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.
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.
- 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.
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:
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:
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 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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
I also began playing with the arrangement during the drying time.
Step Six: 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:
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.
Step Eight: Adding the Natural 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.
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.
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!