Making a Pollinator House – Part 1
by Carolyn Hasenfratz
It’s becoming increasingly common to see structures called “Bug Houses” or “Insect Hotels” in gardens. Some people get squeamish at the mention of bugs or insects so perhaps the most appealing way to label such a structure is “Pollinator House”. Such structures are provided as a nesting and sheltering area for beneficial insects.
Most people are familiar with the pollinating actions of honeybees, bumblebees and wasps. Social bees and wasps are beneficial to the garden in many ways, not only by pollinating but in the case of wasps eating garden pests.
It’s understandable to be nervous about the idea of having colonies of stinging insects living in your garden because some of these species are very aggressive about defending their homes. If you want more pollinators in your garden fortunately there are other bees and wasps that are easier to co-exist with peacefully. If you fear you have attracted the wrong kind of bee or wasp to your garden, I recommend getting help from an expert before deciding how or if to deal with them.
I don’t mind bees and wasps because I can identify them and know how close I can safely get to them. I also don’t have any serious allergic reactions to stings. I work in the garden alongside Honeybees, Carpenter Bees, Bumblebees, Cicada Killers, Mud Daubers, Potter Wasps and others with little apprehension. Honeybees often land on me and I just stay still until they fly away. I steer clear of Yellow Jackets because I know from experience they will sting if you inadvertently disturb their nest (happened last summer in a client’s garden). I don’t attempt to eliminate them unless they are really in the way or other people are in danger. Even though I’m in the garden a lot I only get stung once every several years or so. The consequences for me are some brief anger, localized soreness and itching for a few days. The consequences for others could be far more serious and even deadly so use your best judgement.
Many of the solitary species of bees such as Mason and Leafcutter Bees like to nest in hollow plant stalks or holes in old wood. We take away many of these potential nesting sites by cleaning dead plants and old wood out of the garden. Some amount of cleanup is necessary for human safety, aesthetics and homeowners associations but we can mitigate the effects of a too-clean garden by building a Pollinator House. As an added benefit you may get other desirable insects such as ground beetles and butterflies hibernating in the structure.
Here are some suggestions about what materials to use:
- Stones and bricks
- Dead leaves
- Twigs or twig bundles
- Corrugated cardboard rolls
- Dried seed pods
- Paper straws
- Hollow reeds – preferably 6-8 inches long, closed on one end
- Drilled pieces of wood – variety of hole diameters, 3-6″ deep
The structure should be sturdily built to avoid toppling.
Where to place the house:
- Protected from high winds
- Partly in sun and partly in shade to meet a variety of species preferences
- If possible near water and mud for drinking and nest building
You can have a lot of fun designing your Pollinator House by creatively using materials, limited only by your imagination. I started a simple one for my Dad’s garden, custom designed to solve two problems for him.
Problem 1 – Decorative garden fence is falling apart and sagging
Problem 2 – Lots of sticks lying around from deadfall and pruning
I bought 12 cinder blocks and used them to prop up the ailing fence. Then I filled some of the spaces with twigs and short segments of hollow, dead plant parts from the garden. I drilled some holes in some pieces of scrap wood. A variety of hole sizes and depths are good for different species. As we get more material we’ll keep filling in the spaces in the blocks.
The result is practical and may not score high marks in the aesthetics department. However the fence is located in the middle of a mint patch (also a superb beneficial insect attractor) and it will be partially concealed by vegetation for much of the year. If Dad agrees I think I will add shelving to the top for containers of trailing plants which will help disguise the blocks. I will probably have to work on the bases of the cinder block towers to make them straighter since the ground here is soft and did some settling after I stacked the blocks.
Dad is pleased that his fence is at least upright again and he’s happy to do his part for invertebrate conservation. Dad’s garden was designed with wildlife in mind and already supports an abundant population of beneficial insects.
Hopefully my condo association will approve a Pollinator House in my garden. I don’t know what my chances are but I do know that my Pollinator House is going to have to be pretty to even have a prayer of getting approved. I guess I will have to make it portable so I can sell it if they say no! They have previously said yes to a bird house but a bug house might be a harder sell. Stay tuned for a more aesthetically pleasing Pollinator House plan in a future newsletter!
More information about bees, wasps and insect shelters: