In my garden and in this written space, I encourage growing plants that will attract pollinators. Birds, bees and butterflies, to name a few. It is good for the environment and good for the garden. Let’s take it a step farther and talk about bee houses.
What I mean are intentional structures for bees, kind of like a birdhouse but designed to attract bees.
These houses are for mason bees and sometimes leaf cutter bees. The popular honeybees and bumblebees live in colonies, and their housing is much different. Mason bees are solitary bees that build individual nests for their larvae. They can build these nests in hollow branches, stems or old discarded wood.
To build a bee house, first, you need a container. A wooden box 6 to 8 inches deep is a good place to start. It will need a roof, two sides and a back; the front remains open. Make sure it has an overhang for protection from wind and rain. Just like when building a birdhouse, you want a slanted roof so the rain doesn’t puddle on top.
As you choose building materials, untreated lumber is best. Any chemicals in the wood may deter bees. The same goes for paint when decorating the outside. And of course, you should decorate the outside because, why not? Use water-based paints to avoid the chemical smells.
After constructing the outside, now it’s time to make individual accommodations for the bees. Look for different-sized wood pieces — bamboo stakes, dowel rods, etc. Pick small ones — you want them to fit in the house like puzzle pieces. But first, drill several holes in the front of the wood pieces. This tunnel is where the bees will live. Drilling them the length of your drill bit will be okay. No need to drill all the way through, bees like having a solid backing.
Pack the drilled pieces tight in the box with the drilled holes facing forward. To help the bees find their new home, place it in a sunny spot. They will want a stable home, so hanging from a tree limb is not ideal. Think about a tree trunk, fence post or garage wall. Mason bees don’t sting or travel in swarms, but I doubt you want them near your seating area or outside doors.
In the late summer, the bees will begin laying eggs. As this happens, you will notice they create a mud door to cover the entrance. The mother will have already filled the nest with pollen and nectar to feed the larva through winter. By April, the bees will bust through the mud walls and emerge into your garden.
Because a wet winter can be hard for the bees, you can move the house to a sheltered area to protect it from rain and snow. Keeping the house dry is more important than keeping it warm. Moisture can cause the mud to melt, inviting disease and fungus into the bee nests.
Other options for house containers are wide PVC pipe filled with rods or a block of wood with drilled holes. If using a single block of wood with several holes, you will want to move it to a protected area late fall through early spring.
By the warm days of summer, the house will be empty, but like any house, it will need to be cleaned. The insides will have remnants of mud and nectar. You can empty the insides and add new ones, but make sure they are empty. It is a good idea to leave the older tubes nearby for a few weeks.
If building a bee house is not your thing, don’t worry; you can get them at most garden centers. There are several choices of inside tubes available to order online. Avoid cardboard that might fall apart or any form of glass, which will produce condensation — the moisture is not healthy for the bees.
I have both a groovy round PVC bee house I received as a gift and a mellow yellow house I purchased locally. Both are new to me this season. After years of planting to support different pollinators, I am excited to provide shelter and encourage bee production in the gardens at the little house on a big hill.