Between my gardening practices, the plants I dig into my garden, and structures like my pollinator palace, I’m always looking for ways to support bees and other beneficial insects on my property. While bee houses have become quite popular, they don’t always come with the information on how to use one.
Thanks to recent pollinator conservation research, we’re all learning how to better support various bee species, including leafcutter bees, solitary bees, and solitary wasps, among others. It all comes down to supplying suitable habitat—replaceable tubes are the most hygienic—and installing the bee house in a calm, mostly sunny spot. Being fastidious with annual bee house maintenance is also essential. This article will provide tips on installing a bee house, as well as advice on how to maintain it year after year.
Not all bee condos are created equal. From the materials they contain to their location and long-term maintenance, here’s all you need to know to do right by your area pollinators.
What is a bee house?
Unlike non-native honey bees, which often live within human-managed hives, many of our native bees have more solitary habits. Nesting alone in natural cavities, like the hollow stems of dead plants, individual females will crawl inside to lay their eggs and set aside pollen stores—one egg and one little blob of pollen per chamber. Once a tunnel is filled with these chambers, the female seals the tunnel’s exposed end with leaves, mud, or other materials.
Made from manmade or natural items, a bee house is simply an arrangement of empty tubes or tunnels intended to provide nests for solitary pollinators.
Why use a bee house?
Knowing how to use a bee house properly is more important than ever because our native bees are in decline. Increasing temperatures, shrinking natural habitat, and exposure to pesticides all have impacted their numbers. Fortunately, scattering a few bee houses around your property can benefit native bees and your garden, too.
Native bees and wasps are essential pollinators. In fact, more than 85 percent of flowering plants depend on insect pollinators in order to reproduce. What’s more, many native, solitary wasps help to control garden pests like caterpillars, aphids, and beetles.
What kind of pollinators use a bee house?
North America hosts some 3,600 bee species in all, and about one-third of those are cavity-nesters. (Most of the rest nest underground.) Some of the solitary bees and wasps that use bee houses include yellow-faced bees, leafcutter bees, aphid-hunting wasps, and mason bees.
Interestingly, when it comes to choosing egg-laying sites, these and other cavity-nesters like a tight fit. Usually, they’ll choose natural holes or tunnels which closely match the width of their bodies. That’s why bee houses meant to serve a variety of different native pollinators will offer a variety of different cavity diameters.
Still, you may have seen manmade bee houses which include a series of drilled holes or, perhaps, a bundle of dried bamboo stems of equal diameter. Often, these are devoted solely to mason bees. A mason bee house can be a valuable addition in orchards.
How to use a bee house properly
Wondering exactly how to use a bee house to get the best results? Keep in mind that this isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it operation. Harmful bacteria, fungi, and parasites can take up residence in neglected bee houses. Then, when native pollinators clamber in to create new generations, their numbers suffer rather than soar. By performing a few specific tasks, you can protect the native pollinators you attract and help to ensure their offspring make it to adulthood.
Where to hang a bee house
The right location is critical for bee house installation. Place it in a spot that gets full, morning sun and afternoon shade. And shelter it from the wind. Attaching it to an east-facing wall on the outside of a shed or outbuilding works well. It should also be fairly close to good sources of nectar, pollen, and mud.
Caring for a pollinator hotel
If your bee house is comprised of one or more blocks of drilled wood, expect to replace these with new, drilled wood blocks annually. (Otherwise, you risk exposing bees to the chalkbrood fungus, pollen mites, and other serious problems.) Alternatively, you can line these drilled tunnels with replaceable paper tubes, cardboard tubes, or reeds.
If you go this route, you’ll need to sanitize the wood block itself and line its drilled holes with fresh replacement tubes or reeds after all native bees have hatched out. (To sanitize the wood block, soak it in a weak bleach solution, rinse well, and allow it to dry completely.)
Bee houses made to hold bundles of spent vegetation—think raspberry canes or sunflower stems, for instance—are easier to maintain, since you can carefully slip out these nest tubes and replace them with a fresh set when the time comes. Whether you buy a premade bee house or make your own, be sure to remove any stray splinters you see. These can inadvertently damage fragile bee wings.
What to do with a bee house in the winter
Remember, bees seal the formerly exposed ends of stem tunnels once they’re filled. Sometimes, though, cavities are only partially full and remain uncapped. During winter and very early spring, this can expose bee larvae to the elements and assorted predators. That’s why it can be helpful to shelter your bee house inside an unheated garage, unheated shed, or on an outdoor porch until spring.
How to use a bee house when there are predators around
Want to positively affect the number of native bees in your area? Protect if from potential predators. Woodpeckers can decimate a bee house long before the season’s new males and females ever have a chance to emerge. Attaching chicken wire or hardware cloth over the front of a bee house can keep their sharp beaks out.
More tips for success
As you learn how to use a bee house responsibly, you may notice increasing numbers of native bees around your property. Take these extra steps to further boost their numbers year after year:
- Avoid pesticides and make sure your bee house materials are pesticide-free.
- Spread several smaller bee houses more widely throughout your landscape. This gives native pollinators more habitat choices. It also can help to mitigate overall population losses due to area pests and pathogens.
- Many solitary pollinators need a little moisture and bare earth to construct cell walls and end caps. Make some bare soil patches available and keep a shallow water source nearby.