Bee hotels for solitary bees: a simple guide

Paul Hetherington

26 July 2016

Bewildered by bee hotels? Paul Hetherington from Buglife offers some simple advice.

Since the Bee Cause campaign began, we’ve heard from so many of you nature-lovers who are eager to learn more about helping bees and creating bee-friendly habitats. As part of this year’s Great British Bee Count, you have also helped spot a whopping 378,835 bees in our national survey.

Bee hotels are a great way to help our solitary bees, as much of their natural habitat has been built on or destroyed. As their name suggests, these bees don’t live in colonies, unlike bumblebees and honey bees.

Solitary bees, such as mining bees, flower bees, leafcutter bees and mason bees, account for just under 250 of an estimated 275 British species, alongside 26 bumblebees and 1 species of honey bee. Learn more in this handy guide to solitary bees in Britain.

Bee hotels are great for providing much needed shelter to some of these species that have lost their natural habitats. Mason bees, for example, traditionally would have made nests in soft cliffs and riverbanks, but most of these areas have now been grassed or concreted over.

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Bee hotels - what to look for

Bee hotel.
Bee hotel. © Brenda Hancox

There are lots of ready-made bee hotels for solitary bees to choose from: online, in supermarkets or from garden centres. While beautifully crafted, many of them are about as practical from a bee’s perspective as a garden gnome.

The key points to bear in mind when making or buying a solitary bee home are:

  • Depth of the tubes
    They should be at least 100 mm deep. This is to provide sufficient space and winter protection for the growing larvae.
     
  • Diameter of the tubes
    The tubes in the nest should vary from 6 to 10 mm. Many ready-made bee homes have tubes with diameters of over 10 mm. These holes are too large for UK bees (though of course other bugs may make use of them).

To make your own solitary bee hotel, get our free Bee & Bee guide.

Location, location, location - where to put your bee hotel

The location of your bee hotel is crucial. The more southerly facing the better, as the extra warmth is really helpful for the bees over the cold winter months.

The ideal height for a bee hotel is between 1 and 1.5 m off the ground. This will allow you to observe the nests and clean out any tubes that are clogged up.

Is your bee hotel child-friendly?

It’s a good idea to place a sturdy box or tree stump a safe distance away from your bee hotel for children to stand on and take a closer look.

Encourage them to get involved in making or erecting your bee hotel, planting flowers and putting out a shallow dish of water filled with stones for the bees to drink from (the stones provide a landing place).

For a bee hotel for a larger area, for example a school, check our easy guide to making a free bee and bug hotel.

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Garden matters - plants for bees

Solitary bees have relatively short flying ranges of just a few hundred metres so they can’t go foraging very far. You therefore need to ensure there are plenty of flowers around your bee hotels.

This is so your residents have access to a top-quality supply of nectar and pollen. These can include plants in pots or window boxes – get some more inspiration from these 6 ways to help bees if you don’t have a garden.

Your supply will ideally include a variety of plants, shrubs, herbs, garden flowers, fruit and vegetables which provide pollen and nectar rich flowers throughout the year - see our seasonal guide to 28 great plants for bees.

Be patient, bees may not take up residence in your hotel’s first year. You'll know if bees have arrived because by late July your bee homes should be filled up with eggs and food, with the holes sealed off with dried mud or leaves.

How to make a bumblebee hotel

Bumblebee hotels can also be bought off-the-shelf or you can make your own with an upturned flowerpot, a slate or tray, a few flat stones and a length of garden hose (see illustration).

Diagram of bee hotel.
Build your own bumblebee hotel as a fun weekend project in the garden.

But a word of warning: The majority will fail to attract nesting bumblebees because they lack a key component - mouse urine.

In early spring, you will often see large (queen) bumble bees flying around close to the ground in areas where there are no flowers. They are searching for suitable nesting sites. They favour old mouse holes, which they find by sniffing out stale mouse urine.

A bumblebee might use it but slugs, snails and ground beetles are among more likely occupants, as are woodlice and earwigs. But you never know, a bumblebee might stumble upon it - mouse urine or no mouse urine.

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Bee in a hotel.