Most of us know just how important honey bees are to our food supply and why it matters so much to protect them. Hopefully many of us are even taking some simple steps, like these, to do so.
But did you know there are over 4,000 species of native bees in the US alone? And that these bees are more efficient pollinators of many plants like eggplants and tomatoes than honey bees? (Surprising fact: honey bees don’t know how to pollinate.)
In fact, along with honey bees, these often-forgotten native bees pollinate 75% or more of our food supply! These native solitary bees come in many shapes and sizes and may resemble wasps or yellow jackets. They often live alone and not in hives like honey bees. Though not as well known, these bees are just as important!
Where Native Bees Nest
As I mentioned, unlike honey bees, these bees often don’t live in large colonies or hives. They choose many different types of habitats, including:
- The Ground: Miner bees choose the ground as their home, building elaborate underground tunnels and laying eggs in them.
- Existing Holes and Rock Crevices: Bees like Masons and Leafcutters choose existing holes in wood or rock to build their homes and grow their young.
- Holes They Create: Carpenter bees create their own homes by chewing out holes in wood. They are often considered a pest by homeowners for this reason, although it is possible to prevent these bees from creating holes with proper painting or staining.
Native bees do not live in colonies like honey bees, do not make honey, build colonies, or swarm. They are largely harmless to humans and very rarely sting. When they do sting, it doesn’t hurt like a honey bee sting. Yet many of these bees are mistaken for wasps or yellow jackets and killed.
We can all help protect these species by understanding them, not killing them, and even helping create habitats for them. This PDF from the Forest Department is helpful for identifying these types of bees.
How to Build a Native Bee House or Bee Hotel
Today, I’m sharing some easy ways to build a bee house or bee hotel for your yard. These hotels often house Mason Bees and Leafcutter Bees who are looking for holes to create a nest. Creating habitats for these solitary bees is a great way to encourage their populations and protect them.
This is also an excellent learning activity to do with kids since these bees are harmless and fun to watch! Bee houses and hotels can be made from scrap wood and leftover materials you probably already have laying around in your house. The important factors to consider are:
- Putting the house in a sunny place that is protected from rain (or having a 2-3 inch overhang to protect from rain)
- Making sure the materials can be changed out or replaced every few years. For this reason, it is a good idea to not glue or nail any of the materials into the frame.
You can build a bee house or bee hotel in several ways:
Drilled Wood Bee House
Perhaps the simplest bee house to make. This just requires finding or building a wooden box, attaching a sloped roof with an overhang to deflect rain, and filling it with scrap wood with drilled holes.
With this method, you’ll want the house to be at least 8-12 inches deep and the wood pieces to be almost this deep. Then, you’ll drill a series of 2-10 millimeter holes into the wood every inch or so. It is important that these holes do not go all the way through the wood to the other side and that they are free of splinters around the opening and all the way through. Also, the depth of the holes can vary (the length of an average drill bit is fine).
Recycled Bottle and Bamboo Bee House
This method is simple and a favorite for many bees, in addition to being another way to support the bees with recycled materials. To make this type, take a soda bottle (or any other uniform plastic cylinder bottle) and fill it with pieces of cut bamboo stakes (you can find these at garden centers) with an internal diameter of 2-10 millimeters. The variation will suit the house to different types of bees.
Next, use beeswax or modeling clay to cover the ends of any completely hollow tubes. Hang this house in a dry and sunny spot.
I’ve also seen larger bee hotels where many of these smaller bottle-houses are stacked inside a wooden frame with a larger roof to deflect rain. There is a good picture example of this type of bee hotel here.
Pre-Made Bee House
Thanks to the increase in information about declining bee species, it is now possible to buy a pre-made bee house and hotels (like this one in the picture above). These are not the most preferable option and we have the other types in our yard as well. If you decide to go with a pre-made bee house, look for one that has a good roofline for a rain covering (ours is in a covered spot), and that there is a mixture of hole sizes and types for the bees to nest.
Where to Put a Bee House or Hotel
Whatever type of bee house you make, follow these guidelines to help the bees find and like their new home:
- Position the bee house in full sun facing south or south east.
- Find a secure location at least three feet off the ground and without leaves or plants directly in front of it. The bees need the heat from the direct sun to stay warm.
- Attach the bee house firmly to a surface so it doesn’t blow around or shake in the wind.
Maintaining the Bee House
Protection from winter is the only maintenance your bee house needs. If your bee hotel is occupied during the summer there are likely bee pupae nestled inside and ready to emerge in the spring. The cold, wet weather of winter can wipe out these growing bees.
To keep them safe, just move the bee house to a cold, dry place in the winter. You don’t want to put them somewhere warm where the bees can hatch too early, but an unheated porch, shed, or garage is perfect. Basically any place that is cold but dry is perfect.
Timing varies by location, but a good rule of thumb in most places is to move the bee houses to a cool, dry place in October and hang them out again in March.
It is also good to replace the tubes or wood blocks every two years or so to prevent mold, fungus, or parasites. This should be done in the summer after the young bees have emerged.
What do you think? Will you make a home for solitary bees in your yard?
Discussion (4 Comments)
Beekeeping is a hobby that is gaining a lot of attention lately. The reason why it is gaining a lot of this attention is because the demand of honey has risen due to it’s health benefits and because bees help in the pollination of our plants.
The bees being referred to in this article are actually not honey bees, but solitary bees native to North America. They do not produce honey, but they are much greater pollinators of native species. Nothing you are saying is wrong, but this is not the same type of beekpeeing that you are talking about. These bees are much better for the North American habitat than the White man’s fly.
I recommend that holes are able to be opened up easily. If you have drilled blocks of wood or bamboo, you are unable to separate the good guys from the bad. Pests will overrun your nesting bees and you wind up going backwards on bee propagation.
It is very hard to throw away old holes as the bees emerge… bees immediately begin to use other holes and old while lazy bees are still inside waiting to come out. Plus, you may have summer bees that aren’t ready to emerge yet. Please, only use holes that can opened up in the fall. These are reeds, paper tubes, and wood trays. You can always look for teasel or other stems that have hole sizes no larger than a pencil to almost a 1/4″. You will need backs on the ends.
How do you keep these from being inabited by carpenter bees or wasps?