .

I’m thinking of building one of the little ones like in the third photo. It’s cute and couldn’t hold too many mice. I don’t worry about rodents much, though, because they already rule. We have two woodsheds, two chicken coops, a garden shed . . . it’s a lost cause.

Emily

What about one of the smaller, flatter hotels that hangs on a wall? That can fit plenty of bees but no rodents.

Here’s an example of a wall built by a bee researcher I heard speak recently: http://www.flickr.com/photos/87532379@N00/2423347448

He said it has about 1,000 holes and last summer every single hole was occupied. Not just by bees but by tiny solitary wasps which are non-aggressive except to their prey – aphids – so great for gardeners. m

Rusty

Emily,

I really like that one. I like the way he used the larger tubes to store the cocoons and act as emergence chambers. Clever. I have just the place to put a box like that. Hmm . . .

Rusty

Absolutely . . . and the fit in perfectly with the neighborhood.

Patrick

These do look very attractive. I worry though, that without being able to control for pests (mainly pollen mites and chalk brood), these structures end up doing more harm than good.

Rusty

Patrick,

The nesting materials have to be changed every year. I like to do it just after spring hatch.

ann

Love the recycle ideas. Want to build one.

ann

My rhododendron is loaded with bees all the time; this would be wonderful.

Karen

I am trying to understand why it doesn’t attract the undesirable insects. Why won’t the cabbage white butterfly or heliothis moth nest in the bug hotel? What about aphids and thrips? Why does it only encourage the good insects?

Rusty

Karen,

Every insect has it’s own way of overwintering. Most do not overwinter in nesting tubes. The cabbage white, for example, overwinters attached to a host plant. You can look up the others yourself. Do some undesirable insects live in these structures? Sure. But it’s a minor issue.