A number of SusSw’s Facebook members have expressed interest in creating insect hotels. I love the idea of doing something positive to combat declining insect numbers, and as a one-time beekeeper I know that insects can be encouraged to inhabit the homes we make for them, so I set out to learn more.
There’s lots of information about how to make them, some great stories of how communities and especially children can get involved in construction projects, and of course, plenty of ready-made products available for sale. All very encouraging. I have to say though, that there is rather less information about whether they actually work – and I’m far too lazy to put time, effort and money into something with little chance of success.
So what’s the low-down? There is some good news. But as we shall see, you get the greatest chance of success by doing the least.
All insects are not the same. Some like it dry. Some like it dank. It’s better to create several small insect boltholes in different environments than an entomologist’s Noah’s Ark (especially as some species like to eat or parasitise others).
Another important thing to do is to look around you. Well planned, there is no doubt that insect hotels can provide a valuable sanctuary in manicured gardens in urban environments. But I wouldn’t describe any part of Swaledale as ‘urban’. Are there dry-stone walls nearby? Untidy ends of gardens? Piles of leaves or twigs? Insects will generally prefer these over any thing we can make for them.
One reason for this is smell. Humans are very visual but many insects are much more tuned in to smells. I read about some researchers who had learnt that bumblebees often like to live in abandoned mouse holes. The researchers tried creating artificial mouse holes but the bees ignored them – not mousey enough. They then found that the scent of mouse pee was required for the bees to take an interest. But wait! Fresh pee is no good. It has to be the faint, delicate scent of stale mouse urine to be sufficiently homely to attract a bumblebee. There’s a general lesson here. If it’s shiny, new and smells of fresh paint, varnish, human (or mouse) it’s probably a put-off.
For these and other reasons, there is a general feeling that creating an insect hotel can be a bit hit and miss. Experienced insect ecologists are reluctant to dent our enthusiasm, so try gently to lower our expectations. It’s easy to be disappointed when your efforts come to nothing and sadly, unless carefully planned, it seems that it’s possible to do more harm than good.
So what can you do?
I’d started to collect some old palettes, half bricks, broken chimney pots and the like to build my very own insect multiplex but I’ve turned away from that idea now. An insect-specialist friend tells me that small species-specific bee hotels made from tubes of various kinds and sizes can be good for solitary bees. Bee hotels need to be kept dry and preferably in the sun, and they need an annual clean out (every beekeeper knows about parasites). The ends must be closed, and they must be stable and well off the ground, but out of the wind. He also said that the main kind of bee they attract (mason bees) find the Dales a bit on the cold side. If you still want to give it a try, he (and others) have recommended this web page ( https://www.foxleas.com/make-a-bee-hotel.asp ).
Not being a natural carpenter, I’ve plumped instead for creating a number of different habitat piles around our garden, using ‘low-intensity’ construction techniques. For my first, I’ve collected some dry branches and decaying timber and piled them up against a wall. I’ll add to it from time to time and see if anyone moves in. It has cost nothing, taken very little time, and if nothing else, so long as I mostly leave it alone, I’ll have created some space for nature – and that’s what it really wants.
I’m left unsure about the value of insect hotels, especially in places like Swaledale. What is clear though, is the value of encouraging pollinators through the plants we grow (or allow to grow, and flower – don’t mow too much!) and creating habitat piles from dead wood (simple, but effective). Where space allows, beetle banks are also reliably excellent for insects and pest control. But if you’re simply not willing to be as lazy as me, do read the ‘refuge or fad’ article in the further reading below, before getting stuck into an insect hotel project. It has some great tips for increasing your chance of getting it right. And if you’ve had success with insect hotels, please let me know!