Tag Archives: bees

DIY Insect Hotel

Insect hotels are an easy way to create habitat for beneficial insects in or near your garden. It’s basically the same concept as a bird house but for bugs instead. You can make yours to help attract solitary bees, wasps, predatory beetles, lacewings, hoverflies and more. These insects play an important role in your garden’s ecosystem, pollinating plants, and feeding on pests. 

To get started I’ll discuss the insect hotel I made as an example. It is made entirely from scrap and natural materials. The outside is scrap plywood and tin and the compartments are filled with bamboo, a log with drilled holes, pine cones, sticks, bark, hay, and bricks. What you make yours from is up to you. You can utilize what you have to create something fairly rustic like I did or get real fancy.

Materials

The bamboo and logs with drilled holes were added with solitary bees and wasps in mind. They both use or create holes, frequently in woody material, to lay their eggs. Predatory beetles and hoverflies can find places to hide and over winter among the pine cones, sticks, and bark. The hay provides good habitat for lacewings and the bricks add larger holes for spiders and other insects to use.

The most important part is add a mix of materials. Think about all the crevices and spaces you normally find insects in and mimic these in your design. If you’d like to attract a specific insect to your garden you can also search for its habitat preferences. Does it like cool damp places close to the ground? Or sunny, dry places up high?

It’s okay if your insect hotel is completely different from the one I created. Just as there’s a wide variety of insects that could use a helping hand there’s a wide variety of habitats you can use your insect hotel to create. A quick Pinterest or Google image search will turn up hundreds of inspiring ideas to help you create something that fits your needs. People have made giant insect towers from stacked pallets and little painted boxes that hang on the wall or fence. You can use hollow logs, stacked cinder blocks, or old terra-cotta pots to stuff with material. 

Construction

To put mine together I measured and then cut the plywood using a circular saw. From there I screwed the plywood together to form a box using some screws leftover from another project. Then I decided to add more plywood to create small compartments or shelves so I could easily add different types of material. I found a perfect size scrap piece of tin that I hand for the roof and screwed that on as well. I haven’t yet, but I need to staple on some scrap chicken wire I have to hold in loose materials like the pine cones. This will also allow me to stuff the materials in tighter.

If you don’t have access to power tools think about ready made containers you could use rather than building a box like I did. Maybe you have an old wooden crate handy or could use an old pot, block, or hollow log like I mentioned above.

Tips

There are a few general ideas that can help you make the most of your insect hotel. First while some insects like damp conditions you might still consider putting something that sheds water on the top. That way your materials will last longer and even if it sits directly on the ground you can keep the upper layers dry for certain species. 

Secondly it’s best to use compostable or recyclable materials. Your insect hotel probably won’t last forever. Building one that can easily be recycled or returned to the earth at the end of it’s use is good planning. Just because straws and pvc pipe have the same shape as bamboo doesn’t mean that they’re good alternatives. 

Consider your hotel’s location carefully. If you have a small space you might have limited choices. However if possible it’s best to place your hotel where it’s sheltered from some of the prevailing winds. If you like bees you may also want to look for a sunny location as they rely heavily on the sun for warmth.  

Lastly don’t stop with just your insect hotel’s structure include some “landscaping” for it too. Insects are more likely to utilize your hotel if you add features around it they like. You can plant a flower mix around it, add a lot of mulch to that area of your garden, let the nearby grass grow tall, or add a place for them to access water.

Insect hotels are a great weekend project. They’re a quick and easy way to help your garden and the natural world. They’re also an excellent project to get kids involved with. Remember that you can make an insect hotel with anything you have on hand, there’s no right or wrong way to make one, and even if it comes out a little wonky it’s okay. The bugs don’t care if you measured everything perfectly!

Pin it for later.

Planning a Pollinator Garden

By Jordan Charbonneau, photos by Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Great Spangled Fritillary Butterfly on Bergamot (Bee Balm)

Thankfully it seems people are coming around to the idea that our pollinators are in trouble. Wildflower packets and seeds bombs are “in” right now. While they may provide some relief, saving our precious bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects is going to take a little more than tossing a seed bomb into an empty garden bed.

Pollinators need food sources all season long from very early in the spring to late in the fall. In many areas native wildflower and meadow species have been replaced by monoculture lawns and select ornamental flowers. While this isn’t the only reason our pollinators are dying it certainly is a contributing factor. If you truly want to help pollinators it’s important to learn to plan a garden that offers an abundance of food sources all summer.

Timing

Figuring out how to have a garden that’s always in bloom can be a bit tricky. You’ll need to plan your plantings to maximize your garden’s potential.

Start Plants Early

Butterfly Weed

For many hobby gardeners flowers get planted when all danger of frost is past. Unfortunately many pollinators are active early and need flowers as soon as it’s warm enough to move around. If you don’t start flowers ahead of time there won’t be any flowers when they need them most.

The easiest way to start flowers early is to start them indoors. The Southern Exposure Beginner’s Growing Guide is a great resource and can help you get a jump on the season.

Another great way to have early blooms is to plant perennial flower varieties like Butterfly Weed or self-seeding varieties. These are often sooner to bloom than the annuals.

Succession Planting

Some families may already practice succession planting in their home vegetable garden. Just like it’s better for families to have summer squash spread throughout the season than a ton all at once pollinators do better if you’re plants’ bloom times are staggered too.

To help pollinators with this problem it’s simple to start flowers in small batches, every two-four weeks depending on the variety so that they’re not all blooming at the same time. This can be done indoors in seedling trays or direct sowing in the garden.

For example single stem sunflowers generally only have pollen for about two weeks. To extend your harvest you can sow batches every two weeks. Just take into account your chosen variety’s “days to harvest” to ensure all of your plantings will bloom before fall frosts.

Selecting Varieties

Everyone has trouble picking out seeds. There’s so many varieties and so little time and space! For your pollinator garden there’s a few special considerations to help you narrow down your list.

Bloom Period

Typically flowers are selected for their looks and smell but for your pollinator garden you’ll want to consider when varieties flower, what time of day they flower, and how long they flower.

Some plant varieties offer much longer blooming periods than others. Often these varieties are favorites for cut flower growers but they can also be helpful for pollinators. Some great long blooming flowers include Cosmos, Zinnias, Bergamot, and Poppies.

Sadly moths are often forgotten in the pollinator conversation. Moths are beautiful and absolutely play a necessary part in the ecosystem. To give them a helping hand plant varieties like Four O’Clocks or Evening Scented Primrose which bloom in the evening.

Native Wildflowers

Another consideration when planting for pollinators is to be sure and include native species. Those free promotional wildflower seed packets are great but they may not include varieties that are essential to the survival of your local pollinators.

Native wildflowers are also well adapted to your local climate meaning that they can do well with much less watering and maintenance. They’re great for pollinators, the environment, and you! What’s not to love?

Some of my favorite native wildflowers from Southern Exposure include the Appalachian native Lemon Bergamot, the aptly named Butterfly Weed, and Texas native Red Drummond Phlox.

Dual Purpose Flowers

Echinacea

If you’re like me your garden is all about practically. While helping pollinators is obviously important to having a successful farm I still like to squeeze extra productivity where possible. I often pick varieties of flowers that are edible, medicinal, or can be used for dye. If you’re all about making the most of your garden space check out these varieties.

Edible Medicinal Dye
Bachelor’s Button Anise-Hyssop Coreopsis
Bread Seed Poppy Bergamot (Bee Balm) Hopi Dye Sunflower
Grain Amaranth Calendula
Johnny-Jump-Up Chamomile
Mexican Mint Marigold Echinacea
Nasturtium Feverfew
Red Clover Hyssop
Sunflowers Lavender

Other Ideas

Aside from a carefully planned flower garden there are several ways to incorporate more blooms into your property.

Save Seed

You may think that plants like lettuce and radishes offer little benefits to pollinators because they’re harvested before they flower. However if you choose to save seed they’ll flower before you harvest your seeds.

Cover Crop

Never leave soil bare! Not only does it contribute to nutrient depletion and erosion it’s also a waste of valuable space. If you’re letting a section of garden rest for the season consider a cover crop like alfalfa or clover which fix nitrogen in your soil and flower for long periods. When you finish with an early crop like radishes, arugula, or peas consider quick to flower, cover crops like Buckwheat.

Leave Un-mowed Areas

If you have a larger property than you use for gardens a great way to help pollinators and many other native species is simply to leave areas natural. Without constant mowing many native species will flourish.

Sometimes all the world’s problems can be a bit overwhelming but small actions can really make a big difference. Following these tips can help you create a beautiful garden that will give pollinators a helping hand. With a little extra effort you’ll be helping moths, bees, butterflies, and other pollinators and beneficial insects.

What’s your favorite flower variety?

10 tips for Attracting Bees and other Pollinators and Harvesting Great Cucumbers, Squash and Melons

By Ira Wallace   Photos by Irena Hollowell

Arkansas Little Leaf cucumber
Benning's Green Tint summer squash

Abundant harvests of cucumbers, squash, melons and all their cucurbit relatives like gourds depend on having many active pollinators. Each squash or cucumber blossom requires multiple visits to make a perfectly formed fruit. Much of the heavy work of pollinating vegetable crops is done by honey bees but there are also many other types of bees, wasps, beetles, and moths working our vegetable gardens.  Carolina Farm Stewardship Association shares some useful info about native squash bees.

Here in the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange trial gardens we work hard to keep the welcome mat out for all these insect allies and you can too! Here are our 10 tips for attracting bees and other pollinators:

Bumblebee on Spanish Brocade marigold
Wasp on mint blossom
Wasps on fennel inflorescence
Buckwheat, Cleome and Purple Hyacinth Beans
Baby Thai squash
Crimson Sweet Virginia Select watermelon
Eden Gem muskmelon
  1. Do not use any toxic sprays or synthetic chemical on your  organic garden or farmland.
  2. Plant an abundant variety of flowers and herbs to provide nectar and pollen from early spring to late fall.
  3. Pollinators come in many sizes and shapes so plant flowers of different heights, shape and size to welcome a range of different insects from slow bumble bees to tiny wasps and beautiful showy moths. Some pollinator friendly plants  to consider for your garden.
  4. Plant flowers in clump or swathes so they are easier for the pollinators to find and create areas for resting and nesting.
  5. Plant pollinator-friendly trees such as dogwood, cherry, willow and popular to provide both pollen and nectar early in the season when food is hard to come by. Leave some over wintered arugula and  mustard plants in your garden  to flower early in the season.
  6. Start fall seedlings of hardy annuals like sweet peas, feverfew, cilantro, bachelor buttons and Johnny Jump Ups to overwinter well mulched or under row cover. They are additional sources of early season beauty for your garden and food for pollinators.
  7. Another thing to do in the Fall is to leave some areas undisturbed and “natural” as overwintering habitat for beneficial insects.
  8. Make second plantings of quick flowering annuals like cosmos, calendulas, sunflowers and daisies to make a bright late season splash in your garden and provide late season pollen and nectar. Also planting a  bee friendly late summer cover crop of buckwheat can provide flowers in as little as 6 weeks.
  9. Live with some damage on Butterfly Weed and other plants that provide habitat for beautiful butterfly and moth larvae.
  10. Plant native or heirloom flowers with “single” type blossoms, not “doubles”.  They are generally preferred by both pollinators and other beneficial insects.

The great thing about creating a welcoming environment for pollinators is that you also encourage other beneficial insects and create a more balanced and diverse ecology in your garden for birds and bats as well as the smaller insect friends.

Getting back to squash, cucumbers and melons, adequate pollination is a sometimes overlooked but important factors in turning all those lovely yellow flowers into crunchy cucumbers, buttery squash and sweet juicy melons. These crops are easy to grow if you give  attention to the basics of soil, pH, water, and selecting pest- and disease-resistant varieties.  All of these cucurbits prefer a loose, sandy loam, pH of 6.5-7 and an even supply of moisture (1″/week) until the fruit is set.  Grow in raised beds or hills with plenty of compost and other organic matter added especially you have heavy clay soil. Get a soil test and follow recommendation to adjust pH. Melons especially will not produce well below 6pH.

Getting great squash, cucumber and melon harvest also means harvesting the fruit in a timely way. Summer squash and cucumbers are most delicious harvested young and tender, before the seeds form. Winter squash is a storage crop and should be allowed to mature on the vine until the rind is hard enough that it cannot be easily dented by a fingernail. When to harvest melons is complicated. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange Vegetable Growing Guides can help.

Even with the best of care squash, cucumbers and melons need active pollinators for the best fruit set and highest fruit quality. A 2010 Wisconsin study showed better quality fruit and a 4x increase in production in pickling cucumber with active pollinators. This agrees with our experience of increased productivity and seed yield. We love it when doing the right thing ( doing the right thing in providing pollinator habitat, pollen and nectar ) gives such sweet results! Squash and cucumber are great but I love melons. Stop by our booth at the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello in Charlottesville September 13 for a taste of some of our best heirloom melon varieties and dozens of heirloom tomatoes and peppers as well.

What is your favorite cucumber, melon or squash?  Let us know and we’ll put your name in a drawing for a copy of my new book The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast.