Bug Hotels

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.

  1. 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. 
  2. 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

Bee habitats: small holes, paper straws, hollow sticks

Learning Extensions

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

First, consider which insects you’d like to attract and what kinds of materials they would seek for shelter in their natural environments.

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

Earwig Hotel

Straw or Hay

Hay and straw give insects a good place to burrow and hibernate. Placing straw or hay in holes or small compartments will create a warm and inviting space for them to overwinter. An upside down flower pot filled with straw also makes an ideal shelter for earwigs. Place this hotel near fruit trees where they can feast on the plant lice that settle on the trees and disrupt fruit growth.
Corrugated Cardboard as Lacewing Habitats

CORRUGATED CARDBOARD

Roll up corrugated cardboard and put it in a recycled bottle to create an ideal shelter for lacewings. Like ladybugs, lacewings are beneficial garden insects who help with spring aphid problems.
Bee habitats: small holes, paper straws, hollow sticks

Small Holes, Hollow Sticks, Paper Straws

Solitary bees and wasps will make themselves at home in small holes. If you drill your own holes, don’t forget to sand the exterior to make sure that the access points to the burrows are smooth enough so their bodies are not harmed. There’s plenty of information out there on the nesting needs of bees. The Xerxes Society for Invertebrate Conservation is a good place to start your research. 

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. 

Bird Netting

Don’t forget to cover your bug hotel entrances in netting, so your bug hotel avoids becoming the hottest bird restaurant in the garden! 
Ladybug Winter Habitat: Dried Leaves

Dried Leaves

Dry leaves provide homes for insects, just like leaf litter on a natural forest floor. This is another great option for our ladybug friends.
Bug Habitats: Dead Wood and Loose Bark

Dead Wood and Loose Bark

Dead wood and bark are home to beetles, centipedes, spiders, and woodlice. These insects can be beneficial in different ways, from being garden recyclers to preying on garden pests. 
Twigs and Branches Mimic the Natural Habitat of Beneficial Beetles

Twigs and Branches

Small twigs and branches can also attract more beneficial beetles, as it mimics their natural habitat.

Stones and Tiles

Stone, tiles, and pots provide lovely cool, damp conditions for frogs and toads. I know these guys are obviously not insects, but they are also garden helpers who control the slug population. For a solitary frog or toad house, you can buy one of these, pictured above, that’s already ready to go. You can also start with an upside down clay garden pot with an entrance cracked into the side.

Step 2: Building Your Bug Hotel

As fun as it might be to create a big bug hotel with lots of different compartments from a crafty-project perspective, the end result could be a bit “ecologically weird,” to borrow a phrase from Gizmodo. This can have the unintended consequence of awkwardly trying to bring together animals that aren’t happy neighbors. 

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

Bug Hotel Placement
As you might guess by now, the answer to this one is also dependent on the creatures you’re trying to help. The goal is to create sustainable natural environments, so some animals will need sun and shelter while others will want to stay cool. Start by researching what the insects you’re hoping to help need for shelter. Depending on the climate in your area, you might also consider moving the insect hotel into a cool dry area out of the wind and rain. 

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.

Learning Extensions

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.

Putting the Finishing Touches on JJ's Beetle Hotel

Start with a storytime

We almost always start our projects with storytime. Here are some ideas for stories that will help your kiddos better understand the insect helpers in our garden, and how shelters can help the helpers.

"Bug Hotel," A Clover Robin Book of Nature

This is a wonderful companion book for any Bug Hotel project!  It shares the creatures you might want to help shelter and some of the materials that will help them feel at home. More details via Amazon here. 

"Up in the Garden and Down in the Dirt," by Kate Messner, Illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal

We love Kate Messner stories! Explore the life cycles of a garden and the many creatures who make it their home throughout the year. More details via Amazon here.

"Welcome to the Neighborhood" by Shawn Sheehy

This book is a fun introduction to how animals share resources for food and shelter. It’s not specific to gardens, but could be a fun segue to understanding the garden as a habitat. More details via Amazon here.

Plan and Collect Materials Together

First Step in Building Nature Mobiles - Enjoying Nature
Once you’ve decided what insects you want to shelter, look into the ways your garden helpers seek shelter in their natural environments. 

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

As mentioned above, bug hotels don’t have to be big and fancy. In fact, it’s probably better for the insects if you go smaller and create a little bug neighborhood around the garden instead of a big 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.

We hope you have a lot of fun getting to know your backyard neighbors and helping them out with your Bug Hotels!  Let us know how it goes in the comments below.