Long-Term Management for Wild Bee Hotels
When folks ask if there’s a lot of work involved in keeping a bee hotel, I tend to give two answers. The first is no. It’s possible to install a wild bee habitat in your garden and never have anything to do with it again.
The second answer is yes. If you want to get involved in long-term care for native bees, there’s plenty more to do. Really it all boils down to how much time and labor you’re able to invest in caring for our wild bees. This post highlights some of the ways we can get involved in wild bee advocacy on a long-term scale.
Read More: Wild Bees Need Our Help
Keeping Up Vibrant Pollinator Gardens
So you’ve bought or built a wild bee hotel, and now what? Maybe you don’t even get any bees living there for your first season. Well, let’s think about this logically. Bees, like all animals (even people!) need more than just a place to live. Life needs stimulating environments to thrive in. And life needs access to food and water.
To design a more appealing location for our native wild bees, we can create garden spaces full of native plants their species have evolved alongside as pollinators. Importantly, native plants are the species native bees are familiar with when seeking out food and medicine when hungry or fighting off disease or mites. If you want to introduce a handful of exotic species to your garden too, that’s fine. But keep in mind that local ecosystems can be fragile and are not often considered at all in modern design. To be effective wildlife advocates of any kind, it may be our preferences that need to change, not the preferences of the animals we’re designing for. Depending on where you live, you may try cultivating aster, borage, tansy, rue, echinacea, fennel, and other aromatic or fruity plants to create an appetizing environment for your pollinators. If you don’t know what plants are native to you, try searching online or asking for help at a local gardening store, agricultural co-op, or botany club.
A small ‘bird bath’ can easily be re-purposed for our bees as well, although please be mindful to place the bee bath in a different part of the garden than where you are attracting the birds! Bees use water to dilute pollen and nectar as needed, and to keep cool on hot summer days. The perfect bee bath is a simple shallow dish with pebbles or marbles in the bottom that provide surfaces for bees to avoid becoming trapped in the water.
Bee Hotel Housekeeping
In the worst case scenario, you do no upkeep for your bee hotel and—like thousands of abandoned birdhouses across the country—it simply slowly rots away and returns back to the Earth as compost food for the decomposers and other insects of your backyard. For aesthetic reasons, this may not be preferred by some folks. And the idea of other insects using our hotels may even seem distasteful at first.
However, I think it’s important to recognize the holistic impact human civilization is having on the wild. Our advocacy for wild bees is not independent from advocacy for other wild things. For me at least, this is why I only make my bee hotels using wooden materials. I conceptualize my hotel designs as a useful step for wildlife in between the wood’s growth as a shrub or tree and it’s inevitable return to the soil as compost and food for a trillion micro-fauna. Whether they become homes for bees as intended, or beetles in an act of serendipity is our ecosystem’s prerogative.
Nevertheless, where we have wild bees nesting and wish to see them return for years to come, there are a few housekeeping actions we can take to keep our hotels attractive. The first obviously is to keep the hotel rooms dry and clean of moisture, mold, mildew, or mites. This is easiest when using designs with tubes which can be readily accessed and replaced as needed.
For more experienced beekeepers, it is also possible to store your larvae guests inside over-winter to help prevent exposure to harsher weather. During the autumn season before the frost hits, you can collect the cocoons from your hotels and store them carefully in your refrigerator, as the regulated cold temperature will keep them in hibernation. This is easiest to do when using tube-based bee hotel designs. When spring begins, you can periodically return them to your garden.
Likewise, during the spring and summer, when you see that hotel tubes are being filled up and capped off, you can carefully remove them, replace them on the hotel, and store the filled tubes somewhere safer in the garden where they are less likely to be harassed by predators or subjected to harsh weather. In these ways, we can help support the longevity of these already devastated bee populations.
While not explicitly about maintenance of wild bee hotels, advocacy for the literal habitat zones of wild bees is a relevant and extremely necessary field I am including here. Perhaps one of the most socially challenging frontiers to wild bee advocacy is stepping into a scene that has been dominated by domesticated or farmed beekeepers. Some people want their honey and want their hives, and no amount of discussion around ecological impact is going to change their minds. For patient and aggressive wild bee advocates, all power to you in keeping at those difficult conversations. For the rest of us, I think a happy middle ground with honey-beekeepers can be reached if we’re persistent.
The thing about neighborhood level pollination is that there’s a resource scarcity involved, especially in this age of manicured monoculture lawns. There are only so many plants that pollinators can share. Fewer flowers means fewer pollinators of all kinds. And when backyard honey-beekeepers introduce the aggressive and socially organized honeybees into our native bees’ natural habitat, they are enabling a resource competition which over time will leave local ecosystems dependent on farmed honeybees alone as wild bees are simply unable to compete for limited resources.
The middle ground I see with honey-beekeepers is a geographic one. If wild bee advocates and honey-beekeepers can agree to keep certain zones of their communities wild, rather than invaded by farmed species, we can help keep our local ecosystems resilient while still letting honey lovers get their honey. Of course, the division of these zones is likely going to be contested. My base position would be that no less than 90% of a community’s geography needs to be set aside for wild bees, but enacting such a plan could be socially brutal given how much misplaced advocacy there has been towards ‘saving’ honeybees in recent years and how many backyard honey-beekeepers have started up in response. At the same time, Earth’s biodiversity is being driven to extinction by humanity’s appetite for domestication and greed for animal products, so arguably our feelings around honey or what wild things we’re comfortable annihilating are irrelevant if we truly care about the health of the planet.
The social pain around this issue makes pollinator geography the biggest challenge I see in wild bee advocacy right now. Adjusting our mindset from farming animals or supporting farmers to solidarity with wild creatures and their habitats requires a huge shift in human consciousness. But for folks willing to engage with the community at that level, it’s work that I believe must be done, and you have my support in doing it. The least aggressive strategy here may very well just be flooding the market with as many wild bee habitats and classes as the local honey industry has done in the last decade. Likely we will need aggressive and patient, economic and cultural tactics to be successful here.
Get involved wherever your natural strength is. There’s a place for everyone whether our impulse is towards gardening, building, observation and data collection, community planning, or more confrontational styles of activism. Our food systems and the survival of wild bees may very well depend on our actions.
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Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to email@example.com