Colorado has nearly 1,000 different species of bees. Now, native bee hotels are creating a lot of buzz. Even Costco now sells bee houses. Also known as pollinator homes, these small rustic structures resemble dwellings garden fairies might favor. Actually, they’re designed as ideal shelters for native bees.
“Bee hotels are nesting sites. They’re charming and can be a piece of art in the garden, as well as something beneficial,” said Sonya Anderson, a horticulture specialist and insect innkeeper at Denver Botanic Gardens.
Ladybugs, butterflies and spiders might check into the bug hotels, but guests of honor are bumblebees, long-horned bees, mining and mason bees, leaf-cutter bees and green sweat bees.
“Native bees are essential to wildland ecosystems. These bees pollinate many native wildflowers, shrubs and trees, which in turn, provide cover, food, and nesting sites to many wild animals,” said Diane Wilson, trials supervisor at Applewood Seed Company in Arvada. “Nesting sites are just as important to native bees as food sources — flowers — and will help to increase pollinator populations in your garden.”
Applewood Seed Company added bee hotels eight years ago after researching pollinator conservation. “We use twig bundles, bamboo bundles, and mason bee nest boxes. We also have a stump with holes drilled into it,” Wilson said.
“We have counted over 100 species of pollinators in our gardens,” said Wilson.” On rare occasions we will observe a pollinator such as the western bumblebee in our gardens. This bee species is in decline, and so it is very exciting to find one.”
Becky Hahnel crafted the quaint rustic bee hotels displayed at Denver Botanic Gardens. She used untreated wood, salvaged bricks, pine cones, paper egg cartons, bark, moss and reeds.
Unlike honeybees, native bees have no queens, colonies, stingers, hives, or honey. Native bees are cavity dwellers. The tube-shaped reeds of an insect hotel provide ideal quarters.
“Native bees want an opening on one end and the other end closed,” Anderson said. “The native bee goes in and builds a chamber. A mason bee uses some mud. Leaf-cutter bees use pieces of leaves. They start at the back of the tube and create a chamber, lay an egg and leave a pollen nectar loaf for the embryo to eat when it emerges. They close up the chamber and then create another chamber and another and another.”
Insect hotels are relatively new to Colorado. “In Europe, they’re much more common,” Anderson said. “We added the first ones in 2012, just a few small ones. In 2014, we put the bigger ones up to support pollinators and also to raise awareness about native bees.”
Whether an environmental hobby or a science fair project, offering hospitality to native bees requires some maintenance. The end game for some is harvesting bee cocoons to add to the pollinator population that regenerates the plant kingdom and the planet itself. Life depends upon pollinators.
“As we learn more, insect hotels are more complicated to have. Don’t just put them up and forget them. The main thing in late winter or early spring is to make sure to put fresh new tubes in for bees to nest in,” said Anderson.
“Toward the end of the season, bring tubes inside to help protect bees over winter. If we bring them in, they’re not as vulnerable to predators like squirrels or parasitic wasps. Put the tubes in an unheated garage or shed in winter — someplace dark and cool, but not too cold or hot,” Anderson said.
“Native bees can survive on their own, but we’re supporting them,” she added. “I just love discovering all of this and seeing all the native bees right around us.”
Colleen Smith writes and gardens in Denver.
What to build a bee hotel? Here’s what you need to know:
Denver Botanic Gardens commissioned their bug hotels from Becky Hahnel.
“I don’t have a pattern. I design as I go. It’s really quite easy and fun. My goal is to use what I have around,” she said. “People can definitely make their own.”
Sonya Anderson oversees native bees in pollinator hotels at Denver Botanic Gardens. “This is a fantastic project for people at home, especially because native bees are there,” Anderson said.
“They will find places to nest, but when we install these houses and take care of them, we easily see the activities of the bees,” she said. “It’s really fun to see leaf-cutter bees flying back and forth with little pieces of leaves. It’s created another level of awareness of what’s going on around me that I didn’t know before.”
Follow these best practices when building or buying and installing a pollinator home:
Use untreated wood. “Treated wood isn’t good for bees or insects,” said Hahnel. “I look for cull lumber because I don’t want it to be perfect, and it’s a lot cheaper.”
Read up on bee reeds. Hahnel uses 20 to 25 reeds per bee hotel. She purchases reeds from the Crown Bee Company, but hollow perennial stalks or other natural materials work well. “Don’t use plastic straws,” Anderson said. “And we don’t use bamboo reeds anymore. They don’t breath, and if bee nests in there, it can cause mold to build up. It’s more conducive to fungal issues that detrimentally affect the pollen nectar loaf.”
Hahnel said, “Stagger reeds so bees can recognize which one they’ve gone in to lay eggs. They like dark edges, so some people burn and char the reeds. I don’t do that, and they’re still being used.”
She tucks in moss and other natural materials to stabilize tubes. She said, “You don’t want reeds to be loose and moving around all wonky for bees trying to fly in.”
Add a roof and a back wall. Hahnel uses metal roofs and suggests hardware store roof flashing already bent at an angle that works atop a pollinator home. She adheres the metal with Liquid Nails. “Make sure water doesn’t get in the pollinator home,” said Hahnel. “And there does have to be a back if the reeds are open on both ends.”
Location, location, location. Situate pollinator homes near a lot of flowering plants where they can feed. “Some native bees don’t travel that far,” Anderson said. “A bit of protection from wind and rain is good, maybe near some bigger trees or shrubs.”
Hahnel said, “Face the front toward the east so they get morning sun, but not intense afternoon sun.”
Provide water. “I have a little ceramic bird bath on the ground for bees that use mud to seal up their eggs and need a source of water to mix with dirt,” Hahnel said.
— Colleen Smith, Special to The Denver Post
More buzz about native bees
The Colorado Pollinator Network shares best practices, information and resources related to native bees.
Crown Bees: The Gentle Bee Company sells supplies, offers information about pollinator houses — including videos — and conducts a citizen science project at crownbees.com.
The Bees Waggle is a retail company that also raises awareness about native bees through a variety of educational opportunities for all ages: thebeeswaggle.com.