Season is high and it’s time to attract droves of do-gooders to fabulous living quarters in your garden. Make your own bug hotel in seven simple steps.
Words and Pictures: Stephen Smith
DIY Assistance: Nigel Berjak
Your suburban garden is alive with creatures living under the radar, battling the forces of nature, each other and the chemical warfare waged upon them by over-enthusiastic gardeners. Thankfully many of us are starting to garden in a more ecologically sensitive manner, and have realised the benefits of a healthy spider and insect population.
There are many beneficial insects that you should be grateful to have outdoors. Pollinators ensure that your flowers create seeds and fruit. Bees (honey, carpenter and others), butterflies, some beetles, wasps and even some of the more attractive flies are hugely important pollinators.
South Africa has more than 100 bee species, including carpenter bees, which most of us incorrectly call bumble bees – there are no bumble bees in South Africa. Carpenter bee isn’t just a clever name – these fuzzy guys bore holes in wood in which to make their little nests, and we can help them out by supplying them with ready-made homes. Leafcutter bees also nest in holes in wood, so they are also potential tenants.
Then there are the predators, the fierce creatures that keep infestations of aphids and their ilk at bay. There are predatory wasps, spiders, mantises, assassin bugs, lacewings (antlions), dragonflies and ladybugs that all fall into this group of garden predators.
Many of these beneficial insects can be attracted to a garden, or persuaded not to move on, if some sort of safe refuge is provided. A bug hotel is such a haven, installed somewhere in the garden in an out-of-the-way corner or where it can be admired by all. There’s no fixed shape or size, and the ‘rooms’ can be furnished with just about anything you find in the garden or at your local nursery. I tried to make mine look interesting, so that even if doesn’t turn into a thriving hotel it still works as a feature in the garden.
You will need
- Reeds/narrow bamboo sticks
- A slice of log or a block of wood,cut to 140mm long
- Any organic material that looks good and gives a bug a home (rotting wood, bark nuggets, splintered logs, sticks, seedpods, pebbles, straw, pine cones, sticks, earth/mud – be creative. You can even add pieces of wool
if you want to attract birds looking for nesting material. Walk around your garden or neighbourhood and see what you can find.
- 100mm piece of wire or 2 picture-hanging brackets
- 16 x (5mm x 35mm) cut screws
- Optional: wood sealer, chicken mesh
- 2 x (260mm x 140mm x 20mm) planks
- 2 x (300mm x 140mm x 20mm) planks
- 4 x (175mm x 140mm x 20mm) planks
- We used saligna (gum) planks – saligna is hard wearing and should last a long time without being chemically treated or sealed/painted. In total you only need one 1.9m length.
- Cordless drill/electric screwdriver, wood saw, pencil, 3mm, 6mm and 10mm drill bits for wood
Cost: Under R200
Difficulty: 2 out of 5
Time: About 2 hours
- Send the kids on a gathering expedition. Give them a list of useful items and let them loose in your garden. If your garden doesn’t turn up enough organic matter, buy a bag of bark nuggets from the nursery, and maybe bash up a brick or find some small pieces of slate or shale.
- While the kids are foraging, you need to make your hotel’s walls. Ours is a simple symmetrical design that looks far more impressive than it actually is. But if you want something different, get as creative as you feel – for inspiration search for ‘bug hotel’ on Google or Pinterest.
- If you have bought lengths of timber, cut them to the correct lengths. But the easier thing to do is to give the cut list to the hardware shop and get them to cut the wood for you – they usually do the cutting for free as long as you buy the wood from them. The 300mm planks will form two parallel walls, joined together by the two 260mm planks to form a 300mm square.
- Always drill pilot holes with the 3mm drill bit before inserting the screws – hard wood can split when screws are inserted. If you want to, use glue in all the joints.
- The four 175mm planks form the interior walls, but you need to join them together before putting them into the box, otherwise it will be very difficult to get access to the screws.
- Do a dry run by popping the planks into the box and arranging them as shown.
- Make marks so that you know how to screw them together. Remove the planks, line up the marks and screw them together.
- Tip: You might need a second pair of hands for this step.
- Put the interior planks, now screwed together, back into the box. Screw them into place. Sand the wood to make your establishment look more presentable, or leave it rough and ready if that’s your vibe. You can also seal the wood with a varnish or other wood sealer if you want to, or even paint it a funky colour. Bugs won’t mind either way, but it will last longer if you do.
- Remember that bugs won’t take the bigger picture into account, so your hotel can be as rough or as tidy as you want it to be.
- Your bug hotel is now complete – now it’s time to hang it and furnish it. PS: You could also pop a roof onto your bug hotel. I made one out of a palm leaf sheath.
- Carefully arrange (or get the kids to arrange) all the organic materials they scavenged in the bug box. I wanted to attract some carpenter bees, so I put a block of wood in the centre of my hotel and drilled a number of holes into it. Drill them in a pattern if you’d like to. Carpenter bees get their names from the holes they bore into wood, but they will happily move into ready-made holes.
- If you want to use smaller articles in your hotel, like seedpods, you can put a mesh front over a room to hold them in place. Chicken wire works, and the bugs will obviously be able to get through it.
- Attach the wire or hanging brackets to your bug hotel. Hang the bug hotel somewhere where it looks good but doesn’t get in the way. Behind and above a flowerbed is a good idea, or on an out-of-the-way wall or fence, or against a tree. If you think it will be easier, hang the box and then furnish it.
- Keep an eye on your bug hotel to see who moves in. Don’t be too fastidious a landlord – leave your tenants be and they should form a vibrant community that gets all sorts of useful jobs done in your garden.