Kids can play a role in the protection of our native bee populations by building backyard bee hotels for these important pollinators.
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Native bee populations are under threat, putting at risk the vital role they play in a healthy ecosystem. But don’t dismay — your kids can help!
There are many ways your kids can help native bee populations, including providing them with a secure shelter and nesting site. Get your budding environmentalists, architects and entomologists involved by building bee “hotels” for our super pollinators!
You may have seen different examples of bee hotels or insect hotels on the internet. Some of them involve gathering sticks and pinecones and grasses and stuffing them into a cavity or box. These models may provide some assistance as insect hotels, but native bees have more specific needs for their nesting sites. Read on for more information!
Before building a bee hotel, you should consider your audience. When thinking in general of bees, most people picture sweet honeybees buzzing around their hives. But the the vast majority of the world’s 20,000 species of bees are solitary. Unlike the honeybee’s queen (supported by thousands), each female solitary bee must gather her own nectar and pollen, build her own nests and lay her eggs.
Of the 20,000 global species of solitary bees, roughly 70% of them live underground in tunnels and burrows. (And therefore wouldn’t benefit from your newly-built accommodations.)
However, there is an important population of hole-nesting solitary bees that might just be grateful for swanky new digs! Leafcutter bees and mason bees are two types of native hole-nesting bees that use pre-made holes for nesting (such as old grub tunnels, other abandoned insect holes, or hollow reeds). These squatters might just claim one of your hotel rooms as their own!
N.B. It should be mentioned that “hotel” is a bit of a misnomer. Bee hotels aren’t meant for short-term stays and lounging by the pool, but rather as a nesting site where they transform from eggs to full-grown adult bees. Building bee hotels give them a safe, ready-build place for their transformation.
HOW TO BUILD A MASON BEE HOTEL
Building a bee hotel is fairly simple, but it does warrant careful consideration, especially with location and maintenance.
- Outer structure:
- a clean milk carton with the top cut off, 7-8″ high
- a 2-litre soda bottle, top cut off at angle
- a small wooden box (not fresh cedar, the scent of which may repel bees)
- a can (at least 6 inches deep)
- Removable tubes that are:
- closed/covered at one end
- at least 15 cm (6 in) long (this ensures the female bees lay the right ratio of male to female eggs)
- the approximate diameter of a pencil (but can range from 3/32′ – 3/8″, attracting different species)
- smooth inside (no slivers)
- made of paper or plant material (breathable); avoid glass, plastic and bamboo, which don’t allow enough moisture to escape (potentially causing fungal disease), and which are difficult to open
- natural reed choices include: Phragmites, Asters, Bee Balm, Cup Plant, Honeysuckle, Joe-Pye Weed, Raspberry/Blackberry, Sumac, Sunflower, and Wild Rose
- Buy pre-made nesting tubes (especially those with refills), find hollow reeds, or make your own by wrapping paper around a pencil (just the right diameter!) and securing with tape.
Directions for building a bee hotel:
1. Choose or make your tubes. Decide if you’ll use pre-made nesting tubes or make your own. To make your own, Cut strips of paper at a length of 6 inches (15 cm). Wrap the paper around a pencil and secure with tape.
2. Find and clean an empty carton. A quart (1 litre) or half gallon (2 litre) carton work well. If you’re making your own nesting tubes, you may want to start with the smaller quart- or litre-sized cartons that require fewer tubes.
3. Carefully cut the top off, leaving a height of 7-8 inches (18-20 cm).
4. Paint the outside of your hotel a bright color to help attract the bees.
5. Fill the hotel with your nesting tubes, tightly packed together.
6. Hang in a sunny spot, protected from rain, moisture and wind. (See more location tips below.)
7. Change out the nesting tubes each year.
8. Consider harvesting, cleaning and storing cocoons over the winter.
- Offer a supply of moist clay nearby for the mason bees to use when packing nests.
- If you don’t have a back to your hotel, make sure to close off the ends of the tubes by pinching them together.
- To prevent critters from accessing your nesting tubes, consider covering the front with mesh while allowing space for the bees to easily enter/exit.
- If you’re not interested in building your own bee hotel, you can also purchase pre-made bee hotels. Just consider what makes a good bee hotel and keep in mind the guidelines above to see which ones are best. (Some may look pretty/cute, but may not be of much use to the bees!)
Location, Location, Location
The homes themselves should be:
- firmly attached to a surface (not dangling from string)
- protected from rain, moisture and wind (in sheltered area such as an eave)
- installed 4-7 feet above ground
- facing southeast to get morning sun exposure
- near a variety native flowering plants, especially those rich in nectar, that bloom from early spring through summer
- near a source of mud (ideally clay-based)
- protected from any possible insecticide use in the surrounding area
- hung outside from early spring through late fall
Be a Responsible Landlord
Proper maintenance is key to the success of your bee hotel and the survival of the larvae. If you’re not able to keep it clean, some claim that you will do more harm than good, as you risk spreading disease far beyond your own structure.
Storage and/or Harvesting and Cleaning
- In winter, store the tubes in a cool location, sheltered from the elements. When spring arrives, return the tubes to the outdoors and allow the matured bees to emerge.
- For greater survival rates for bee larvae: In winter, open the nesting tubes and remove the loose cocoons. You can even wash them to help prevent disease. Store them in a cool location* and return outdoors once spring arrives. (More information on harvesting, cleaning and releasing cocoons here and here (pages 5-6).
- Regardless of which method you choose, the nesting tubes in your bee home should always be cleaned/and or replaced annually.
*If the tubes are stored in a location that is too warm, the bees may emerge too soon, thinking spring has arrived!
Have you wondered what happens inside these nesting tubes?
The female bee uses mud to create an interior wall at the back of the nesting tube and regurgitates some nectar on the inner side. She then brings in a collection of pollen, onto which she lays a single egg. She then seals off the cell with a wall of mud and repeats the process. (More details here.) Soon-to-be-female eggs are laid at the back of the nesting tube (safer; reproducers are valuable), soon-to-be-male eggs are laid at the front of the nesting tube. (This arrangement explains why nesting tubes need to be 5-6 inches in length, to ensure the right female-to-male ratios.)
Within each cell, the egg becomes a larva, eats its pollen, spins a cocoon, and remains dormant as an adult in its cocoon until the temperatures are warm enough for it to emerge.
Afraid of Insects?
It’s not uncommon for children to be afraid of insects, even if they’re personally passionate about them as a subject matter. They may be interested in building a bee hotel, but want to take a more hands-off approach.
Native bees are actually much gentler than some of their cousins — reluctant to sting, only doing so when manhandled. As children learn more about bees, they may be less intimidated by them. Other than education, there are other ways to help your children address their fear.
Here are a few tips to consider:
(If your child is allergic to bees, please take all necessary precautions!)
Building a bee hotel is a wonderful way to support our super pollinators. And the bonus is that we can see their numbers growing before our very eyes! Check back often to see if the nesting tubes have been filled and if the adult bees have emerged. What a thing to witness!
For more information on saving native bees, please read: