So you’ve planted an orchard.
Or a food forest.
Or a garden.
You may have added irrigation, planned in some nice cover crops or perhaps picked up a metric donkeyload of mulch along the way.
Things are getting ready to grow. But are you ready for the next steps? Fertilization, water, pruning, weeding are hard to “outsource,” but two other areas of gardening are easier to manage than you might think.
Which two areas? Pollination and pest control.
Let’s take a look… and then I’ll share how to make a solitary bee house that will staff your garden with lots of free laborers.
Pollination is BIG business. Did you realize that many millions of dollars are spent moving honeybee hives around the country from field to field every year? Sometimes, the bees are imported from Australia, sent to the fields in boxes, then left to die off after their pollination work is through. That kind of extravagance (and sheer cruel wastefulness) requires big bucks.
Unfortunately, the honey bee populations across the US are in decline, hence the importing from Australia. Whether it be a build-up in toxins, the genetic modification of plants to include substances harmful to bees, the shrouding of the ancient ley lines by cellular towers or perhaps the “beeginning” of the Apocalypse, honeybees are in trouble. For years they’ve been a primary pollinator of many of our favorite crops. Without bees we wouldn’t have almonds. Or zucchini. Though I could handle losing the latter.
Thanks to the drop-off in honeybee populations, farmers and gardeners have started looking to alternate sources for pollinators.
Sometimes we tend to think of bees as basically falling into two categories: honeybees and bumblebees (people with wooden houses may also chime in “carpenter bees” at this point); however, there are many thousands of varieties of bee, many of which are excellent pollinators.
Unfortunately, we often inadvertently exclude these hard workers from our yards. Old lumber, dead trees, even stick piles and stands of weed canes left from the previous year… these are where they raise their young. Mason bees are one of the best pollinators you can attract with a bee house. (Don’t worry – I’m getting to the part where I tell you how to make a solitary bee house. Patience!)
Did you realize that many wasps and some bees are avid hunters of pests?
Just yesterday my wife pointed out a wasp crawling into the side of one of my hot tub ponds in the backyard. There’s a space there that used to contain piping. Now it contains a wasp nest. The reason my wife pointed out our stinging friend? It was carrying a gooey green chunk of caterpillar into its nest. All day long, wasps hunt their prey, killing untold thousands of pests. How do we thank them?
Yeah, I know. It’s not fun to be stung. And there are times where it’s prudent to remove a wasp nest. However, nesting wasps with large colonies aren’t the only caterpillar hunters in your yard. There are also solitary wasps which rarely if ever sting people. Some, like mud daubers and potter wasps, build muddy little nests under eaves and in barns, chicken coops and other outbuildings. Others will nest in holes, much like mason bees. The thing is: they stuff those holes with the insects they kill, then lay their eggs on the insect corpses. Their larva feast, then grow up, then go kill insects and lay eggs of their own. Oh yeah.
How To Make a Solitary Bee House
This isn’t rocket science, fortunately, or I wouldn’t be able to do it.
My grandfather was an amazing carpenter and boatbuilder. I am not, yet I can make a house that will attract solitary bees and wasps.
Here’s what you need to make a solitary bee house (which also attracts some solitary wasps):
1. Pieces of dry wood that are at least 6-8″ deep. Chunks of trunk, old, non-pressure treated lumber, even pieces of thick branches can be used. Pieces of bamboo are also good.
2. A selection of long drill bits and a drill. I used bits ranging from 1/4″ to 5/8″.
3. A somewhat dry/sunny place to hang it up.
As you can see in the image at the top of this post, I took a wine box and used it to hold a bunch of pieces of wood. I wanted a condo, not a ranch house. Drilling all the holes takes time, but it’s fun. Battery operated drills tend to tire out quickly, so keep a back-up battery charged unless you’ve got a more awesome drill than mine. (In that case, I wanna borrow it for the bee high-rises I’m planning.) I drilled a variety of holes to attract a variety of bees and wasps. Certain species like certain-sized holes. I wanted all kinds, so I used a 1/4″ bit, a 3/8″, a 1/2″ and a 5/8″.
To keep the rain off the top I used a discarded and charred aluminum baking tray and tilted it rakishly over the top when I mounted the box to my fence. In between the chunks of wood, I cut and stuck a lot of pieces of bamboo as additional nesting spaces.
This is the sort of project you want to do before it gets too warm and the mating/egg-laying season is over for your native bees and wasps. I hung mine in February, but for the northern half of the country, you may still have time to put one up. If not, make it in your spare time and set it aside for next year. This is also a good winter project.
Now I’m not a bee expert by any stretch. There are folks on YouTube that have made wonderful, complicated nests for bees – particularly mason bees – including some that can be cleaned up easily for the next year’s crop of good guys. This fellow on YouTube even makes nests out of invasive knotweed:
Some will say that mites and other pests can be a problem if you use your bee house from year-to-year without cleaning it out – but it’s easy enough to make new ones if you’re worried. I plan to drill a bunch of chunks of dry log and hang them here and there around my property during the winter months when gardening has slowed down. I’m also storing up bamboo canes to make bundles I can hang around.
I know they like tubes. And that some solitary bees actually kill and eat stinkbugs.
As for my house, within a month of hanging, it had attracted plenty of tenants. Over half of the holes had occupants and I counted four different species on it this spring. Most of the pieces of bamboo were filled as well.
My children checked on the box regularly and watched bees and wasps go in and out, fighting for spaces and packing mud into the holes.
Try it out – your plants, and the bees, will thank you.