A Shaftesbury kitchen company has offered to donate its craftsmen’s time to make improved bee hotels, if a sponsor can fund the materials.
It’s emerged that previously supplied bee boxes might be putting the endangered red mason bees at risk. Over the past two years, many Shaftesbury residents have agreed to host bee hotels. These wooden boxes help the solitary and cavity-nesting mason and leafcutter bees, which are important pollinators. Those bees fill tubes inside the ‘hotels’ with pollen, which feeds their larvae over winter, before they emerge as adults in the spring.
However, new research reveals a problem with some of the early bee hotels. “A cheap and cheerful bee hotel from a garden centre or a supermarket can end up being a little bit of a death trap,” warned Shaftesbury’s bee expert, Brigit Strawbridge.
“This is one that we gave away,” said Brigit, as she showed me one of the boxes mounted on the side of a wooden shed. “It was only after they’d already been ordered that I saw up-to-date research and thought, ‘These are not so great’. The drilled holes are not healthy because it’s a breeding ground for disease. The bee hotels that are very shallow, about two inches, are not good,” said Brigit.
Johnny and Natalie Evans of Shaftesbury’s JD Kitchens re-designed the original model. “The one that Brigit showed us was quite shallow. It meant the birds could get in and take some of the cocoons,” he said. “We’ve adapted it, so it’s deeper. It also didn’t have an overhang, which meant that if it was facing prevailing weather, rain would get in,” said Johnny.
“We got hooked on bees. We came and listened to one of Brigit’s fascinating talks in Shaftesbury Town Hall,” said Nat.
“You realise when you talk to people, how little they know about bees,” added Johnny. “They know about bumblebees and honeybees, but they don’t know any other bees. There are something like 120 different types of bee in this country, some of which are the size of a pinhead. The mason bees that we’re doing these boxes for are vulnerable at the moment, so we want to help them,” he said.
Johnny has twenty years’ experience of crafting wood, but he’s never made a bee hotel before. “This is a first, but it’s very exciting. Lee works for us in our workshop and together we have come up with a redesign, making better use of the timber. There’s less wastage. We try to maximise all the pieces we can and provide enough space for as many bee tubes as possible.”
Johnny says that keeping the bee hotels dry was his most important consideration, because water ingress is a problem. “The old design had a lot of screw holes on the exterior. We’ve now glued and pinned it and made it less vulnerable to the weather.”
The bee hotel looks like a bird box, with a collection of round cardboard tubes in the middle of the wooden construction. “They are cardboard tubes lined with paper. The bees lay their eggs in those tubes, seal up the tubes, over winter and then they hatch in the spring. The good thing about the tubes is you can throw them out at the end of each season and put new ones in. Or you can just take out the paper liners and replace that. It’s relatively cost effective. You haven’t got to throw the whole thing away,” said Johnny.
Now Johnny and Lee have made their prototype, they can roll out the hotels rapidly. “It took us about an hour. I think we could do many more in an hour. We’re hoping we can just fit them in, in between kitchens or wardrobes.”
“Johnny and Lee are offering their time for free in putting these together. We’re desperately looking for a sponsor to cover the cost of materials. There could be quite a demand for them. It would be wonderful to see them in gardens all over the town,” said Nat.
She has an idea of how many she would like to have the men make. “I would love to see fifty of them,” said Nat, who hopes they will be ready early in 2020. “Then they will become available at end of February, in time for the nesting season at the end of March.”
The cost of the making the boxes will determine how much the project requires from a sponsor. “I would anticipate around £12 to £15 per box, which would include the cardboard tubes, once we’ve managed to find a wholesaler rather than buying from a garden centre,” said Johnny. “If the boxes were then sold for around £25, each sale would help fund bee conservation.”
Brigit doesn’t want people who have put up old and shallow bee hotels, that we now know are less than ideal, to worry. “I have been putting up bee hotels that are too shallow and too exposed for over a decade. I have still had an ongoing population of solitary bees,” said Brigit.
She says there are steps you can take to clean your bee hotel and reduce the threat of parasites. “It’s a lovely overwinter job to sit inside your kitchen with a piece of newspaper, empty your bee hotel and clean up the little cocoons that are very solid. You can’t harm them. Store them in a Tupperware box in the fridge over winter and put them out in a little box that’s got a hole in it, so they can emerge and escape the following year. You clean out the inside of your hotel so it’s fresh,” she said.
Brigit says it is a job to do now. “Anytime from September onwards. You need to have done it before March, just in case we have a hot spell in March, and they start to emerge early. The big message is you are making a difference if you do this. You are helping this population of red mason bees, which will pollinate apple trees and lots of other fruit trees and plants,” said Brigit.
Bee campaigner Brigit has been energised by backing she has received for her campaign to protect the town’s bees. Now Johnny and Natalie are hoping that this support will lead to a bee hotel sponsor. If you can help, you can call JD Kitchens on 01747 853441.