How to Make a Native Bee Nesting Box

Back in the spring I made a native bee nesting box by drilling a bunch of holes in the long end of a 4 by 6 inch piece of scrap wood. I cut one end of the 4 x 6 at an angle so that I could nail on a makeshift roof made from a piece of 2 x 6. I hung the nesting box on an east facing wall or our house with a picture hanger.

I used three sizes of holes to see which ones would be most popular: 1/4 inch, 3/16 inch and 1/8 inch. All were moved into by, I think, the same native bee within days of putting up the box. This afternoon, when I went to check on the nest to take some pictures for this blog post, I was delighted to see a lot of activity. There were bee butts sticking out of the holes, as well as bees flying in and out. I think they are some sort of mason bee–extra credit to the person who successfully identifies the species:

They move fast, so I was only able to get these two blurry shots. No, they are not Chupacabras.

With the success of this primitive native bee box, I decided to make more nesting boxes to see if I could attract other solitary, native bees. I put this one together with some small pieces of bamboo that I found in a neighbor’s trash can:

I think there’s a great potential to create works of public art that double as insect nests. For a nice example of this idea see the “insect hotel” designed by by Arup Associates.

For general guidelines on how to build nesting boxes see this guide from the Xerces Society

We also have a project for a native bee box in our book Making It.

If you’ve built or seen a nice native bee box, leave a comment or a link.

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29 Comments

  1. I can’t recall, wasn’t it here where I saw some awesome built in native bee nests? Things like a brick wall in a house, or a retaining wall that were kind of like ‘permanent’ bee structures. I guess the thing I ask about these arrangements is, do you clean them out after the bees vacate, or can they tend to that themselves? I’ve seen a picture of a really giant mason bee house made of solid wood, and they hose/clean it out at the end of a season. Would be fantastic to try something a little more ‘disposable’ like reeds, and then just compost them when done!

    • Yep, we’ve posted the pollinator hotel (linked above) and maybe others as well.

      As far as cleaning the nest, we’re not 100% sure on how to answer that. As with most gardening topics, I suppose the answer is “it depends” and “use your judgement”. Pollinators can clean out debris, and some use the same hole repeatedly. Some pollinators use holes made by other pollinators the previous season. But of course in the wild they’ll just move on if an established hole gets too gunky, and you want them to stay in your house. So keep an eye on things and clean when it looks like it needs cleaning.

      Some people take another step in construction wood block houses like the one above to make clean out easy: they drill all the way through, then cap the back with a piece of wood. Come the end of the season, they can unscrew the back and shoot water through the holes.

      In a mixed material house, one with reeds and whatnot, you probably should provide fresh materials each year. And yep– cool that you can compost it all!

  2. Were you dumpster diving in your neighbour’s garbage can? Haha. I too made a mason bee house with 5/16 inch holes (I heard that is the magic number size, but apparently not!) and I’ve had lots of little guys nesting in it over the past couple years that I have had it. But I think it is i time I cleaned it out, as some of the bees plugged the holes with stuff that hardened too much for them to get back out of. A tragic way to go…

  3. It might help to have a closer look at the holes. At my old house, we had leafcutter bees in the block. The seemed to seal the holes with an almost waxy substance. At my new house, we have mason bees. The holes are definitely sealed with mud.

    Also, if you have plants with thin, delicate leaves – like roses, or stone fruit trees – see if that have any crescent shaped cuts out of the edges. That is a sure sign of leafcutter bees.

    • Most of the holes are sealed with mud–which made me suspect mason bees. But some of the holes have an unidentifiable red substance–looks like plastic, but it could, I suppose, be bougainvillea or some other red flower.

    • The first year I made a drilled out 6X4 wood bee box it failed because the box was too exposed to the elements and as it was a particulary wet winter, water soaked through to the nesting holes and effectively killed off the bees.
      I took the simple step of coating the exterior surfaces with a water based garden furniture paint to prevent wood water absorbtion. As I don’t have a sheltered place to hang my box, this seems to have done the trick.

    • Thanks for the tip–something I would not have thought of in our dry climate.

  4. The one on the right could be a leafcutter bee – they have tighter stripes than honey bees, a rounder body, and a fuzzy yellow underbelly. Saw those for the first time in my yard this season!

  5. Some sort of bee drills its own holes in parts of my house. However, I cannot figure out why the 110-yr-old wood is free of holes, while the newer, 20-yr-old and 50-yr-old wood is free of the pests.

    Why did you put a roof over the bee box but not over the bamboo? What is the large round thing you stuck bamboo into?

    Would one of these discourage the bee from getting into my house or just attract more pest bees?

    • If the bee that is drilling holes in your wood looks kind of like a bumblebee, it’s probably a carpenter bee. Instead of a bumblebee’s fuzzy abdomen, the carpenter bee’s abdomen is shiny and relatively hairless, otherwise they look very similar. They drill perfectly circular holes in wood into which they lay an egg. There are probably ways to deter them, but we’ve only ever seen one excavate a hole around here, so it didn’t seem worth it. Heck, our cats have done more damage than that.

    • I’d add that I’ve heard that other pollinators move into old carpenter bee holes (and then often get unjustly killed by angry homeowners!) So there could be a few types of bees…

    • To answer your questions, Parsimony: the bigger vessels are just bigger pieces of bamboo. Most pollinator houses are/should be designed with roofs to protect the holes from rain. Here, it never rains so we’re a little lazy about that.

      And I don’t know if building houses will solve your problem. Maybe? They seem to like your house a lot! ;) You may be able to lure carpenters by leaving out unpainted scrap wood elsewhere for them to drill into, which I understand they prefer.

  6. I was going to do this to an old stump I had in the yard, but the native bees moved into the wood pecker and beetle holes before I had a chance to do it myself:
    http://tsaleh.blogspot.com/2010/06/native-bees.html

    I will try a little bee house though, looks like a good project for the little one and I.

    If you have 1cm or bigger circular holes in your house, those are most certainly carpenter bees. They plagued the house I grew up in in NJ. We used to hunt them with tennis rackets, great fun in the summer for a kid. I don’t know that they are useful pollinators, but they do put lots of pretty big holes in your house.

  7. According to a bee calendar that I have in my office, the closest bee to your pictures are called Cuckoo Bees or Polyester Bees. Genus: Epeolus or possibly Genus Triepeolus. I’m reading that 20% of wild North American bees are Cuckoo bees, so probability is good we have identified you wild bee(s). Summary: These bees loiter outside of other nests and when the host bee leaves the female moves in and lays her eggs and she and her young eat all the food in the cupboards too. Cue the ominous music…

  8. Not knowine where anyone lives I will throw this suggestion ot for all of you
    Be very careful making bee nest.We hav eth killer bees in our area and you can’t tell them from a honey bee
    I am not sure if there are other strains of bees that they look like.
    Unlike a honey bee that has afew that will sting you the killer bees will send hundreds to attack you. The
    Killer bee is easy to anger and will swarm you quickly

    • Honeybees (African or European) will not take up residence in a box like this. Honeybees like an open cavity–like a void in a wall, a bird nesting box etc. I too live in African bee territory and can say that the risks are greatly exaggerated. As my beekeeping mentor Kirk Anderson says there are grumpy European bees as well. I’ve dealt with quite a few different hives here in LA and have never had an aggressive one.

  9. Pingback: Picture Sundays: A Native Bee Hotel | Root Simple

  10. Pingback: Picture Sundays: A Native Bee Hotel « Content Curated By Darin R. McClure & a few photos

    • No–and, I know how painful a wasp sting is, but wasps are beneficial insects–they eat other insects. But, again, this nesting box is not what wasps would live in.

  11. Thanks! I wouldn’t mind wasps but they get so territorial and aggressive. I’m always afraid that I’ll trim a bush and discover a nest by surprise. I love the bees though. I have a lot of plants that bloom in the fall and my back yard absolutely buzzes.

  12. I made a nest box just like the one shown at the top by Mr. Homegrown. This is the second year the Bees have used it but I found out a major problem last year due to exceptionally wet weather. The constant rain finally soaked right through the wood and nothing survived so this year I have coated the exterior to prevent this, fingers crossed.
    The Bees are in and out of the box all day with some going in backwards and some frontwards. Then after several days the holes are sealed. I would like to know what they do in there?
    Holmsey

    • David, thanks for the tip. We live in an exceptionally dry climate and it’s good to have a reminder that in other parts of the world some additional refinements to this design are necessary. It’s the second year mine is up and it looks like bees have moved in again.

    • Hey Holmsey. First, it’s fantastic that you built the box, and despite the troubles with the weather, its good news that there are native pollinators in your area who are appreciating the housing you’re offering them.

      Re: the rain — It hardly ever rains here, so we didn’t put much of a roof on our box. In wetter places people make bigger roofs, and/or place them in sheltered areas.

      Different pollinators have different life cycles, but basically what’s going on is that the female bee is laying her eggs in those holes and sealing them up to protect them. When they hatch, the young will chew their way out.

      For more information check out http://www.xerces.org/

    • That is a good question for which I don’t have an answer. I would guess the length of your average drill bit–at least that’s what I did and it seemed to work. By the way, I just went out and checked on the bee hotel and the 1/4 inch and 3/8 inch holes are more populated than the 1/8 inch holes.

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