DIY Bee Houses: Habitat for Native Pollinators
By Rick Valley
By now most folks have heard a lot about Honey Bees being in trouble. They’re not the only ones, though. There are thousands of bee species out there. Melittologists, the scientists who specialize in bees, are having a more difficult time finding them. This is not a good situation: most insects are not harmful to us, but rather are key in keeping ecologies fertile, balanced, and functioning.
In permaculture we look to ensure all important functions are fulfilled by multiple elements. If we ensure that our pollinator allies have food and lodging, we will have many species around to ensure we have diverse foods we like to eat – fruits and vegetables of all sorts. When we turn significant portions of the continent into carefully managed suburbia and monocultural farms, with the predominant vegetation being lawn grasses, cotton, or soybeans, we eliminate the possibilities for most insects to find food and homes.
Long ago I realized that the really healthy gardens I visited had a common factor: many insects of various kinds flying around a variety of flowers – diversity! For insects, a yard or a garden is a huge space, so even small backyards can provide breeding habitat for pollinators.
Like a freeway sign saying: “FOOD AND LODGING,” insects have multiple needs that must be met. Many species of bees make solitary nests in hollow stems of plants or holes made in wood by wood boring grubs. By cleaning up and deadheading plants that have bloomed, we eliminate the small hollows where these bees place their food (pollen) and their eggs. They seal up small chambers with mud, bits of leaves or chewed ‘sawdust’ stuck together with saliva so their larvae have private rooms to eat and mature in. Gardeners and farmers in Asia and Europe figured out long ago that they could provide good habitat for these insects, by putting up bundles of short cut reed and bamboo stems, pithy dry flower stalks, or drilling holes in blocks of wood. And, this works!
There are plenty of different options in building a bee habitat. I first saw directions on how to buy cardboard tubes of the correct size for orchard mason bees, or drill the same size holes into blocks of wood. Those are fine options, but in my experience, when I cut different sizes of bamboo I get more than one species of bee. Again, diversity is optimal.
There are also opportunities to buy tubes filled with pupating bees, so you could start a population in your orchard ready to go. I found a reference to Japanese farmers using bamboo for the same purpose, and since I have a bamboo nursery, I tried that on site resource. When I randomly used bamboo too small for the intended bee, other smaller species showed up to check the vacancy.
I also make ground nest opportunities for bumblebees in the mulch around perennials using sticks, bark pieces off of firewood, and dry grasses. I make cob (sand + clay) sculptures on boards that can be hung on a sculptured wall for bees that usually burrow into cut banks along creeks. Just as with humans, usually this works best if the location of these bee homes is sheltered, warm and dry. Be creative in your choices, but evaluate the microclimates where you place them. Some people use old food cans with hollow sticks in them as bee homes. However, is the can you’ve filled with tubes actually going to fill with driven rain and drown the bee pupae? Sad. Or can small woodpeckers dine on the larvae in the wood block you’ve carefully drilled full of holes? Protracted observation and holistic thinking helps in the architectural plans for your bee houses.
Since I grow bamboo, and use it for everything, I naturally use it for my bee tubes. When harvesting bamboo poles, the top end of the bamboo is often considered waste: it has branch stubs and it tapers quickly and is usually curved, making it difficult to make other things out of. So that’s the part I use for the bee homes. I cut pieces with the “node” or joint in the middle so each piece has two “apartments” separated by the node, with each tube 5 inches or less. I don’t worry about the inner diameter; different bee species will use different sizes. 2mm to 10mm diameter works well. I use two lengths of natural fiber twine- sisal, jute, or hemp. Taking the strings at the middle, I make a hanging loop with an overhand knot so I have 4 strings hanging down. Then I tie the bamboo sections with two knots each on either side of the bamboo node. I end up with bamboo sections horizontal, one below the other. I hang the bee apartments under an eave of a house or shed where they won’t get much rain and where I can easily see them to see when there are active bees and whether there are different species taking advantage of the hospitality. It is easiest to cut the bamboo when it is fresh, but best to let dry before you tie it up, as it can shrink when drying and the sting can become loose.
If you don’t find many species coming to your bee homes, try putting them out in areas you may know where the general ecology is more intact – more wild land, more small organic farms, and you’ll likely get more species. Bring some of your bee homes back to your place during the winter and you may be successful in re-introducing a species that has been unable to persist due to habitat destruction.
Just a last little note: I’ve never been stung by any of these bees. But once or twice, while inspecting the tubes while bees were active, I have had a few check whether they might nest in my nostril. I said, “No, sorry. No vacancy there!”
Creating native bee homes of various forms can be a fun family project, and a great way to invite the native bees back to your garden. As you can see, there are many possibilities to building a bee home, and there is no doubt that the more bees we keep around, the better the world will be.
Here’s the article as a pdf, as seen in Issue 03.
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