Bee houses seem to be showing up everywhere!
For example, just in the last month, I have seen bee houses for sale at a local hardware store, a giant homemade structure at the park, and there were even a few small bee houses in a pollinator garden at a playground I take my kids to!
I was intrigued about purchasing and setting up a bee house, especially since I have recently created a native flower garden in my backyard to help pollinate my fruit trees and berry bushes!
But unfortunately, I didn’t have much knowledge about bee houses.
All I knew was that there must be a species of bee that enjoys living in small tubes because that is one thing almost all bee houses have in common! It seemed a bit strange because I thought that all the bees lived in big hives?
So I did my research on everything there was to know about bee houses.
And that’s how this post was created. 🙂
Here are the questions I am going to answer today:
(Click the hyperlink to jump to that section!)
What are the BEST bee houses to buy? (4 proven options)
How do I make a bee house? (3 DIY project ideas)
What types of bees use bee houses?
I have two children under the age of 5 and a wife who could probably be diagnosed with Apiphobia, which is the fear of bees. 🙂
So before I went ahead and started attracting more bees to our yard, I needed to know that setting up a bee house wasn’t going to bring in aggressive yellow jackets or wasps looking to sting innocent flesh.
I mean, I already got in enough trouble when I put in a pollinator garden next to our kids’ playground. While building the garden, I left out the part that along with butterflies and hummingbirds, bees will also be making more appearances in our backyard.
When I first heard the term “bee house” and saw one for sale, my mind imagined a hive of bees swarming all over the small reed tubes and holes.
Luckily, this image could not be further from the truth.
Bee houses are designed to attract solitary bees!
The most familiar bee species are “social” and live in hives, such as honey bees. If you want to make a beehive that attracts honey bees, you will need to look elsewhere.
Bee houses are made for “solitary” bees that live alone.
The most popular and desirable solitary bee is the native Mason Bee!
Don’t worry; I didn’t know what a Mason Bee was or anything about them either. But these insects are incredible little creatures that you want in your backyard!
Mason Bee is a common term for any bee in the family Osmia, and there are over 350 species that are native to the United States and southern Canada except the most humid areas. The most popular Mason Bee in North America is the Orchard Mason Bee (Osmia lignaria).
Mason Bees are different from most common bees that you’re used to seeing, like bumblebees and honey bees, in MANY ways, including:
- Mason Bees live a solitary life. Each female makes her own nest, with no worker bees present. Talk about an independent woman!
- A female Mason Bee constructs her nest in naturally occurring cavities, such as woodpecker holes, hollow stems, or any other gap they can find. These bees cannot excavate their own holes, so they do not pose a danger to wooden structures.
- To build their nest, Mason Bees use all sorts of material, such as tree resin, chewed-up vegetation, down from flowers, etc. The popular Orchard Mason Bee females use mud, which is how they got their “masonry” name.
Check out this 5-minute mini-documentary about Mason Bees!
- Mason Bees don’t look like your typical bee with yellow markings. Instead, their bodies can be covered in either dark blue, green, black, or brown. Many species are beautifully iridescent! They are not large; about the same size as a housefly.
- Solitary bees don’t make honey.
Mason Bees are fantastic native pollinators that are especially important for the early spring fruit bloom in the USA and Canada. It’s estimated that 99% of flowers landed on by Mason Bees get pollinated!
This percentage is MUCH higher than honey bees. I have seen stats that only 5% of flowers visited by honey bees get pollinated.
But you want to know the best part about Mason Bees?
They rarely, rarely sting! This makes bee houses completely safe to install in your backyard.
Mason Bees are docile and only sting if they are in SERIOUS danger, and even then the pain is very mild compared to a yellow jacket. The stinger has evolved to be an egg guide. And male bees physically can’t sting!
The fact Mason Bees don’t sting is excellent news if you have kids or a spouse (like mine) who isn’t fond of your typical, stinging bee. 🙂 Now I have full permission to put up as many bee houses as my heart desires!
*I need to mention that Mason Bees are not the only beneficial insects that use bee houses, but are the most popular. You can also expect to see Leafcutter Bees, which are also excellent pollinators, and many species of small, solitary wasps.*
What are the BEST bee houses to buy?
Before I list some of my favorite bee houses that you can purchase online, I think it’s essential to provide some education on why these funny-looking houses with tubes are ideal for Mason Bees!
First, instead of living in hives, Mason Bees make their nests in small, naturally occurring gaps and holes. This fact is the reason that most bee houses you see look something like this:
It reminds me of a birdhouse filled with reeds and different-sized pre-drilled woodblocks.
Here’s how it works:
After mating, female Mason Bees place multiple eggs in their chosen cavity, with each egg separated by pollen, nectar, and mud. Once the hole is full of eggs (with the females at the back and the males at the front), the bee will plug the entrance with more clay, helping to protect her babies from predators and weather.
The young will emerge the following spring ready to start pollinating!
Hole Size Guide:
Each species of solitary bee prefers a different size hole diameter for their chosen tube. Here are the preferred sizes for a few species:
Orchard Mason Bees: 8mm or 5/16 inch.
Leafcutter Bees and other species of Mason Bee: 6mm or just short of 1/4 inch.
Many species of small Mason Bees and solitary wasps: 4mm or 1/8 inch.
When buying a bee house, you need to pay attention to the diameter of the holes! My favorite bee houses have a mixture of tubes between 4mm and 8mm wide!
Here is a list of some proven and vetted bee houses!
This beautiful nesting house provides many benefits to the bees in your backyard. First, it includes 8 removable pine trays that have been routed to provide nesting cavities for bees. Since the trays are easily removed, they can be cleaned thoroughly after each season and the bee cocoons harvested (read more about harvesting bee cocoons below!).
- Dimensions are 11.5″H x 5.5″W x 7.5″D. This lumber bee house provides nesting cavities that are deep enough to attract Mason Bees, which prefer nesting cavities that are over 5 inches in length!
- Many bee houses you can buy are made cheaply and not durable. You should not have that problem with this house. It’s made exceptionally well and should last for years.
- Attach to the side of a building, barn, or post by using screws.
Lastly, I love how this bee house looks, and it makes a beautiful and entertaining addition to any backyard garden.
This bee house and the next one (#3) are both made by Crown Bees, which is a company that started to specifically help and promote native bees, such as Mason and Leafcutter.
I like that all of the products offered by Crown Bees are designed FOR BEES, not to look pretty in your garden. Unfortunately, most of the bee houses you see for sale are cheap products that have many design flaws and don’t help solitary bees.
With that being said, here are some of the features of the Crown Bees Native Bee Station that make it irresistible to bees in your yard!
- The 60 tubes are made of natural reeds, which are easier to open to access the cocoons when compared to bamboo and drilled blocks of wood. The varying hole sizes (4mm-10mm) should appeal to a few different bee species, such as Mason and Leafcutter.
- The tubes are not glued to the back of the house, so they can be easily removed to inspect, clean, or replace.
- The dimensions are 5.5” H x 5.5” W x 10” D. As you can see, the tubes are incredibly long (10 inches!), which is perfect for bees.
- The house includes a hole in the back, which allows you to easily mount securely in your garden to a post or tree.
If you want to provide a nesting place for multiple species of native bees, then this “Wild Bee Motel” is just the product you need!
First, it includes over 100 tubes made from natural reeds and paper. These tubes come in varying sizes from 4mm to 8mm wide. Some of the species you can expect are Mason Bees, Leafcutter Bees, and some solitary beneficial wasps.
If you look at the picture above, you can also see untreated blocks of wood on the right. Those are for carpenter bees, who prefer to make their nesting cavity by chewing their way through wood! Carpenter bees pollinate many vegetables that appear in your garden, like tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers.
The dimensions are 10” H x 10” W x 9” D.
This relatively small house is designed only for Mason Bees. That’s because the paper tubes are all 8mm (5/16 inch). Leafcutter Bees prefer a smaller diameter (6mm) for their nesting cavity.
The tubes are not attached permanently to the back of the house, and they should be replaced every year if possible.
The dimensions are 5” H x 5.5” W x 7.2” D.
- Most native solitary bees prefer nesting cavities that are at least 5 inches deep, so this house barely makes the cut at 7 inches.
The house doesn’t include any pre-drilled holes or hardware to hang. So you will need to drill your own screws through the wood and into the side of a tree, post, or building.
Most bee houses are not suited for bees!
Here’s the truth:
I had to look at about THIRTY different bee houses to find the FOUR that I recommend above!
I know that statement is hard to believe! But please keep reading, and it will make more sense.
The problem is that most bee houses are made cheaply without much regard to how these pollinators act in nature. The homes are manufactured to look appealing in your flower garden and make YOU feel good about helping bees.
But you can’t deny facts and science!
Listed below are the SIX features that a successful bee house should contain.
1. Removable tubes or trays.
There are two reasons you don’t want your nesting cavities glued to the back of your bee house.
First, one of the keys to successfully raising Mason Bees is harvesting the cocoons before winter and putting them in your refrigerator.
If you can’t remove the tube, then there is no way to collect the cocoons. Your bee larvae will be exposed to the winter and predators and have a much less chance of survival.
On a side note, it’s also next to impossible to harvest cocoons from a bamboo tube, which is why paper or natural reeds are recommended for nesting cavities. If you do have a bee house with bamboo tubes, I’d recommend purchasing paper inserts to harvest the larvae.
Second, your tubes or trays need to be cleaned or replaced every year!
Typically, if you are using tubes, then you would throw them away after each season and buy new ones for the following year.
If you have a bee house with removable trays, then they will need a thorough cleaning each winter. These shelves are easy to separate at the end of the season and remove the cocoons.
The reason for this cleaning is simple:
If the nesting cavity is dirty, there is a high likelihood that mites and parasites will prey on your Mason Bee eggs and larvae, or they will eat the pollen and food that is supposed to go toward the baby bees!
Do you want to raise bacteria and parasites? I didn’t think so, so make sure to clean your bee house. 🙂
If you decide to buy a cheap bee house where you can’t remove the tubes, then I would replace it every year.
2. Nesting cavities that are at least 5 inches deep.
It has been shown that Mason & Leafcutter Bees prefer a depth of at least 5 inches to lay eggs. And it’s recommended to provide more room if possible!
The problem with short nesting cavities is that bees lay eggs that develop into females at the back of the nest, and then pack males at the front since they hatch first. If the tube is too short, then there is not enough room for both sexes, and you will typically have a lot of male bees without females!
So why do many bee houses have short tubes, often under 4 inches in length?
It’s apparent that these manufacturers did ZERO research on bees before making their house, or just don’t care. I’m not sure which one is worse?
3. The ability to be securely attached.
It’s common to see a bee house that is designed to hang loosely in your garden.
Doesn’t it look pretty?
Well, that’s about all you should expect out of a bee house that swings in the wind.
Solitary pollinator bees prefer homes that don’t move around. Make sure to purchase a bee house that can be permanently attached to a pole, tree, or building.
4. No bamboo tubes!
Most bee houses use bamboo tubes, so it was hard to find homes without them.
While bamboo is incredibly durable, it’s challenging to open, and the hole is typically too big for a mason bee to use. If you plan on harvesting your cocoons, then definitely don’t use bamboo or you risk harming the cocoon while opening!
Bamboo is also susceptible to mold.
Instead, make sure to find tubes made from paper, cardboard, or natural reeds.
Whatever type of tube you end up using, please remember that they need to be replaced each year or you risk mites and other dangerous pests taking over your bee house.
5. No pre-drilled blocks of wood.
Mason Bees love using pre-drilled blocks!
But unfortunately, there is no way to clean these blocks from year to year.
You will see many bee houses that include blocks of wood, mixed in with many tubes. Almost 100% of the time, these blocks are glued to the back and can’t be replaced each season.
So unless you buy a new bee house EVERY year, don’t get one that has blocks of wood permanently attached. These holes are going to be death traps after the first season, filled with mites and parasites just waiting to feast on bee eggs!
How do I make a bee house?
Luckily, for those of you that enjoy DIY crafts, it’s not hard to build your own bee house.
For example, one simple idea is to cut a cross-section of a log that is at least 6 inches long and drill 4mm – 8mm holes down the trunk.
You could also build a small wooden house and fill it with tubes. Then attach some hanging hardware to the back of the house and find a place to mount near your garden!
See the video below to see how. (Replace the bamboo tubes with reeds or paper!)
I thought this was another interesting idea to make a bee house for cheap.
And you get to recycle an old coffee can! (Replace the bamboo tubes with reeds or paper!)
10 Random Tips for Success With Bee Houses.
1. You must clean your houses after each season!
One of the biggest reasons for not having success is a dirty bee house that is infested with mites and parasites that will attack your bees.
If your bee house uses paper tubes, natural reeds, or bamboo, then you will throw these away and purchase new ones each season. Don’t worry; replacement tubes are not expensive.
If you have wooden trays, then you will need to clean them thoroughly since these are reusable!
2. Face the house towards the morning sun.
To get your bees moving each day, face your box East or Southeast, so it receives sun first thing in the morning.
3. Mount your bee house securely.
Solitary bees rarely use a house that is swaying in the wind!
Make sure to attach your bee house securely to a post, building, or tree, so it’s solid.
4. Find a great location in your backyard.
Trying to find a spot in your backyard that is perfect for your bee house is hard. If you can, try to hit off all these bullet points.
- Place within 200-300 feet from a nectar source. Mason Bees have a small territory and won’t travel long distances.
- If possible, try to find a spot that is shady during the hot afternoon sun. Extreme heat can be problematic for the larvae. Attaching the house facing east on the side of a building or large tree would work well since it would get morning sun and hopefully afternoon shade.
- Hang 4 to 8 feet high off the ground. If possible, put at eye level for you and other interested parties to watch the bees work.
- Make sure the box has protection from heavy rain, wind, and hail.
5. Do you have moist clay available?
Remember that Mason Bees need soft clay to build the walls inside their nesting chamber. If there is nowhere around where they can find mud, then you may want to offer some.
- Buy Mason Bee Mud Mix HERE. Perfect if you have loamy or sandy soil.
6. Can I buy bees to get started?
YES, YOU CAN!
If you’re impatient (like me), and are excited to start hosting solitary bees in your yard today, then you can buy cocoons that will ship each spring!
Most home gardeners will want to start with just buying 20 bees and see how it goes.
7. Should you harvest your bee cocoons?
Mason Bees stop foraging for pollen by early summer, and at this point, they have laid their eggs inside the bee house. Over the rest of the summer, the bees develop inside the cocoon, but won’t hatch until the following spring!
It’s entirely possible to let the bees stay inside the bee house until spring. I mean, this is how bees have been reproducing for thousands and thousands of years!
But if you desire, you can help increase the success rate of your bees by bringing the cocoons inside during the cold winter months.
If you harvest your cocoons, it’s also recommended to clean them before placing them in the refrigerator inside a container with air holes.
Lastly, because Mason Bees are done laying their eggs by early summer, many people decide to put their bee house inside their garage or shed until fall.
Doing this gives a protected area away from predators and weather, but still provides enough warmth for the young bees to grow into adults. Then once it gets colder, you can harvest the cocoons for winter and bring inside!
8. Bird problems?
If you have lots of birds in your yard, they may prey on the bee larvae. Woodpeckers, which have evolved to pluck insects from holes in wood, will especially enjoy this healthy and easy snack.
To help prevent this predation, place chicken wire (3/4 inch / 19mm or smaller holes) over the face of the house, leaving about three inches (8cm) between the nesting tubes and wire.
It would be wise to place your bird feeders and bee houses as far apart as possible.
9. What about Leafcutter Bees!
I have almost entirely ignored Leafcutter Bees in this post, instead opting to talk about Mason Bees. Unfortunately, there is only so much space, and I decided to focus on the more popular Mason Bee.
But that doesn’t mean Leafcutter Bees are not worth mentioning or helpful in your backyard!
These solitary bees get their name because instead of using mud to seal their nests like Mason Bees, Leafcutter Bees use tiny bits of cut leaves to surround and seal their eggs. Interestingly, not just any leaf will do — leafcutters like non-fibrous plants that are thin but sturdy and flexible, like rose or lilac leaves.
Leafcutter Bees emerge later in the season than Mason Bees, so they are excellent for helping to pollinate berry bushes and late-summer vegetables.
These native bees are tinier than Mason Bees and prefer a smaller size diameter tube. Typically, you will see Leafcutter Bees use holes that have a size of about 6mm, while Mason Bees prefer around 8mm.
10. Read this book to learn much more!
If you’re like me, you are now fascinated by Mason Bees and can’t wait to set up your bee house! Unfortunately, I was only able to scratch the surface in this post regarding raising Mason Bees.
So if you want to learn more about hosting solitary bees in your backyard, then I recommend reading this book:
It provides everything you need to know regarding Mason Bees and how to successfully attract and raise them in your backyard. The author is the founder of Crown Bees, which sells many different bee products, and you will see that I have linked to many of their products above.
I have only recently discovered the benefits of Mason Bees in your backyard, and I feel like they are one of the best-kept secrets around!
Seriously, these NATIVE bees are more effective pollinators than honey bees, don’t sting, and are just fun to have around and raise!
If you took anything away from this article, I hope you realized that most bee houses you find in stores are not designed to host bees.
Instead of providing bees with a place to nest, these cheaply made houses may be creating a future bee cemetery, but more likely your home will never be used!
Before buying a bee house, please consider the FOUR products that were recommended above.
And if you are only purchasing a bee house to decorate your backyard garden, I highly encourage you to buy a lawn gnome instead!
Thanks for reading, and good luck!