Teach kids about the importance of pollinators in the garden by building your own bee hotel.
What are Solitary Bees?
Did you know that there are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world, and that of those only seven species make honey? Of Canada’s 800 plus species of native bees 30 per cent have solitary nests. The importance of these bees and their role as pollinators is increasing in importance as the numbers of bumble bees and honey bees declines. With so much focus on bees why not create a project that will allow your children to watch and learn about some of these other important bee family members.
Solitary bees, as well as some species of wasps, lay their eggs in small holes rather than a large nest site. In the wild they will use old beetle bores in wood, hollow stems and other cavities or the ground. They will however readily take to homes provided for them. Once they have selected a site they will lay their egg and fill the cavity with a supply of pollen and nectar before sealing it with a mud or leaf door. Eggs are generally laid between June and mid-September.
Over the next several months the larva hatch and eat their way through the food supply in the cell. They will then pupate until they are ready to break through the doorway and fly away the following year.
How can you help?
You can assist these little garden helpers by providing them with artificial nest sites. Bee houses or hotels can be purchased from many garden centres and online. When purchasing a hotel be sure they offer enough protection from wet weather; that the tubes have no splinters inside that may harm the bees; that the structure has a solid back wall; and that they are not made of glass or plastic which can cause mould growth.
Bee houses attract only a few species of bees and wasps, and the occasional ladybug. The most common species attracted by these homes are red mason bees, leafcutter bees, and the blue orchard bee, Osmia lignaria. These homes can be a great opportunity for children to learn about the different kinds of bees. Even adults may have a hard time recognizing some species as they can be green, blue or brown and not the traditional black and yellow striped varieties. Solitary wasps are helpful garden predators that may also move in, they will fill their cells with paralysed live prey for their young. These species of bees and wasps are not as likely to sting, making them fun for children to observe.
How to make a bee hotel
First, decide on your design. What elements do you want to include — wood blocks or logs, hollow stems and bamboo, or smaller branches tied in bundles? Are you going to cover the front with mesh to keep predators out, or include some mud for the mason bees to use? Do you want to develop a large hotel with multiple nesting options or a simple one for only a few tenants?
Once you’ve decided, it’s time to start drilling. Using a variety of drill bit sizes will allow for different species to set up their nests. Smaller holes should be drilled to a depth of three to four inches while larger holes should be five to six inches. Allow at least a half inch of space between holes and ensure that none of the holes exit the back of the wood; this only creates a wind tunnel.
Use sandpaper to smooth out the entrance if necessary and check that the entire hole is smooth. Splinters will damage the insect’s delicate wings. You can also drill holes through bundles of small twigs and bind them together or use bamboo or other hollow stems as long as one end remains closed. Cut all stems to a length of approximately eight inches. A variety of stems from herbaceous plants such as raspberries, brambles and elder can be used. These should be bundled and placed in an upright position in the hotel with shelter from above.
Now that you have all of your holes drilled you need to create the hotel structure. This requires two solid sides and a back. You will also need to add a roof that overhangs the structure on an angle to block out rain. Kids can paint the blocks if they use acrylic or water based paints which do not have an offensive odour.
Finished structures need to be placed in full sun, facing south or east at a minimum of three feet to no more than eight feet high. Structures can be free standing or hung along a fence, but should be fixed in place with no sway. You can grease the poles to help keep ants and spiders out.
If you are going to build or set up a bee hotel be prepared for the upkeep.
The nest should be kept in a cool, dry place over the winter months. An unheated garage, shed, porch or carport will do. It is the wet that will harm the young bees not the cold, so leave them outdoors, just move them to a sheltered location. Rain and snow can dissolve the mud walls causing rot and death of the larvae. Bring the nests back outside in March and have kids keep tabs on when the insects hatch. Bees will begin emerging by April. Remove any cells that have remained walled up from the previous year at the end of the summer and destroy them. Blocks should be replaced every two years after the bees have emerged in the summer. Bamboo and herbaceous stems should be replaced yearly.
Drill bits ranging in size from approx. 2, 3, 4, 6, 8 and 10 mm
Blocks of wood or logs to drill holes into
Bundles of small round branches to drill holes into
Bundles of hollow reeds or bamboo stems
Lumber for sides, back and roof
Hammer and nails to hold structure together
Mesh or chicken wire to cover structure (optional)
Clay and sand mix held in by mesh (optional)
What you need to incorporate in your design:
• An angled roof that overhangs the structure.
• Two covered sides an