Honeybees — much like the majestic monarch butterfly — are in trouble. Climate change is one factor that has diminished these precious pollinating insects. A 2015 study co-authored by uOttawa researchers pegs rising temperatures (which have shrunk the cool zone that bees require to survive) as a major threat to pollinators and consequently to the plants that depend on them. Some farmers have fought back by trucking bees to their fields. Once released, however, imported honeybees rarely survive the winter.
Enter the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club (OFNC) and their novel idea of constructing an “insect hotel.” Though they lack hot and cold running water, fresh towels, and mini-bars, these bug bastions promise to increase native pollinator populations by providing an environment that encourages them to stay put and multiply.
Rooms with a view
Ottawa’s insect hotel is tucked discreetly into a corner of the 16-acre Fletcher Wildlife Garden, set back from Prince of Wales Drive near the arboretum. It’s an appropriate setting, given the garden’s purpose of re-establishing native plants threatened by monoculture and urban development and in turn encouraging once-exiled animal species (insects included) to return. Used as farmland since the 1880s (it was once part of the experimental farm), the area was slated to become a botanical garden in 1967, but budget cuts in the 1980s foreclosed on its completion. Subsequently re-envisioned by the OFNC as a wildlife garden, it now features a butterfly meadow with a range of plants that facilitate native butterflies’ feeding and breeding from spring to late autumn.
The OFNC’s hotel plans were inspired by Internet reports describing multi-winged and often whimsical inns for insects in England, Germany, and Denmark. “We built ours not to attract certain species but as an experiment,” says Sandy Garland, the Conrad Hilton designer and head concierge at the Ottawa project. Different architectural features beckon different insects. Mason bees — a bee native to this area that pollinates like the non-native honey -bee — will gravitate to milk-carton constructions filled with rolled-up pieces of paper. Garland says some maid service is recommended: unrolling the paper in winter, putting the cocoons in a refrigerator, and putting them back with fresh paper in spring will ward off parasites and disease and protect against excessive cold.
The problem with providing a structure that can be used by various kinds of insects is that “you could be providing a smorgasbord for predators,” says Garland. Already there’s been a crime problem at the insect hotel. Shortly after mason bees checked in, a gang of pillaging wasps arrived. “They just dug right into the tunnels, grabbed the caterpillars [stockpiled by the bees as food for their larvae] and used them to stock their own nests, because their larvae eat caterpillars too,” says Garland. The solution is to paper over the occupied mason bee tunnels, which won’t harm the mason bees. The incident does raise the vexing question of “how much we are prepared to tip the balance of nature in favour of one particular species,” muses Garland.
A sacred principle for the OFNC is always to test an idea before dishing out advice. Thus, the Fletcher Garden insect hotel is “primarily a demonstration project” to determine if the concept actually works. Though Garland believes a simple bee box will be more practical for the backyard gardener, she encourages enthusiasts to construct insect hotels in larger-scale community gardens, both to attract pollinators and because “it’s fun.” She also advises curbing neat-freak tendencies. A messy brush pile with rotting wood and hollow plant stems provides a welcoming environment for insects.