We Have a Vacancy: Building a Bug Hotel for Solitary Bees

Now here’s a project that doesn’t take too much time and is simply perfect for the whole family. The materials used for this are all items you can hunt for in parks or woods and make for a great excuse to go on a hike. With a little help from adults, kids can have a blast assembling these amazing and beneficial homes.

What I’m looking to attract are solitary bees. Many people think that honey bees and bumble bees are the only types of bees around. The fact is that they only represent about 10% of the bee species around and aren’t even native to North America. A majority of bees don’t make honey, but one thing that they do make is excellent pollinators!

Just one solitary bee, like the mason bee, can do the pollination work of 120 honey bees! They lack the little pollen baskets that honey bees have so they visit flowers way more often than social bees. And because they don’t have that golden treasure trove to protect, they don’t swarm and are safe around people and pets. There are three basic types of solitary bees but all come in varying shapes and sizes.

Solitary bees will either chew tunnels with their strong mandibles (like the carpenter bees) or they will seek out existing burrows left by beetles or hollow stems (like the mason or leaf cutter bee) to lay their eggs. They’ll crawl to the back to deposit an egg and then leave a lovely little packed lunch of pollen and nectar for the baby to eat. She’ll leave just enough room for the larvae to develop and then seal it off and repeat the process until the cavity is filled.

Wild bee cells. Via
Wild bee cells. Via

She can control whether the egg is male or female and lays females towards the back as males hatch before females do. That way the bees can emerge without blocking one another. I guess at least in the bee world, the males mature faster.

These types of bees are so often overlooked when people think about the recent decline in pollinators. Yet they do far more work than the honey bees do in that regard. All the more reason to do a cool project like making a place for them to live. Urban environments are not very forgiving when it comes to providing a home to these useful critters. Gardeners seldom leave dead wood laying around or old stems from plants that the bees would normally call home.

So not only is this a simple and fun project to get the whole family involved in, you’re doing a great service which will only provide you with enrichment as well as a bountiful crop! You and the kids can monitor the tunnels and see what variety of species have moved in. On rainy days, you’ll see them in there staying dry but most of the time you’ll know they’re using the home when you see the ends sealed up. This would also make for a great project for schools, especially those that have gardens.

So let’s get to the fun part…the building of the house.

Bug Hotel 01_Feature Image

Materials needed:

  • A wooden box of some form (get creative and build your own or reuse something)
  • Natural materials like twigs, bark, pine cones, bamboo or logs
  • A drill and several drill bits (1/4″-5/8″ in diameter)
  • Wood glue and nails
  • Wire or natural cordage to secure the material if needed
  • A South-East facing hanging location that gets sun around 10-11 a.m. and is at least 3 feet off the ground
  • A miter saw if you’re building your own box
  • Handsaw to cut materials to length
  • Safety goggles
  • Painters tape

Solitary bees are naturally drawn to materials found in their environment, so try to avoid plastics or other man-made materials. When selecting the box for your design, you can go as large or as small as you have space for. The one that I’ve built is perfect for smaller yards or apartment patios, but I’ve seen some that are the size of a refrigerator or small shack that can house all manner of insects.

Bug Hotel 01d_Giant Bug Hotel
Check out this site to see how large and creative insect hotels can get!

Most people don’t have enough room for a deluxe accommodation like this one, but sometimes you can re-purpose an unused area in the yard to double as an insect hotel such as the space below a deck or porch.

Whatever you decide, have fun gathering materials and try creating nice designs for a more appealing look and conversation piece. Here’s how I built my first one (but it won’t be my last!)

Step One: Building the Frame / Box:

Dry fit of the wood pieces.
Dry fit of the wood pieces.

I decided I didn’t want a typical square box frame for my insect hotel so I opted for a more honeycomb-like shape. You’ll need some type of miter saw for this type of box frame. The miters were cut at 22.5° which is simply taking a typical 45° miter and halving it so you double the sides of the box from 4 to 8. These pieces are about 3 1/2″x 3″x 3/4″ and two are 3 1/2″x 1″x 3/4″ but you can make them whatever size you want.

You don’t have to miter these pieces if you want a simple box. You can instead make simple butt-joints or use a pre-made box of your liking.

If you do cut your own pieces, it’s always a good idea to do a dry fit before gluing them together to make sure all the angles are cut properly. 22.5° is an easy angle to be off on as most saws don’t have a stopping point or mark indicating this angle.

Step Two: Use Painters Tape to Secure all the Pieces for Gluing:

Tape acts like a temporary hinge to lock everything together.
Tape acts like a temporary hinge to lock everything together.

Lay out all the pieces on long strips of painters tape (sticky side up) to help secure your box while the glue is drying. The tape will act like multiple clamps and free up your hands to make sure the miters are touching and clean up glue drips. Using the tape will allow you re-position the pieces as needed.

Step Three: Gluing the Pieces Together:

Add wood glue to the inside of the miters.
Add wood glue to the inside of the miters.

Add wood glue to both miters and smooth it around so it covers the whole surface of both pieces.

It’s a good idea to have a damp rag handy to clean up any drips.

If you’re building a rather large box, you might want to use wood glue with an extended dry time so you won’t be racing the clock! My box is small, so I used regular wood glue. Regardless, now is not the time to take a coffee break.

Step Four: Close the Frame and Inspect the Joints:

Bug Hotel 05_Roll it all together
Roll the frame to assemble.

You should have enough extra tape to overlap around your box enough to hold the shape together. If not, you can add more. Roll your pieces together so all the miters are snugly touching one another. You should see the glue squeezing through on each joint to ensure a good fit.

Bug Hotel 06_Detail of glued pieces
If you’ve used the right amount of glue, it should ooze out like this.

The tighter the miter joints, the more sturdy your box will be. The excess glue can be cleaned off with a damp rag and you can use a flat head screw driver or a chisel to scrap what the rag can’t reach.

The final assembled frame.
The final assembled frame.

You have a little time to squeeze everything into the proper position before the glue sets, but work fast and clean up as you go!

Step Five: Let Dry for a Couple Hours:

Bug Hotel 08_Let dry for a couple hours

Follow the set time indicated on your wood glue bottle. Typically a couple hours is fine, but extended-dry-time wood glue requires more. You’ll notice that two of my miter joints aren’t completely closed in the image above. My cuts were most likely off by .2° or so. I adjusted all the pieces to split the difference and better close off the miters. Not the end of the world for a small box that won’t be holding any real weight but poor carpentry nonetheless!

While the glue is drying it’s a good time to begin prepping your materials. I cut several bamboo sticks, branches and logs all to 3 3/8″ lengths so they would be slightly recessed in my box. I then began drilling the holes for the material that wasn’t already hollow. The holes range from about 1/4″ to 5/8″ in diameter. I also removed the pith from inside the bamboo using a chopstick.

Prepping the material.
Prepping the material.

I also began playing with the arrangement during the drying time.

Testing the layout.
Testing the layout.

Step Six: Sanding the Frame:

Sanding the Frame.
Sanding the Frame.

Once the glue is dry, you can remove the tape and begin sanding the frame to get rid of dried glue, sharp edges or uneven joints. This step is purely for aesthetic purposes but I like a clean looking frame and rounded edges. It really hides mistakes and brings out the grain of the wood.

Step Seven: Attach the Back of the Box:

Back of the box cut slightly over size.
Back of the box cut slightly oversize.

I used a piece of 1/8″ plywood for the back of the box as it was easy to cut all the angles. I just placed the frame on top of a larger piece and used a pencil to mark where the cuts should be. I used a multi-tool to cut out the piece and made it slightly larger than it needed to be so I could sand it smooth once it was all attached.

Apply more wood glue to the back edge of the box frame and then place the back into position. You want to have a little hang over all around the box to sand off later. I used tiny finish nails to make the final attachment and then sanded it flush to the sides of the box. Because you’re using nails to secure the back, you don’t have to wait for the glue to dry completely before sanding.

Bug Hotel 13_Sand and smooth the box
Sanded smooth and ready for the materials.

Step Eight: Adding the Natural Materials:

Layout the materials.
Layout the materials.

Here’s the fun part! Begin fitting all of your gathered natural materials into the box. You can weave sticks through the front of the frame afterwards to help lock things into place or create unique designs. You want everything to be packed in rather tightly so they stay in place. Sometimes crows will pull out the sticks in hopes of eating the larvae so you want to protect that from happening as much as you can. You can use wire or chicken wire to secure everything, but for mine, I just packed it in really tight.

Packed in tight!
Packed in tight!

You want to create as many nooks as possible to attract insects. I used some small pine cones behind that curved branch to fill the void so I could add more bamboo on top of it. Get creative and have fun with this step! I even added a mini front lawn for the bees just for poops and giggles.

Detail of the Insect Hotel.
Detail of the Insect Hotel.

All done and ready to hang!
All done and ready to hang!

I added a teacup hook to the top of the box and went into the yard to find a good location to hang it. The best spot is a wall facing South-East and hung at a minimum of 3 1/2 feet off the ground. Any South-facing wall will do in a pinch though. You can even hang them from tree branches so long as they get sunshine. The important thing is that the house gets full sunlight around 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. so do what you can to accommodate that! After a few weeks, if conditions are right, you should start to see some activity. Solitary bees are most active in the spring and summer, so keep an eye out for the tell-tale signs liked capped tunnels. Have the kids make notes as to when the tunnels are sealed and what types of bees are residing in the new home.

That’s all there is to it! I’d love to see your creative solutions so please share in the comments below!

Bug Hotel 01_Feature Image

34 Replies to “We Have a Vacancy: Building a Bug Hotel for Solitary Bees”

        1. Fantastic! I’m almost out of milkweed. They’ve eaten it all. It’s so hard to keep those thriving in the yard. The more I plant, the more they come and eat. Any tips?

          1. Lately there been eating them before they can go to seed. I wish I had some to collect! They even eat the seed pods before they open. It’s a race that I’m losing.

  1. I love this! Love the step by step process- it makes it look super easy. I have some carpenter bees that have been chewing my sofit & fascia in the back of my house- this will be my project to complete this upcoming weekend!

    1. I’d love to see photos of your final product!! You’re the perfect person for this! My next one will be even more well designed. Perhaps a bug hotel/dreamcatcher/fairy house…

  2. I’ve seen some of these online, and they’re as great an art project as they are an environmental one. I also admire your T-bird … one of the best redesigns ever, and my fave T-bird color!

    1. I’m a little obsessed with my t-bird. I agree, one of the best retro designs out there. Have a V8 doesn’t hurt either. Well, doesn’t hurt my caveman brain that is.

          1. Well that’s weird … a truncated sentence. I was just saying … in high school I put a crease in my boyfriend’s mom’s car but didn’t have the guts to face her … but 42 years later …blah blah. Time for bed.

          2. Ahhhhhh, now it makes sense. I just filled in the rest of the sentence on your behalf. I “once trapped a midget in the basement for ten years”, forty-two years later…

  3. First off thank you for enlightening me as to what those things are. Been seeing them around. Secondly it’s very kind of you to reach out to lonely wandering independent bees. They need love too.

    1. I agree, they don’t even have unions! Once I get a bunch to move in, I’m going to push to be their representative. They don’t have dental, optical or any PTO at all! Poor queenless bastards. I’ll get a cut of course…

  4. Some PSA against birds: you should add a wire fence a couple of inches in front of it to prevent pecking. Otherwise you just provide another bird feeder.

  5. Cute craft, but it is a potential sink for native bees.

    “We advocate for due diligence on the part of retailers and promoters of bee hotels to avoid “bee-washing”; that is, green-washing [44] as applied to potentially misleading claims for augmentation of native and wild bee populations.”

    from PLOS: ‘Bee Hotels’ as Tools for Native Pollinator Conservation: A Premature Verdict?

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