While most people know and talk about honeybees, which live in a self-made hive together, few people seem to be concerned about the species of bees that are actually native to North America and easier to help out. There are many other species, such as the mason bees and leafcutter bees, that are critical to pollination and are suffering from habitat loss.
Since these bees are solitary creatures, their presence wouldn’t be overwhelming and these hotels can be created in your backyard without posing a risk of attracting hundreds at a time. The native bees require a lot less to be comfortable, as Becky Griffin, community and school garden coordinator at the Center for Urban Agriculture and University of Georgia Extension for the Northwest District of Georgia, said,
“Native bees nest in hollow logs, dead trees and in the ground, and when the forest is clean cut, the native bees have fewer and fewer places to nest.”
As spaces to build their homes dwindle, so does the population of bees needed to keep the continent’s plants pollinated and healthy. By building a nesting site, you can contribute to the health of the population, and, according to Griffin, it’s very rewarding as well.
“Once you start noticing native bees, attracting them and learning about them, you’ll just want to sit on your bench in your garden and watch them work,” enthused Griffin. “They are amazing creatures!”
Below is a guide to building the hotel, with advice from Griffin and answers to frequently asked questions.
Basic Hotel Design
The essential part of building the hotel is to have the right design down. You can decorate it any way you want, but there are a few guidelines to keep in mind. Some people use just one 4×4 block of wood with wholes drilled into it and mount it on a high enough post, while others use bamboo pieces with closed off ends of the tube. Others, as you’ll see below, have put together much bigger structures that aren’t necessary for your first hotel but definitely much appreciated by the bees. Here are the basic rules to follow:
- Use only untreated wood.
- Make sure the house has a roof to keep rain and other weather elements out of the holes.
- The house should be a minimum of three feet off the ground.
- To attract as many species of bees as possible, drill holes of varying sizes. Be sure not to drill all the way through the block as the holes must have a stopping point. Drill bits ranging from 2 mm to 10 mm in diameter are ideal. Beginners who might want to keep things really simple and who might have a limited amount of tools could simply use a 5/16 drill bit for all the holes in their first hotel.
- For a first hotel, 12-18 holes would be ideal.
- There are no hard-and-fast rules on how deep the holes should be — with the caveat that if you use a large piece of wood or create a “grand” framed hotel and the holes are too long, the bee may not enter it. Keeping entry holes no deeper than the length of a standard drill bit is a good rule of thumb.
- Remove splinters from the holes. When you drill the holes, take a piece of sandpaper and smooth out the holes. Small splinters may not seem like much to you, but rough edges in the entry holes could be a big deal and even fatal to a native bee, some of which are very tiny. Rough edges can even deter bees from using the hole.
- Whatever style of wood you’re using for your bee hotel will need to be replaced every two years or so because the bees want new tunnels in which they can lay their eggs.
- Resist the urge to paint the hotel. Natural wood is more attractive to the bees.
- You can have multiple bee hotels. Just be sure to space them out in your yard and garden so they aren’t clustered together.
Frequently Asked Questions
What kind of bees will visit the hotel?
Solitary bees, most commonly mason bees, will visit the hotel because they enjoy making their nests in hollow reeds or holes in wood. Different types of bees will use different materials to close up their holes once they have laid eggs, and they typically leave soon afterwards because they don’t rely on a social structure to rear their young. Fortunately, solitary bees are unlikely to ever sting you unless you accidentally step on one and get the stinger caught in your foot.
No honeybees will be visiting, as they live in hives with a complex social structure in a bee-made home. No honey will be produced in the hotel, and huge clusters of bees won’t be invading the area.
Can I build it?
Considering the ease with which most people can use a hammer, nails, and drill, the answer is typically “Yes, you can build it.” If you want to make it easier on yourself when you’re starting out, you can use bamboo for the holes.
When and where the place the hotel:
Since native bees nest in the spring, the bee hotel should be up and ready in February. If you live in a harsher region, you can wait until you’re able to dig a post hole into the ground when spring rolls around.
The bees prefer sunny locations, with the holes faced towards the sun and away from high traffic areas. The sun keeps the developing bees warm and it’s dangerous for bees to cross sidewalks or garden paths once they emerge.
What to watch for:
Keep an eye out for the arrival of the bees, as females will flock to the hotel in the spring or early summer and enter the holes. You can watch them put their nest together and tell what kind of bee it is based on the materials they use. Mason bees use mud to seal their holes and leafcutter bees use leaves.
Though it will all happen behind closed doors (or closed mud/leaves, more accurately), the eggs the females have laid will hatch and eat the food that the female has left behind. They will then spin a cocoon and the fully-formed bee will emerge and chew its way through the mud or leaves to enter the real world. This takes about a year, so you’ll see them emerge the next spring. If there is no pollen or nectar plants nearby, they will likely move away to an area rich with the food they need. If you want to keep the bees in your yard, you can work with extension agents in your area to plant the right things to encourage bees to stay.
By checking with your local garden center, you can also find plants that are native to your area and likely to thrive and attract bees. Keep track of the types of bees you see in your garden to find patterns in their movements and preferences.
How to measure success:
If you see sealed holes in your bee hotel, you know you’ve been successful. If you notice that holes of a particular size are used most often, you can add more holes of that size to future bee hotels or even renovate your current one. If you have the right nectar or pollen in your garden, you’ll see bees flock to them.
If you notice that during the summer one year after the holes were sealed that they are still sealed, then you have a problem that needs to be addressed. If there are tiny holes in the seal, then a parasite may have entered and eaten the larvae or bees. If there are no holes, a fungus could have killed the dwellers. The bees may have also been too cold if they are not faced towards the sun. Work with an extension agent to figure out what could have gone wrong.