Help Out Your Garden Helpers with a Winter Insect Shelter
When a science educator encouraged 5 year old JJ to build a bug hotel, my first question was, “why would I actively encourage bugs to live near my house???”. But he was so excited by the idea that he started jumping up and down, so I decided to look into it a bit more. After reflecting on the idea for a beat, I thought building a Bug Hotel could be a fun garden project and a big step toward alleviating some of our insect fears. And while that turned out to be true, the project became even more meaningful and educational for all of us than I imagined.
- From a gardening perspective, a Bug Hotel provides shelter for beneficial insects over the winter months. They can serve as nesting sites for beneficial bees and hibernating spots for ladybugs who will be ready to devour harmful aphids come spring.
- The human impact on insects has been quite devastating due to an overwhelming use of pesticides and habitat loss. Creating a home for helpful insects in your garden is one way to introduce children to this as a problem while offering them a way to see themselves as part of a solution. It’s an easy and creative way to build nature connections right at home.
When to Build a Bug Hotel
How to Build My Bug Hotel
Bug Hotel Inspiration
When to build your bug hotel
The best time to build your bug hotel is in early fall when many of the natural elements you need are available and easy to find. This way, your hotel will be ready to welcome those hibernating insects when they need it.
It’s important to plan for maintenance after each season that the shelter is used. Remove and clean compartments to prevent the growth of mold and mites. Just as you wouldn’t want to return to a hotel that didn’t have proper cleaning, poorly maintained bug hotels won’t attract visitors for the following season … or will be unhealthy for those that do.
the fun part: How to build your bug hotel
Have your kiddos help out with some research on the kinds of insects that might be beneficial to your yard or garden, and learn about their natural wintering habitats together. Where do they hide? What do they look for when they lay eggs? How do they protect themselves?
In short, dive into the science of each creature’s preferred habitat, and build out from there!
STEP 1: Let natural insect habitats inspire the materials you choose
Straw or Hay
Small Holes, Hollow Sticks, Paper Straws
Many of the bee houses you see online or in stores use bamboo for the holes. Bamboo can be problematic because it’s difficult to clean and doesn’t dry easily in humid environments. When dirty or damp, bamboo can grow mold and pollen mites that actually harm the bees more than the shelter helps them. Instead of bamboo, consider using breathable materials suitable for your climate and easy to maintain. These Welliver bee tubes are a good option.
Dead Wood and Loose Bark
Twigs and Branches
Stones and Tiles
Step 2: Building Your Bug Hotel
Given that different insects have different needs and different places in the food web, smaller is better when it comes to bug hotels. Think of creating a bug neighborhood with multiple units instead. An additional benefit of the bug neighborhood approach is that you can move each shelter to best suit the needs of the animals you’re trying to help. Frogs and toads can enjoy the cool damp shade while bees can bask in full sun.
Plus, if you have more than one pair of helping hands, each will get their own unique garden project.
Step 3: Where to put my Bug Hotel
You might want to consider planting wild flowers around or near your bug hotel so that nectar is close at hand when needed. It may be hard for many of us to do, but allowing your garden to not be over manicured will also create more natural refuges.
Last, but not least, make sure your bug hotel is somewhere secure from movement. If it’s going to be off the ground, make sure that it’s secured in place and not loosely tied to a tree with a string. You want your garden helpers to have a safe and stable home for the winter.
Bug hotels should mimic each insect’s natural habitat. Build nature connections by connecting the idea of a bug hotel to our own home environments.
Every healthy habitat provides inhabitants with what they need: water, food, and shelter. Consider how our own home environments provide shelter. Like us, the animals in our garden will seek shelter from the weather. How can a good bug hotel protect our garden friends from the elements? From other animals?
Starting a conversation with these questions can provide the baseline understanding needed to begin thoughtfully constructing a bug hotel with kids.
Start with a storytime
"Bug Hotel," A Clover Robin Book of Nature
"Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt," by Kate Messner, Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal
"Welcome to the Neighborhood" by Shawn Sheehy
Plan and Collect Materials Together
We love our nature walks, so collecting natural materials is probably my favorite part of construction. It can help you turn your regular walks around the block, or even a familiar hiking trail, into a whole new adventure. Looking with a specific purpose in mind can sharpen your focus and help you see familiar pathways in a whole new light. We also live near a ladybug overwintering site, so we took a special trip to see what kinds of materials and conditions they enjoy in person.
If you want to create a bee hotel, think of the fun shapes and patterns you can make with drilled holes or the bee tubes mentioned above. Alternatively, you can buy a pre-made bee hotel and turn your creative focus toward painting and decorating the outside.
Involve the whole family in each step of building and installing Your Bug Hotel
John put together these simple little boxes that the boys painted and filled with foraged materials. JJ finished his beetle box with bark and twigs collected from a local park. Bug hoped to help some ladybugs with hay and dried leaves collected after Halloween. We finished them by stapling on some bird netting.
Another family friendly option is to find recycled materials around the house that can be used instead. Juice bottles, milk jugs, or clay pots can be great starting points for your bug hotel structures. Keeping it simple makes this a great project for kids to do on their own. Plus it’s actually even more beneficial for the creatures you’re trying to help.