Gardening for pollinators involves using native plants, choosing pollinator-friendly herbs and annuals and leaving some plants standing over winter to provide nesting space and cover for pollinators. But, you can also provide shelter more directly by building (or buying) a bee house.
Bee House Basics
You’ve probably seen bee houses in your neighborhood. They consists of a protective structure filled with tubes that are at least 5 inches long and the longer the better. Tubes should be in a variety of diameters, from about 3/16ths inch to 5/16ths inch. If your tubes are too short, the ratio of male to female bees will be out of whack. If the tubes are too wide, bees won’t use them. In the wild, bees nest in the hallow stems of plants — that’s what you are trying to replicate.
Bee houses are most likely to attract mason bees and leaf-cutter bees. You can tell which you have by the plug they install at the end of the tube when it is in use. Mason bees use mud; leaf cutter bees use leaves.
In setting up a bee house, you want it to be 6 to 7 feet off the ground and in a location that is out of the weather. Under the eaves of your house is a good spot, or build a box that has an overhang on it to keep out rain. Because bees need warmth to begin their foraging each day, setting it up in a south-facing location is great.
Building the Box
While you can build a bee house using a thick block of wood with holes drilled into it (that’s what my first bee house looked like) those tend to get dirty and possibly diseased over time.
A house where you replace the tubes each year is a good option. In terms of design, the sky’s the limit. Some people go simple with just a length of PVC pipe cut an inch or two longer than your tubes. Hang the pipe attached to a wall, fence or post, slip in the tubes and wait for residents of your bee hotel.
An attractive option is to build diamond-shaped box with a back attached, making sure the roof of the diamond is longer than the base to provide weather protection. This video shows how to make that type of bee house. You can also create a tall, rectangular box, then attach the roof on top of that. This video offers some basic instructions for that type of box.
What about the Tubes?
There are a variety of materials you can use for tubes for your bee house. Some people take old logs, at least 6 inches long and not too wide, and drill 1/4 inch holes in them for the bees to nest. You can buy tubes made of reeds, cardboard or other materials. You can even make the tubess from printer paper by rolling it around a pencil. All tubes will need to be replaced eventually.
You may want to harvest the cocoons from your bee house and keep them out of the weather over the winter (typically in a refrigerator or garage). This organization has many videos about how to harvest cocoons and then release them in the spring.
Whether you harvest the cocoons and release them in the spring, or just let nature do its thing, keeping a bee house is a good way to support native pollinators and bring more life to your garden.
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