May 13, 2023
How—and Why—to Create a Backyard Bug Hotel
Photo by Gilberto Martin/iStock By Hillary Richard
Photo by Gilberto Martin/iStock
By Hillary Richard
April 29, 2023
In the average garden, more than 2,000 insects can thrive. But while bugs play a critical role in the garden ecosystem, they’re often lumped together as a biomass of nuisances. Indeed, the collective quest for immaculate gardens and yards has, over time, destroyed insect habitats. Fallen leaves, taller grass, and dead wood are necessary habitats for certain bugs—but these real estate features are increasingly difficult to find in an urban or suburban backyard.
Adding a bug hotel (also called a bug house) to your garden makes for a fun and creative way to encourage biodiversity. Bug hotels provide shelter and nesting sites to native and migratory solitary insects. As most gardeners could tell you, these tiny creatures are crucial—most plants depend on pollinators. And as organic gardeners know all too well, it's crucial to protect vulnerable pollinators and attract beneficial insects.
Enter the bug hotel. It works the same way as a birdhouse—however, rather than one family, it can serve multiple types of insects.
"Most people don't know that the vast majority of wasp and bee species are solitary—they do not live in a colony with a single queen and hundreds or thousands of workers," says Zack Lemann of the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. "So when you set up one of these bug hotels, you’re providing a good alternative spot for various females looking to lay their eggs in a safe place."
Insects are important to a garden because of the volume of food that they eat—their diets include weeds and other bugs deemed pests—as well as the volume of food they provide for creatures above them in the food chain. Bugs also help aerate the soil while recycling natural materials and decomposing nutrients. And of course, they’re pollinators. Pollination is the movement of the male part of a flower to the female part, which is required for flowering plants to create seeds. Most plants can't self-pollinate or wind-pollinate and thus require creatures (typically insects) to keep their lineage going strong.
"I like the term ‘bug hotel’ because when you see people in a hotel, they’re not all related," says Lemann. "They’re not working as a unit the way social species of bees and wasps do, but they are perfectly happy living in close proximity to each other."
"I like the term ‘bug hotel’ because when you see people in a hotel, they’re not all related. They’re not working as a unit the way social species of bees and wasps do, but they are perfectly happy living in close proximity to each other."
A bug hotel makes for a great way to exercise creativity in your yard—know, however, that it pays to be mindful of a few best practices. A bug hotel can be as large as a wooden palette, as small as a typical birdhouse, or as simple as a log with holes. The structure itself needs some kind of roof to keep water out—like a repurposed tile, roofing felt, green sedum, or a solid wood overhang. It's important to keep the bug hotel somewhere where it won't be disturbed by pets, kids, or wind gusts. It should be placed in a location that receives morning sunlight. Ideally, it will be four or five feet off the ground near flowering plants. And of course, the bug hotel should be out of the way of any pesticide drifts.
Once you have a bug hotel frame in mind, imagine what you’d like to see living in it. If you’re looking to attract a specific pollinator, make your bug hotel more appealing to that creature by figuring out what they like for nesting, suggests Gideon Deme Gywa, a postdoctoral scholar at Case Western Reserve University's Department of Biology.
So do your research, and remember that bug hotels offer amazing avenues to recycle natural debris. Take straw and hay, which are good materials to attract insects that like burrowing. Certain beetles need dead wood. Spiders, beetles, and centipedes enjoy a loose bark cover. Ladybugs (a beneficial garden predator if you’re growing vegetables) like to hibernate in dry sticks and leaves. Avoid overfilling the bug house, but do offer plenty of small crevices where bugs can hide and rest.
Many online instructions for bug hotels focus on installing layers of tubes, so as to attract bees and wasps. You can fill a simple A-frame bug hotel with hollow stems from bamboo, cardboard tubes, straws, or reeds with a diameter of 1/16 of an inch to 1/2 inch. The length of the stems varies depending on the size of the hotel, but they should measure five to eight inches at most, according to Gywa. Seal off one side of each tube. Bundle the tubes tightly together using string or wire with all open ends facing the same direction. (Avoid rubber bands, which can dry and break.)
If you have untreated lumber, tree stumps, or logs that are at least four inches thick laying around, you can turn those into a bug hotel by drilling a variety of holes throughout—make them roughly 3/32 through 3/8 of an inch in diameter, and three to six inches deep.
It's good to have a variety of tube diameters, because solitary insects vary in size. As a general rule, they want something that is the maximum size their larvae will be. To make their chambers more amenable, wasps may bring mud, grass, soil, and straw into their tubes. Bees may use some grass and straw, but they will seal off different chambers within their tubes with wax they create.
While a bug hotel is relatively low maintenance, it's important to keep an eye on its cleanliness. If a creature was using a certain tube and has definitely vacated, it's worthwhile to clean or replace that tube in order to prevent germs or parasites from spreading. Make sure the hotel isn't overrun with ants, which can go after larvae.
The beauty of a bug hotel is it can be integrated into any sized garden, from small urban and suburban yards to larger landscapes. The idea is to mimic a disappearing natural habitat. This can go beyond the bug hotel in small ways as well. In particular, if you want solitary bees and wasps in your garden, offer them a plant saucer with standing water that will help them make a little wet mud. Some species dig in the dirt and live under the soil. A small empty dirt patch is ideal for ground-nesting insects.
All that's left is to enjoy watching your new tenants and your thriving, well-pollinated garden.
"Even if you don't like bugs, you probably like birds," points out Lemann. "There are probably certain cute mammals or interesting lizards you like. These creatures all rely on bugs. If you have fewer of the one, you have fewer of the other. To the extent that you’re helping the bugs out, you could just pat yourself on the back and say, 'I helped the bugs; that's cool.' But as a species, we need these creatures to keep the planet flowering."
Hillary Richard is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.