by Bor Borren
For the internship at PRI Zaytuna Farm, Australia (Winter 2013) each student has the mandate to carry out an independent project. I chose to make an ‘Insect Hotel’ or a ‘Bee Hotel’. This has been given a place on the border between the kitchen garden and the adjacent food forest. On the farm there is a lot of material like bamboo, wood and recycled materials with which to build one. The large kitchen garden has room for a large hotel. An insect hotel is not only a useful object — and one that looks nice — it also provides a fun and creative process for building it.
Why an insect hotel or a bee hotel?
In cold climates, an insect hotel is a hibernation place for insects. In the summer it is a nesting place. An advantage of a hibernation place is that all the insects are in your garden as spring starts. In warm climates the function of the hotel is for nesting and so that insects can find a dry place in the wet season. An optimal habitat for insects in the garden, orchard or food forest stimulates the diversity of insects. The result of diversity is an improvement of the ecological balance in the garden.
A hotel is also an indirect exterminator itself. Insects such as lacewings, hoverfly, ladybugs, beetles and earwigs destroy the lice and mites.
Other insects that are attracted to the hotel are native bees, wasps and bumblebees.
Alternative to the hive
An important aspect of the hotel is attracting insects and native solitary bees. Each climate has its own species of native bees. Native bees are in many aspects not comparable to honey bees — they show different behaviour and they come in different shapes and colours. An example is the Mason Bee (Osmia rufa) that look to nest in cavities in walls, plant stems and dead wood, and we provide this in the insect hotel. The advantage of native bees is that they do not sting in most cases. Most native bees do not give honey either. Solitary bees also destroy the larvae of other insects. Sufficient habitat for native bees gives you more pollination in your garden.
With an insect hotel it is not necessary to have a bee hive. With the current threat of the death of honey bee colonies you can use an insect hotel as a backup for pollination, which native bees can undertake a large portion of. Some species of native bees pollinate certain plants. An example is the Panurgus (Panurgus calcaratus or Panurgus banksianus) that only pollinates hawkweeds (Hieracium caespitosum).
The disappearance of native bees is mainly because certain plants disappear.
Besides insect hotels you can also plant additional flowers. Some specific examples of native bee foods are anise, stonecrop, monarda, catnip, queens and loosestrife herb.
In the subtropics of Australia there is the stingless Trigona bee which can produce approximately one kilo of honey in a year. The Aborigines call this rare honey ‘sugarbag’. For the Trigone you can use a special hive. This is the OATH — the Original Australian Trigona Hive. This small hive has a size of 20 x 10 x 28 cm and has a hole as an opening. The bees make their own round honeycomb in the hive. Read more about native Australian stingless bees on aussiebee.com.au and sugarbag.net.
How to build an insect hotel
There is no standard design for an insect hotel. Just design with your available materials — preferably recycled and natural materials. Be creative with the materials you have. Google ‘insect hotel‘ and you will see numerous examples for inspiration. From production-perfect to natural structures made of wood logs, pallets, bamboo, reeds, stones, tiles and clay in all shapes and sizes. Drill into the logs holes of various sizes, from 3 to 10 mm, in a small oblique angle so that any moisture can run out. Vary hole depths for diversity but don’t drill all the way through. With an open hole there is a chance off draft. It is practical to give the hotel a certain width and height. The depth can be limited to 30 to 40 cm. If you build a large-sized hotel it is important to have shelves and a roof. Small hotels you can build directly into an object like a box.
Find a sheltered spot, with the opening facing the sun in cool climates and facing the morning sun in the tropics and sub-tropics. It is important that you give the hotel a roof against rain so that the wood and reeds stay dry — especially because bees are searching for dry spots. Also make sure the materials are well secured in regards to construction. Do not treat your wood, keep it natural. The use of chemicals will repel insects. A good tip is to first gather the materials before you determine the size of the hotel. You can decorate the hotel with old rusty metal parts like a tin, old tools, wheels, etc.
Some native bees such as Andrena or Sphecidae dig their holes into sand or clay. A wall of clay mixed with sand attracts these bees. You can also add old tin cans or old stone plant pots filled with clay and place it between the logs.
Bamboo and wood will rot in time. You can choose to make a stone foundation or plan for the fact that the hotel will perish eventually. The insects will certainly contribute to this process.
You will soon see that your hotel attracts new residents. Insects will fill the holes with grass, sand, twigs and leaves. Have fun building your own hotel! It is a very useful object in your garden and can be highly aesthetically pleasing.
Video of the process of building the insect hotel: