Forget five star luxury holiday resorts - it is insect hotels that are all the rage at the moment! And with good reason too, as by all recent studies show that the insect populations of the world are declining at a super scary rate due to global climate change and intensive farming methods. Growing a garden with plenty of nectar plants and placing insect hotels in it can be a great boost to the environment!
There are many different ways to cater for the needs of insects, and when deciding to help with providing happy habitats thinking about what insects to provide homes for is a great starting point. Solitary bees need nests made of tubes or loggs with long tubular holes that are placed in the sun, while lacewings and ladybugs need sheltered places that do not get too much heat in early spring. Below I will look at different kinds of insect hotels and discuss their merits and drawbacks.
Big insect hotels such as the one above, found in the botanical garden of Paris, are structural beauties in themselves. This one can house whole colonies of different insects and solitary bees in the upper departements as well as other insects and small amphibians beneath it. Still, the worry with a structure like this is that it will harbour diseases and mites or other parasites that are dangerous for bees and that if one part of it is infected it will spread to all the colonies in the structure. Therefore, small ones designed to house just one insect community at a time may work even better. Smaller shelters will be less likely to be infested with disease and predatory mites, and if they are the damage is limited as it is consigned to just one small population. By placing separate housing for different insect and small amphibians communities around the gardens and tailoring the locations of the housing to each species requirements you provide a better home for them. Toads and frogs for instance love to take shelter in a shady and damp corner, while hedgehogs like an unkept heap of old branches where they can nest undisturbed. Bees on the other hand need a sheltered location in full sun and ladybirds need a warm secluded place like a pile of rotting logs or twigs.
An insect hotel that is meant for solitary bees like the one above should be placed in a sheltered position in the sun, preferably facing south east or south and at least a meter of the ground. Here, the small holes in the round wooden blocks together with a supply of small tubes are ideal for solitary bees and wasps. The pretty decorative pine cones on the other hand are just that: pretty decorations that are pleasing for the eye but have little value as bee housing. (Similarly, anything withe seashells is more for the human eye than pleasing as housing for insects.) Bee hotels like this one should be inspected and cleaned out with pipe cleaners at the end of each summer to prevent mould and mites that can harm the bees, and therefore they are best placed so that you can easily reach them.
Although bees are one of our primary concerns at the moment, not all insect hotels have to be specifically made for them. There are lots of other really wonderful inhabitants in the garden, such as lacewings, spiders, woodlice and ladybird beetles. Ladybirds are both decorative and extremely useful to house in your garden. There are thousands of Ladybug species in the world, and all of the native ones are really wonderful to have in the garden as a form of organic pest control. A small seven spotted ladybird can eat up to 5000 aphids in a year of its life! They like dense habitat such as a pile of logs or a twig fence such as the one below (found in Rosendals Garden in Stockholm Sweden) where they can huddle together in large colonies over winter. Once they wake up after hibernation the female will lay her eggs underneath leaves and as soon as the larvae are born they start feeding on aphids and nectar, keeping the pesky pests under control and pollinating the flowers. This is why it is so great to place a ladybird home close to your fruit trees, vegetable garden and flowerbeds.
Some of the little critters that live in your garden get much less attention than their more decorative counterparts, but they too are very important for the ecology. Lacewings for example also eat aphids and other pest insects, so sheltering and encouraging them in your garden will keep it more healthy. They like to overwinter in piles of leaves, so having a leaf mound compost that is not packed too tightly is a great way to keep them safe. Woodlice are great for overturning soil and also - harsh as it sounds - for spider food, and like it or not spiders are excellent pest predators to have in the garden. In the picture below you see my woodlice skyscraper, a stack of bricks with holes placed in my woodland border. If you were to take it apart you'd be surprised at how many little darlings it houses. So go wild and be adventurous and build your own insect hotel in your garden this year! The insects will thank you by keeping your garden more healthy!