A lot of articles and news stories talk about the collapse of the honey bee population and how important it is to help them, but really, it’s all pollinators that need our help.
What can you do? A lot! One thing you can do is give them a safe place to call home. This is a pretty broad topic and there are a lot of ways to do this. Just like we all have different kinds of homes and preferences, so do pollinators. Let’s start with two common solitary bees in North America, the mason bee and the leaf cutter bee.
They both build long tunnels where they lay their eggs on little beds of pollen and nectar. It's pretty easy to make a home for these bees. It's often referred to as a bee hotel. They vary in size, shape and complexity. You can buy them or just gather materials on a nature walk. It's up to you!
Steps to making a bee hotel
A bee hotel is a fun way to say you’re gathering things with holes in them and leaving them alone. However, there are some important things you need. Here are the steps to making a bee hotel for mason and leaf cutter bees.
- Gather a bundle of bamboo and/or plant stems that are 5-8” long and 1/16”-1/2” in diameter. You can also take a block of hard wood (non pressure treated) and drill holes into it. You want one end to be open and the other end to be closed. If you use bamboo, cut it after the node, because that is where the bamboo is not hollow.
- Put the blocks or bamboo into a container. This can be a flower pot on its side, you can build a box or use a small, wooden crate. See below for a few ideas.
- Attach to a post or nail it to a tree. Ideally, it would be at least 4’ or taller, have a cover over the top to protect the tubes from sun and rain and face the morning sun.
Some bee hotel inspiration
I chose the designs above because I wanted you to see how simple they can be. It can be on a post, nailed to a tree or dangling from a string. The tunnels can be drilled into wood, or stacks of bamboo sticks in a box, can or pipe.
A few tips
Don’t be disappointed if bees don’t move into your hotel immediately. Sometimes it takes a few months for the wood to weather before bees move in.
Plant flowers that attract leaf cutters and mason bees and your hotel will have more visitors. Bees can only move into your hotel if there are bees nearby! See below for some recommendations.
You can buy bees. If you're not seeing bees move into your hotel or visiting the plants in your garden that they like, you can buy mason and leaf cutters. There are bee farms that sell solitary bees.
Attracting Leaf Cutter Bees
Leaf cutters need food (nectar and pollen) and materials to build their nest. These don't necessarily come from the same plants.
I've found that leaf cutters LOVE to use the bougainvillea leaves for their nests. Other plants that provide building material for leaf cutters are lilac, black-eyed susan vine, clematis, roses and clarkia. An easy way to tell if you already have leaf cutters in your garden is to look for half circles cut out of leaves. This is a giveaway that the leaf cutter was here. Don't worry, it doesn't harm the plant and is hardly noticeable.
Leaf cutters also need food. They will forage from blue bells, dahlias, sunflowers and most flowers that also attract honey bees. They are important pollinators of blueberries, onions, carrots and alfalfa, but will visit most herbs and veggies in your garden.
Some facts about leaf cutters
- Most active in the summer
- Pollinate a lot of fruits and vegetables
- Tunnel nesting
- Calm and docile
- Can sting but it is very rare
Attracting Mason Bees
Mason bees also need food (nectar and pollen) and materials to build their nest.
Mason bees do not gather leaves for their nest. They place their egg on a bed of pollen and separate the chambers for each egg with a mud wall. There's not much you can do to help them in their nest preparation other than creating your bee hotel. However, some people go that extra mile and create a mud source. You can do this by digging a hole, lining it with a waterproof material and putting the soil back in along with some water (If you have trouble with this, ask a small child for help. They're mud experts.). People who keep a lot of mason bees sometimes buy a mud mix for their bees. If you live somewhere that's rainy, this shouldn't be necessary but if you are in a dry area, you may want to provide the bees with some moist soil.
Mason bees are similar in size to honey bees and forage from similar plants that honey bees do, but they love the pollen from fruit trees for their babies and native plants will attract the mason bee species native to your area.
A few facts about mason bees
- Most active in spring
- Pollinate a lot of fruits and vegetables
- Tunnel nesting
- Calm and docile
- Can sting but is very rare
Maintain your hotel. This is very important!
You want to make sure you’re giving the bees a healthy place to live and prevent the growth of diseases or harboring pests.
The ideal way to tackle this is by having two bee hotels. I know this isn’t ideal, but trust me on this. You want to be able to clean out or replace the tubes every year. Otherwise, diseases can start to grow in them and you'll be doing more harm than good.
Since the bees overwinter in the nesting tunnels, the hotel you put out in early Spring will be in use until next Spring. Once winter is almost over, put out the second hotel. This will be where the bees make their new home after they hatch in the spring.
Once all of the bees have hatched from your first hotel, take it away. Clean the tubes at the end of the Summer and use them next year. You can do this by taking a pipe cleaner and making sure there’s no debris stuck in there or ants living inside. If it’s a wood block, pour a bleach water solution (1/2 cup bleach with gallon of water) over the block, rinse and dry. Leave to air out until next spring. It’s best to do this in the fall or winter so it’s ready for next spring. Don’t do this in the spring for next spring because insects could get to it when it’s warm out.
Replace all wood blocks and tubes every 2 years.
Monitoring in the warmer months
It’s easy to forget about your bee hotel, but its important to check on it monthly during the spring and summer.
Check for the following:
• Moisture getting into the nest box (attach a roof over the hotel or if no bees have moved in yet, move to a more protected location)
• Ant infestations (They are attracted to the pollen and bee larvae. This can be prevented by using sticky spray or ant bait at the base of the bee hotel.)
• Paper wasp nests
• Spider webs (often a sign that the nest location is too dark)
Why these bees?
There are over 19,000 different kinds of bees and about 4,000 are native to North America. There are a lot of bees out there you can create a "hotel" for. Making a hotel for leaf cutters and mason bees is the easiest way to go because you don't have to research what bees are in your area. Most likely, if you're in North America, you have mason or leaf cutters bees nearby. However, you can do a little extra research and figure out what bees are native to your area and create a habitat for them. Xerces.org is a great place to start.
Another reason to make a hotel for leaf cutters and mason bees is because they are excellent pollinators. Honey bees get most of the credit for pollination, but a lot of plants depend on pollination from non honey bees. Honey bees are used by farmers because they can reorientate themselves if their hive is moved. Most bees cannot do this. This allows the beekeeper to put hives on a farm for just a few months, when a crop is blooming, and move them when the bloom is over. This is necessary on mono crop farms because they are food deserts when their one crop is not blooming.
Can other bees visit your hotel?
There are a lot of pollinators out there you can create a habitat for. This is just one option for leaf cutter and mason bees. Here at our farm, we also have the yellow-faced bee who makes their home in crevices. I added some lava rock and coral to my bee hotel for these guys.
The more you learn about the bees native to your area, the more you can add to your hotel to help a variety of bees!
Stay tuned for more blog posts about other insect hotels you can build.
Bee hotels versus keeping honey bees
Of course, I'm a fan of keeping honey bees. I love spending time with my hives and getting to know them. Their hive structure fascinates me. I love watching them work and am amazed that tens of thousands of bees all work together, in what looks like perfect unison, to run a hive.
That being said, beekeeping is work. There's equipment to buy, lots to learn, and you have to inspect them weekly (except for when its cold out). If you're looking for pollination help, insect hotels are a great option, especially if you have a variety of plants that bloom throughout the spring, summer and fall.
Another benefit to insect hotels is that you can help the pollinators without spending a lot of money or time.
Insect hotels are a great way to get your kids interested in nature and the garden, without worrying about getting stung and needing suits. Most kids around the age of 8 LOVE learning about bugs.
The downside to insect hotels is that you don't open them up and you don't spend time with them (though you can hang out by them and watch the bees come and go). Most importantly, you don't get any honey from them!
When I started harvesting honeycomb, I quickly realized people didn’t know what it was or if it was edible. This video and blog post will hopefully shed some light on this amazing substance.
What Is Honeycomb Made From?
Honeycomb is made from beeswax. Beeswax is a substance only made by bees. The worker bees secrete it out of a gland on the underside of their abdomen. The queen and drones do not have this gland.
How Bees Build Honeycomb
The worker bees that are about 1 week old are the best at secreting beeswax. However, bees of all ages can secrete wax if necessary. When the bee eats a lot of honey, instead of her body turning it into fat like our human bodies do, the bee secretes this sugar in the form of beeswax. That’s why bees never get fat!
Once the beeswax is secreted, the bee chews it up so it is malleable, and molds it into a cylinder shape. They use their body size as a unit for measurement and form a scaffolding across the hive with their bodies – also called festooning or a bee chain. This chain is what allows them to begin to build this honeycomb in what was an empty space.
HOW DO THEY MAKE HONEYCOMB INTO HEXAGON SHAPES
The bees build cylinders with beeswax. Then, they attach the cylinders with heat. When the wax begins to melt, the cylinders join together, forming a straight line. The bees do not intentionally build hexagon shaped cells! The cells automatically form hexagons when it is molded to the cell next to it.
Purpose of Honeycomb
BROOD IN HONEYCOMB
The queen will walk across the honeycomb and look for an empty cell. When she finds one, she will put the lower half of her body in the cell and lay an egg. This egg will be fed constantly until it hatches into a larvae and then spins a cocoon and pupates. This cell is essentially the crib for this baby bee. It will live and grow in this cell until it is a fully grown adult, ready to get to work.
FOOD IN HONEYCOMB
Honeycomb is also used as a way to store food which is honey and pollen. On average, honeybees gather about 7 times more food than what they need to eat in order save up for when there are not enough flowers in bloom to feed the hive.
HONEYCOMB FOR COMMUNICATION
Bees walk on the honeycomb and dance on the honeycomb. It is believed that the bees can feel the vibration on the comb and is another way they communicate with each other. Additionally, a bee will do a dance on the comb in order to tell the other worker bees how to find the flowers she was just visiting.
Humans and Honeycomb
Honeycomb is edible and has a chewy consistency. It contains the maximum beneficial properties from the hive including lots of pollen and propolis. You can either chew the honeycomb to extract the honey and spit out the wax or swallow the wax. Before electricity, most beekeepers harvested the entire comb. Now, with motorized extractors, honeycomb is not harvested as often and much harder to find, but no less delicious! You can learn how I harvest my honeycomb at this blog post.
Here are a few easy ways to eat honeycomb or introduce it to friends and family who may not be familiar with it.
Honeycomb as a Breakfast Topping
Cut a piece of honeycomb into small chunks and sprinkle over warm oatmeal, pancakes or waffles. Place it on while it’s hot to very warm so the honeycomb melts on top and can be stirred or spread on top.
Honeycomb in Salads
Cut a small piece of honeycomb into very tiny chucks and sprinkle over a salad. Top with a soft cheese, nuts and dried fruit or figs.
Sandwiches, Dinners and Desserts
Honeycomb is absolutely delicious when added to warm food that causes it to melt partially. Add a small piece of honeycomb to a hot ham and cheese sandwich, place in the center of a hot bowl of chili, or not top of a baked dessert or pastry fresh out of the oven.
My absolute favorite was to eat honeycomb is baked in a pastry with brie.
People have been keeping bees and eating honeycomb for thousands of years. The comb is completely safe to eat and my personal favorite way to eat honey.
Honeycomb is the only way to make sure your honey is completely raw. If the comb is in tact (and not melted), then the honey wasn’t heated too high. Honeycomb contains the maximum amounts of nutrients and health benefits of any kind of honey. This is because the honeycomb contains bits of pollen and propolis within the wax as well as the honey. Since honeycomb cannot be strained, all of these nutrients stay within the honey. There’s nothing like seeing honeycomb to be reminded how much work bees put into every teaspoon of honey we eat. Like liquid honey, it never spoils.
Honeycomb can be used in ways that liquid honey can’t. While drizzling honey over a salad seems odd, topping a salad with crumbled goat cheese and hunks of honeycomb is a heavenly way to eat your veggies. Honeycomb is a delicious carrier for honey, transforming it from something merely absorbed by the other ingredients to something that stands on its own.