During the permaculture internship at the PRI Zaytuna Farm Australia (Winter 2013) each student has the assignment to carry out an independent project. I chose to make an insect hotel or a bee hotel. I located it between the vegetable garden and the edible forest garden. These gardens are every happy with such hotel! There were lots of materials available on the farm that I could use to build a big hotel, like bamboo, wood and recycled materials. An insect hotel is not only a useful object that looks nice, but it also provides a fun and creative process when building it.
Why an insect hotel or a bee hotel?
In cold climates, an insect hotel is a hibernation place for insects and in the Summer, it is a nesting place. An advantage of the hibernation place is that all the insects are already in your garden when spring arrives. In warm climates the function of the hotel is, besides nesting, protecting the bees and insects during the wet seasons. The optimal habitat for insects is in a vegetable garden, an orchard or an edible forest garden. This stimulates the diversity of insects and the result of this diversity is an improvement of the ecological balance in the garden. A hotel can also control unwanted animals. Insects such as lacewings, hoverflies, ladybugs, beetles and earwigs can destroy the lice and mites. Other insects that are attracted to the hotel are native bees, wasps and bumblebees and these take care of pollination.
Alternative for the hive
An important aspect of the hotel is to attract insects and native and solitary bees. Each climate has its own species of native bees and these can’t be compared to honey bees. They show different behaviour and they come in different shapes and colours. An example is the Mason Bee (Osmia rufa) that prefers to nest in cavities of walls, plant stems and dead wood and, of course, the insect hotel. The advantage of native bees is that they, in most cases, don’t sting. This is in contrast to honey bees, which stings when they feel endangered. Another difference with honey bees is that almost all native bees don’t give honey. Also, solitary bees destroy the larvae of other insects. Enough habitat for the native bees gives you more pollination in your garden.
Back-up for pollination
With an insect hotel it is not necessary to have honey bees in your garden. With the current threat of extinction of honey bee colonies, you can use an insect hotel as a backup for pollination. Native bees can take care of this hotel for the most part. Some species of native bees only 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 are disappearing. Besides insect hotels you can also plant additional flowers. Some specific examples of plants that native bees prefer are anise, stonecrop, monarda, catnip, queens and loosestrife herb.
AOTH: Original Australian Trigona Hive
In the (sub)tropics of Australia there is the stingless Trigona bee which can produce approximately one kilo of honey a year. The Aborigines call this rare bee ‘sugarbag’. For the Trigona you can build a special hive. This is the Original Australian Trigona Hive (AOTH). This small hive has a size of 20x10x28 centimetres and has a hole as an opening. The bees make their own round honeycomb in the hive, so you don’t have to make this yourself. Read more about the Trigona bee on aussiebee.com.au and sugarbag.net.
How to build an insect hotel
There is no standard design for an insect hotel, so just design it with your available materials, preferably recycled and natural materials. Be creative and let your chosen materials inspire you. Google ‘insect hotel‘ and you will see many examples that can help your inspiration: from perfect to natural structures and materials like wood logs, pallets, bamboo, reeds, stones, tiles and clay in all shapes and sizes can be seen.
When you use logs, you should drill holes of various sizes, from 3 to 10 millimetres. Do this 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. This is because insects prefer closed ends and open ends can create the risk of a breeze. It is also practical to determine a certain width and height for the hotel. The depth can be limited to 30 to 40 centimetres. If you build a large-sized hotel it is important to have a good construction with shelves and a roof. Small hotels can be built directly into an object, like a container.
Where do I place it?
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 the rain so that the wood and reeds stay dry, especially because bees are searching for dry spots. Also make sure that the materials are well secured in the construction and do not treat your wood, keep it natural. This is because the use of chemicals, like paint, will repel insects.
A good tip is to gather the materials first before you determine the size of the hotel. You can also 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 cans of tin or old plant pots of stone filled with clay and place it between the logs.
A foundation of stone
Over the years, bamboo and wood will rot. You can choose to make a stone foundation or be aware of the fact that the hotel will perish eventually. The insects will certainly contribute to this process as insects will fill the holes with grass, sand, twigs and leaves.
You will soon see that your hotel attracts new residents. It is a very useful object in your garden and it can be aesthetically pleasing too. Have fun building your own hotel!
This article is also published on a http://permaculturenews.org/2013/10/08/building-insect-hotel/
Do you want a permaculture design that includes an insect hotel or a bee hotel? You can always contact me!