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Wild bees not only fill our environment with life, colour and beauty, as pollinators of crops and wildflowers these fascinating little creatures are among the most important animals on earth.
You can help bees at home by providing them with food and somewhere to nest. You can provide bees with food by growing plants rich in pollen and nectar, and you can provide a nesting site by putting up a bee hotel.
While Honeybees and Bumblebees live in a colony, most of the bee species that live in the Channel Islands don’t, which is why they are called ‘solitary’ bees. Many species nest underground but some species nest above the ground in old plant stems and cavities in trees that have been made by burrowing beetle larvae.
Putting up a bee hotel is a simple yet effective way to help these bees. It’s also great fun and offers a window into their remarkable lives.
Making your Bee Hotel
To make a simple wooden box you will need a plank of untreated wood 120mm wide x 1250mm long x 15mm (or greater) thick.
- Cut the plank of wood in to five 250mm lengths.
- Using a drill and wood screws, piece the wood together to make an open-fronted box with a long back panel. Drill a hole in the long back panel so that it can be fixed to a wall, post or fence.
- Sand off any rough edges.
You will need a section of plastic pipe with a diameter of approximately 100mm, an end cap, and a fixing bracket.
- Cut a 250mm length of pipe.
- Plug the back of the pipe with an end cap.
- Attach the fixing bracket ready for installation.
You can make the tubes yourself by cutting lengths of bamboo, or you can buy cardboard tubes designed for bees from specialist suppliers such as masonbees.co.uk.
To make your own tubes, cut lengths of bamboo between 170mm to 260mm long. If you can, cut just beyond a ‘node’ so that your tubes are sealed at the back, but make sure there are no nodes anywhere else along the tube as the bees are not able to get through them.
To attract Mason and Leafcutter bees, the entrance holes of the tubes should have diameters between 6mm and 10mm.
If you add a few tubes with holes between 2mm and 6mm you may also attract other species.
- Divide your tubes up in to 3 small bundles of approximately 10 tubes using strong elastic bands.
- Place the bundles of tubes in to the wooden box or plastic pipe so that they are slightly shorter than the container. This stops them getting wet!
- Find a sunny (south to southeast facing is best), unshaded spot on a wall, fence or wooden post approximately 4-7ft above the ground with a clear flight path for bees entering and leaving.
- Tilt your bee hotel slightly downward to help keep nesting tubes dry when it rains.
- Securely fix your bee hotel so that it doesn’t sway in the wind.
- Patiently wait for bees to move in.
The bees most likely to move in to your bee hotel include Mason bees and Leafcutter bees. Red Mason bees Osmia bicornis ssp. cornigera are the species most likely to move in. They are called Mason bees because they line their nest cells with mud, so to make them feel even more at home be sure to provide them with a supply of damp mud somewhere near the hotel. They are active relatively early in the year and can be seen as early as March.
Leafcutter bees Megachile spp. fly a bit later in the year, usually appearing in June. Leafcutters get their name from the females’ habit of using their powerful jaws to cut sections of leaves and petals which they use to line their nest cells.
In the picture: A Female Red Mason Bee Osmia bicornis ssp cornigera takes a well earned rest after building her nest in a bee hotel. Note the completed nest sealed with mud in the centre of the image. Photograph © Jon Rault
Having found your bee hotel, a female bee will choose a tube to make her nest in. Inside her chosen tube she will build individual ’cells’ lined with mud or leaves. She will make a little cake of pollen and nectar inside each cell before laying an egg and sealing it up. Once the egg hatches the bee larvae will eat the pollen and nectar and then spin a cocoon. Inside the cocoon the bee larvae will transform in to an adult. They remain inside the nest over the winter before chewing their way out as adult bees the following spring or summer to repeat the cycle.
Choosing Bee Hotel
If you are thinking of creating a new bug hotel or buying a nest box for a bug there are things to consider. Many are expensive and some are poorly-designed.
Some issues to look out for:
- The length of the tubes or drilled holes is not long enough. Look for a box with nesting tunnels 15cms in length as a minimum.
- The diameter of the tubes is often too wide. This is because many hotels are manufactured and built to attract larger species than we have. It’s good to provide a range of tube in widths as this will attract a range of species. Provide holes of between 4-10mm in diameter.
- No protection from wet and windy weather. Ideally the box will have an overhang to prevent the tubes getting damp. This can be prevented by careful placing of the box. Somewhere sheltered but not shaded is ideal.
- Avoid the use of plastic and other ‘non-breathable’ materials as they prevent the movement of air and moisture and can encourage damp and condensation leading to fungus and mould. This will destroy pollinator eggs and larvae.
- Nesting tubes should have a solid back. Bees will not use tubes that are open at both ends.
- The nesting tubes should be removable so that they can be examined, cleaned and replaced. The most successful bee boxes are well-managed.
Siting your bee nest box
To maximise the chances of your bee box being occupied, the location is important.
- Position your box in full sun, facing south east or south
- Place it at least 1 metre from the ground
- You can place your bee hotel near plants but make sure that they don’t hide or shade the entrance
- Position the nest box in a stable, fixed position that wont move in the wind or be easily knocked.
- Make sure it is somewhere you will see it regularly so you can watch who nests there
Managing your Bee Hotel
Periodic maintenance will mean a more successful nest box and a healthier population of bees in your garden. With no cleaning, fungi, debris and parasites tend to build up which can be damaging.
- Bring your nest box into an unheated shed or garage during the autumn and winter to protect it from damp and wet weather. If you don’t have either then a porch or any covered area will do. It is damp not cold that destroys larvae. Not only will this protect the larvae and adult bees waiting to emerge in the spring but it will mean that your nest box will last longer. You can place the box outdoors in the spring, from March onwards.
- If you notice birds predating your nest box or removing nest tubes (woodpeckers and tits often do this) then you can place a piece of mesh or chicken wire across the front. This does not appear to deter the bees.
- If your nest box is built of stacked & routed wooden sheets or you use paper nest tube liners you can clean it out in winter, remove the cocoons and store them until spring.
- At least every couple of years replace all of the tubes and blocks in the nest box with fresh ones. In spring leave the old tubes in an upturned box or bucket on the ground with a hole at the top (bees naturally orientate towards light) so that the previous year’s bees can emerge but so that they won’t reoccupy the old tubes.