What is it about bees or beekeeping that is so scary? If honesty prevailed, many would say that they are scared or even terrified of a creature that is the size of their fingertip. For me, just the fact that I grew up in the city, never hearing of solitary bees, and only knowing these simple creatures from their sting was probably enough to put them in the “scary” category. But really, what is it that makes us throw our arms up in chaotic craziness or run in a frantic frenzy when a simple bee invades our space? Why are we afraid of these beauties? Why is running our first instinct rather than lingering to observe its simple beauty? Why won’t we learn to co-exist and allow them to benefit our homestead? Why don’t we like bees?
That was the turmoil I faced in my own head when I became a full-time homesteader and realized I needed these beauties for my gardens and orchards. Though these questions kept haunting me, one day I decided to face this mysterious and “dangerous” creature that made my heart beat fast and put my nerves on edge. My homestead journey had brought me many new experiences and had a huge learning curve on so many levels. Being a city slicker, almost everything the homestead offered was both a delight and a fright. The simple, beautiful, and tiny bee was no exception. Thus, I decided to approach the art of beekeeping with bravery and lots of research. They say “knowledge is power”, so I figured if I studied and learned all I could about these little creatures, my own knowledge would empower me and I could safely add bees to our homestead. They had always intrigued me, though all I had learned from my city life was to fear them and run. As I began to learn about them, a surprising yet hidden truth emerged within my heart: I was a “Wanna BEE Lady”! I did have it in me to love my bee friends—it was my past training (or lack thereof) that was holding me back. The more I read, the more confident I became.
There are many different bees and yet we tend to lump them all into one category: the “don’t mess with bees ‘cause they will sting you” category. While I realize that some people will remain in this category, I bravely decided that I could not. The more I studied, the more I wanted to add them to our homestead. Their work was an important asset to our homestead goals of self-sufficiency and living in tune with Mother Nature. As a matter of fact, one unexpected and beautiful gift that the homestead life brought to me was an ignited desire to experience all that nature offers. Mother Nature offered the simple, elegant bee. I wanted to experience its mystery. I wanted to work alongside them to created nutritious food and beautiful flowers. I mostly wanted to not be afraid anymore.
First, it is important to understand the basics of the bee itself.
Did you know that there are approximately 20,000-25,000 known species of bees worldwide? That’s a lot of different bees! The more I studied, the more I realized the place where I could begin my bee journey: the solitary bee and its home. There are more solitary bees than colonizing bees, and with the colony collapse scare (and my own fears), I knew I could handle the simple solitary bee as a new beekeeper. So, what exactly is a solitary bee?
By basic terms, “solitary” defines this creature. The solitary bee does not live in a colony of bees with a queen. Solitary bees build their own individual places to nest/live and females lay their eggs in each cell in the nest by themselves. The male and female also live separately but can be within the same larger structure. In fact, while you will have each solitary bee building their nest in its own individual place, you may find several different species of bees living in the same area or structure together. Picture a larger house but with many little individual rooms in which only one creature lives. This is the solitary-bee home. Thus, solitary bees are known to be communal rather than social or colony oriented.
Solitary bees vary in size as well as their coloring, but they are all excellent pollinators. In fact, I learned that solitary bees are much better at pollinating a lot of plants than the honeybee. They are easy to draw to your property if you will just provide them with some natural resources in which to build their homes. Most importantly, I learned that solitary bees will only sting when they are provoked; an example given was if they were caught in your clothing and trying to get out. There are also a number of solitary bees that do not sting at all. Yes, these were the bees for me!
I decided to take a local class on building a solitary-bee structure, given by the Master Gardeners and local extension agency. It was very helpful and encouraging. Turns out, the bees that are local to my area are the most common ones: the Mason bee and the Leafcutter bee (although there are many others). By building my own bee structures/homes or “hotels”, I could increase the solitary-bee family on my own homestead and this was my primary “Wanna Bee” goal.
Below are both pictures and instructions that I received from this class as I built my own solitary-bee houses:
Solitary bees are out there everywhere because they make their homes from natural resources found around them. Sand, soil, leaves, plant hairs, wax, twigs, reeds, and/or any small cavity might find a solitary bee. Since they need a type of cavity or small hole in which to build their nest, we can provide a space that will draw them to build. For my class, I chose two different structures to build. One was a natural piece of log from a downed tree and the other was a birdhouse I had purchased but not used yet. Here is what I was instructed to do in our class with each solitary bee house project:
I drilled holes into the tree log. The log of wood you use must be preservative-free. You can also use a purchased block of wood, just make sure it, too, is preservative-free. You can use different drill bits to make different size holes (to accommodate different solitary-bee sizes). Most holes are between 7/32 inches up to 1/2 inch wide and 4-6 inches deep. The holes need to be smooth on the inside and closed at the end. This was all I needed to do before placing it outside for the bees to use.
Next, I worked on the two purchased birdhouses that I had not used. Within the birdhouse, you will need to create the tunnels and cavities for the bees to build their individual nests. The class provided bamboo pieces so I chose several to place inside the birdhouse. Remember, what will be the back end of the bamboo pieces needs to be closed. Some of mine were closed, but for those that were not, I glued a mason-jar lid on the end.
I then used parchment paper to make smaller holes. I wrapped many individual pieces around a pencil to form the hollow cavities that would be their actual nesting place. I used masking tape (or scotch tape) to secure the parchment pieces. (You can also use paper—but not plastic—straws for the reeds and won’t have to roll them). Some in the class had pampas grass stems and they made perfect reeds. To roll the parchment reed, cut parchment paper into 6 x 5-inch pieces. Roll length-wise side to side on the pencil for a 6-inch straw. Tape the roll closed and close one end of the straw by folding the end over and securing with tape or stapling closed. Leave the other end open for the bee to enter.
I then placed my many parchment “reeds” within each larger bamboo piece. The reeds need to be fairly snug but do not need to all be the same length within the bamboo. In fact, differently sized reeds will bring different bees so you can use a variety if you wish. You can also add small twigs and leaves to decorate the home and also help the bees with the materials to build their nest. Here is a picture of my Birdhouse Bee Hotel:
For both structures, you might choose to paint on some color or even decorate them with natural items such as leaves, sticks, or acorns. I learned that bright, fluorescent blue is highly attractive to bees. However, it is best NOT to use oil-based paints. I also learned that it will please you as the builder to decorate it and make it aesthetically appealing. It will help you want to you to maintain your bee hotel each year.
You could even use something like a nut can, coffee can, or a CD container as the outer structure, placing the parchment “reeds” within the cylinder.
Once your homes/hotels are finished, correct placement is important:
1. Place in the spring before mid-April.
2. Place on the eastern side of a structure (building or tree) for morning sunlight and to avoid the harsh afternoon sun.
3. Place at least 4-5 feet above ground on a structure such as a tree, fence post, or building. Make sure they are very secure so they will not shake or fall off. Also, don’t put them near birdhouses.
4. Make sure you will be able to remove the inner parts of the structure and clean out the used reeds or straws each year (or re-drill the holes for the log home).
Here are some final instructions to build a solitary-bee house or hotel:
1. Begin observing your homes for the new adult bees to emerge in the spring and early summer, so that when they are gone you can replace the new nesting reeds and materials. This will need to be done each spring as you do not want to ever use last year’s material.
2. If using the log-home idea, each year the drilled holes will need to be cleaned and drilled again. If using the parchment reeds or straws, each year the old reeds will need to be removed and new reeds will need to be placed in the structure.
3. This is the handout given to us in our class and was very helpful. There is plenty of information online on other styles of solitary-bee homes, or you can also call or visit your local agricultural extension agency of your county.
This journey was wonderful for me. I went from a bee-avoider to a bee-friend to a bee-attractor! Choosing solitary bees as my introductory encounter with bees was a great decision and helped me overcome my fears. I no longer run when I see a beautiful bee; I stop and observe. I also now live right alongside my bee friends and we are getting along just fine! I think they are happy that I decided to build a solitary bee house for them… I know I am.