A t a recent gardener gab-fest, the conversation turned enthusiastically to “insect hotels.” I was not alone in not being familiar with the term.
Insect hotels offer sanctuary to beneficial insects, especially pollinators. It is considered to be an urban solution for habitat loss due to pollution and overuse of pesticides. Their use has been common in Germany, the Netherlands, the British Isles and elsewhere in Europe for many years. They only recently started becoming popular on this side of the world, mainly in university research programs or in public programs such as landfill sustainability.
There are numerous blogs and websites that offer step-by-step manuals on how to build an insect hotel. They are also becoming increasingly available in retail outlets. As in all of our purchases, the consumer must be knowledgeable.
The commercial units available may be aesthetically pleasing, which encourages a buyer to make the purchase. According to reports I have read, the hotels are often badly designed, offering unsuitable homes to the target insect. The warning signs of such design are the unnecessary use of pine cones, glued snail shells, wood shavings and clear plastic tubes. Many commercial hotels or DIY websites do not offer clear instructions on maintenance, which is important for the survival of the insects.
Only certain species of insects will use artificial habitats. Many native bee species are ground nesters. A hotel for them would be a sunny bank of earth. Each species of bees, beneficial wasps, lacewings, beetles and assorted other arthropods have different nesting requirements. It would be the gardener’s responsibility to learn what those requirements are and to provide them.
The starting approach is thinking which type of insect you wish to encourage. I think I would like to study a ladybug habitat.
The key tips for all structures are correct design, knowing the maintenance and encouraging a nurturing environment.
Small is better. Think small, and have multiple units housing one species rather than a single large unit that attempts to attract every insect in the neighborhood. Hosting frogs and toads requires a humid environment with partial shade while bee hotels need to be dry and in full sun.
Natural insect habitats occur as small nests. Large multi-storied hotels that are built using wood pallets, cinder blocks and other varied materials, pose the risk of disease and parasitism to the insects inside. Another potential problem might be mold if plastic materials are used, such as tubes and blocks.
Building your own insect hotel, as opposed to purchasing one, gives you the peace of mind that your hotel is without chemicals such as varnish, paint and wood protectants. If tubes are drilled into wood blocks, they need to be of correct size for the insect and smooth, without splinters. A solid back and roof/shelter is needed to protect it from rain.
Bee hotels in particular must be positioned in full sun, facing southeast or south. All hotels should be attached to standards that will prevent shaking and swaying from wind.
The most overlooked part of having an insect hotel is maintaining cleanliness. Bee hotels need to be inspected at the end of summer to remove and clean dead cells. This will prevent mold and mites that will multiply on dead leaves or larvae. Depending on the insect, the bedding material will need to be refreshed each year.
Many gardeners started concentrating on developing pollinator gardens several years ago. We are now more aware, especially, of the native plants that reinforce native insects.
We need to continue to expand the regional list of beneficial plants that provide nectar and pollen. The insect hotels seem to be an automatic step forward if our goal is to help eliminate the heavy overuse of pesticides.
As a side note, remember that it is OK not to have a pristine landscape. A pile of leaves here and there, a few twigs gathered in one place, an open ground area without mulch may just be a perfect place to call home.