With summer over and autumn setting in we recently had the chance to complete a family project which has been on our list for several months – to create a bee hotel.
“A what?” you may say. “Why?” you may well also say…. so here’s some background.
The past couple of years have seen a dramatic decline in the numbers of bees in the UK, mainland Europe and the US. Whilst it is not clear what all the factors are behind this population crash, the consequences of the drop in bee numbers could be very serious – bees are pollinators and as such play an important, even vital role in the development of many crops, and, of course, also in our own gardens. Indeed, according to the United States Department of Agriculture “about one mouthful of food in three [in the US] is directly or indirectly pollinated by honey bees managed by beekeepers.”
Given this situation, and our family’s more broader interest in creating a little urban haven for biodiversity, we wanted to do “our bit” for the bees. Whilst honeybees live in colonies and may sting (both aspects making them more of a challenge to host in your own kid-friendly garden), solitary bees live on their own (the clue’s in the name I suppose!) and are far less likely to sting so they mix much better with little ones! (female solitary bees do have a sting, but it is a weak one, and very unlikely to be deployed). There are in fact about 250 different types of solitary bee in the UK, and whilst some like to nest in the ground, many like to nest in cavities in wood, including the Red Mason bee – one of the commonest solitary bees in the UK. A bee hotel is basically a way of creating the sort of place a Red Mason bee would think of as 5* luxury accommodation, and as well as helping the bees, making a bee hotel is a really fun project for all the family.
We chose to make one using hollow canes from cow parsley and common hogweed, as it was more kid-friendly – M and J loved collecting, snapping and stuffing in the stems, whereas the hotels made using a drill would have required much more adult involvement (at least with a 1 and 4 year old – perhaps it would have been a good choice with an old kid). We waited until now ie autumn when the stems of the cow parsley/common hogweed were naturally dried out and hollow. I should note that cow parsley and common hogweed can be mistaken for several other plants that are not at all kid friendly – giant hogweed, poison hemlock and Fool’s parsley. [Please don’t let this put you off doing this project – if you’re not confident of identifying the plants then you could use bamboo canes, straws or if you grow herbs, lovage or perhaps fennel]
We are fortunate to live very close to a couple of fields with a small stream flowing through them, along which there is a pushchair friendly path. It’s a great place for a short walk before bed time or for a longer bike ride to the nearest playground, the other side of the fields. The fields are surrounded on all sides by fairly tightly packed houses, so the open space is a valuable wildlife corridor. All this to explain where we went for our cow parsley and hogweed (seeing as they are not typically found in gardens!) – the kids thought this harvesting was a hoot, although pushing the laden pushchair home was not easy, and certainly caused a few raised eyebrows (but then I think my neighbours already have me down as a slightly off the wall sort of mama!).
The dried flower umbels were magical for the kids – it was like having handfuls of stars – and they made perfect magical fairy wands. The stems were treated like all sticks – as loot of the first order, perfect for walking with, tapping trees, swishing in the grass, making fires, and generally just feeling great having and holding them in your hands! And all this play was before we got home to transform the stems into the bee hotel!
A small frame was made with short lengths of untreated wood and then the frame was then made aesthetically more pleasing by the addition of some bark, stripped from the planks we used to create our raised veg beds.
The covered frame was then stuffed with lengths of cowparsley/hogweed stem. Solitary bees prefer holes 3-5mm in diameter, but ladybirds and lacewings will make use of larger holes so we made sure we had a good mixture of stem sizes.
Once the frame was jam-packed full of stems we hung it on a south facing wall at a slight downward angle – to ensure that water couldn’t get caught inside the stems when it rains.
We’re now waiting for the first guests to take up residence!
Having made the bee hotel I went on a search for a good book to match it up with for the girls. This was not the easiest of tasks as pretty much all the books I could find were about honey bees, and seeing as honey bees are the one bug that won’t be desperate to take our offer of lodgings, I didn’t want a book that was solely about those lovely creatures. In the end I plumped for a lovely book called Whose Garden Is It? by Mary Ann Hoberman, illustrated by Jane Dyer.
I’m ashamed to admit that until a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard of Mary Ann Hoberman, even though she is the current Children’s Poet Laureate in the US. But fortunately for me, Chrissy from Book Bliss left me a comment when I wrote about playing with dollshouses, suggesting A House is a House for me by -you’ve guessed it – Mary Ann Hoberman and from that short comment a whole lovely new world has opened up for me and my girls (Thank you Chrissy!)
Whose Garden Is It? starts simply enough – a gentle rhyme posing a question that would seem to have a straightforward answer.
Mrs McGee went out walking one day,
And as she was cheerfully wending her way,
She passed by a garden with colors so bright,
She never had seen such a beautiful sight!
“How splendid! How pleasant! How simply exquisite!
This garden is perfect….
But whose garden is it?”
As the story unfolds it becomes clear that in fact many things are needed for a garden to flourish. Fathoming who is responsible for the garden, whose contribution is crucial, is actually a much harder task than simply providing the initially anticipated answer to the question of ownership.
First of all the gardener insists that is it his garden (“I am the owner and everyone knows it. I am the person who plants it and grows it“) but as Mrs McGee explores more of the garden, other claims of ownership are made. The worm, for example, insists “… Why, I make the soil fine, / And that’s why I’m put here. This garden is mine!“, whilst the bee insists the garden is due to his activities “I pollinate flowers. It’s easy to see / This garden would not even be without me!“. Other animals also stake their claims, but then to further complicate the matter, the soil, sun and rain also insist that without them the garden would not exist.
Having explored the garden and met all who play a role in its growth and health Mrs McGee, and the reader, are left still turning over in their minds, indeed, “Whose garden is it?”
Although this book doesn’t have quite the bee-focus I was originally looking for, I love Whose Garden Is It? The rhyme makes it a delight to read aloud, and (from what I can tell) great fun to listen to, even for my 1 year old. The theme – that actually a lot of different things play a role in creating (and thereby “owning” if we want to use that word) the garden is wonderful – it reminds us of the importance of biodiversity, community, of looking at the bigger picture. It challenges the notion of “ownership” in a very gentle, but sustained way – and given that most young kids have VERY clear ideas about ownership “She can’t have the doll/castle/picture – it’s MINE!!!” I think this is a great way to start them thinking again about possession.
As if this wasn’t all enough to make for a great book, the illustrations are of superb quality – the garden looks utterly glorious with glowing sunflowers, ruby red hollyhocks, echinacea and delphiniums, and whilst I’m not convinced of the need to anthropomorphise the various animals and elements who claim ownership of the garden, the furry friends in costume certainly appeal to my kids.
All in all a lovely book, whose theme could be described as the horticultural equivalent to the idea embodied in the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child”.
We’ve been listening to The Bee Song sung by Arthur Askey (a favourite from my own childhood), Flight of the Bumble Bee by Rimsky-Korsakov (great for dancing round and round to at dizzying speeds!) and the rather wacky Pollination Dance by The Denim Dirt Farmers.
Now that our bee hotel is complete, our next project is the much bigger and grander BUG hotel – something like this one, and then if we had the space we could even provide an amphitheatre for the creepy-crawlies – like this one at Kew Gardens. Now would that be wonderful ?!
Please do let us know about your favourite bee and bug related books and music You never know – maybe your comment will inspire us just like the comment from Chrissy did!
And if you’ve made it this far in this ridiculously long post I salute you! *Thankyou* for spending some of your precious time reading my blog – I really do appreciate it!