Here at Wildlings we're almost at the end of our five-week holiday programme exploring 'All Things Bugs'. We have become fascinated with insects during this learning journey and can even imagine what its like to be an Entomologist, something we wouldn't have been able to imagine just a few weeks ago!
We've posed the following questions during this inquiry to help guide our exploration into this topic:
What are insects?
Where do they live?
What do they do?
How do they behave?
Why are they important?
What can we do to help them to thrive?
We value working as a team and challenging ourselves to get outside of our comfort zones. We value the child-led approach to learning, but also learning together, parents with their children, recognising that all of us have a life-long learner inside. With this in mind we explored the idea of an activity to do at Forest School which would require teamwork, new skills, patience and an element of risk and result in the satisfaction of creating something using our own hands which is useful for insects, functional, and not bad to look at too!
So the result is this tutorial on how to work together with your child to make a house for solitary bees. We did successfully manage this during one of our adult accompanied sessions for 3 to 6 year olds and we would love to share our experience with you. Read on!
First, a bit of info about solitary bees
Solitary bees live on their own and not in a social structure like a honey bee in a bee hive. They often nest in the same area year after year and can be communal, sharing a bee house with others. They make many trips for nectar and pollen to make their nests and therefore act as important pollinators. It could be said that each solitary bee is a queen bee, she builds her own nest, collects her own pollen and nectar, and lays her own eggs without any help from other bees.
They vary in colour from dark coloured, to metallic green or blue. They can be around 6mm-18mm in size. In Singapore there are over 100 species of these types of bees such as Digger Bees, Giant Carpenter Bees, Leaf Cutter Bees and Pearly Banded Bees.
Taking care of these bees is a good idea, and not only because we need to increase the numbers of pollinators for the health of the ecosystem. Solitary bees rarely exhibit defensive behaviour and their unlikely sting is less painful than honey bees. Many species of solitary bees are actually stingless too.
Bee house design principles
There isn't just one way to make a bee house, there are many designs and many methods all available to trawl through on the internet (or buy a good book, there's tons out there). There are however a few design principles to bear in mind:
Your bee house should be water-tight to keep the bees and their larvae dry.
You should use natural materials to stop the build up of bacteria.
Bees like small smooth holes, like those in bamboo or drilled into wood with different diameters.
Bees won't like to mix with other types of flying insects.
Holes for nesting should be up to 6" in length.
Everything should be packed in nice and tightly.
The bee house needs to have a closed back.
What you need for your bee house
Roof tiles (ours are made from palm trees but untreated wood would do)
String for hanging (or a picture hook for example)
A collection of sticks with holes, washed. Bamboo is perfect.
A wooden box with a back made from untreated wood (we got ours from Daiso so we gave them all a good wash before using). You don't want your box to be too big because the bigger the box the more sticks you'll need to cut to fill it!
Bees wax for waterproofing (you can use dutch oil or another natural material but we had bees wax to hand so we have used this)
Small child-sized hacksaw for cutting sticks to the right size.
Nails for nailing the roof on.
A vice to hold the sticks still whilst you cut them (a helping hand can work well too. Our hobby vice was $18 from Art Friend).
A saucepan for melting wax (if you're using wax for waterproofing use 100% natural wax).
Tongs for dipping roof tiles into the wax.
A drill to drill holes for hanging string (because we are hanging our bee house from a wall light outside on our balcony - you may use alternative methods for hanging).
A safety glove to protect hands holding sticks whilst they are being sawn or from splashes of hot wax.
A hammer to hammer the nails into the roof.
Safety talk before you begin
When working with tools, and especially those with sharp edges, and hot stuff like melted wax its important to work one on one with your child and cover the safety issues first. With this activity the main issues are:
Using a saw with the risk of cuts to the fingers and hand.
Using a flame to melt the wax with the risk of a burn.
The hot melted wax itself with the risk of scalding.
Using a hammer which could crush fingers.
Using nails which could pierce the skin.
Ensure that your work space is orderly and uncluttered and no other children are around. Next, point out the risks to your child and help them to figure out what safety steps to take. These could be:
Wear a safety glove on the helping hand (left hand for a right handed person for example). You can buy gloves from Daiso.
Only use the saw when you are watching and to put the saw away as soon as you are finished sawing your sticks.
Watch the heat source which is melting the wax from a safe distance.
Do not to touch the melted wax and wear a safety glove when handling the container holding the wax.
Use small movements with the hammer and be aware of the location of other people around you.
Keep sharp nails in a closed container and pick up any which may drop to the floor immediately.
Safety is the number one priority, but don't let it stop you being adventurous and teaching tool use to your children, once a favourite past-time of grandfathers the world over. When we were at school we used stanley knives, bunsen burners, soldering irons, saws, drills and so on, and every kitchen has its array of hazards. The key is helping your child learn how to manage risks for themselves rather than sheltering them, helping them to learn how to make the right choices to remain safe throughout life.
Now on to the fun stuff!
Step 1: Get your sticks ready
Use your saw to cut up enough sticks and bamboo to fill your bee house nice and tightly. Sticks can also be cut with a pair of good loppers. You can also use dried hollow reeds or canes (like rattan) which are easier to cut. The best material however is bamboo. We bought ours from a garden centre and found some out in nature.
It can take a while to cut up all of your sticks. You may want to do most of them yourself before including your child in the activity and simply save a few for them to have a go. To fill your bee house more quickly you can use a block of wood and drill holes into it with a power drill. Use whatever you have to hand or at home.
Step 2: Drill holes into the back
We used our child-friendly manual drill to drill two holes into the back of our bee house. Later we will thread string through these holes for hanging. Pay attention to where you drill the holes - this will be the top of your bee house (if using our method).
Alternatively you can secure a picture hanger to the back of your bee house which is strong enough to hold it.
To know what to use to hang your bee house you must first decide where it is going to go. Bee houses should be hung at least three feet from the ground and be faced towards the south to get the most sun to warm the young bee larvae. The house shouldn't move in the wind.
Step 3: Make the roof
First we melted our bees wax. We used tongs to dip our two pre-cut roof tiles into the wax then lay the roof tile onto the wooden box and waited for it to cool. Bees wax has a melting point of 65 degrees so although it could scald, it won't burn, but children should wear safety gloves if doing this part to protect their skin.
We made sure that our roof tiles were in the right place. We then used our thumbs to push nails into the roof then let the children hammer them in to secure the roof to the box. The children used the now warm wax to plug in any gaps in the roof to make it water-tight.
At Forest School we melted the wax using tea-lights and used foam brushes to brush the wax onto the roof tiles.
Step 4: Thread the string and stuff with sticks
for this step we passed the two ends of string through the wooden box and out of the back which created a loop. We bought the loop over the top of the roof and threaded the ends back through it and pulled it tight. We adjusted the string so that the house hung straight.
Next we had fun stuffing our houses with the sticks and other stuff we had cut earlier. They should be packed in nice and tight so the hammer comes in use for this step too!
Step 5: Hang up your bee house
Young bees need to be kept warm and dry. Solitary bees will lay their eggs and create their nests in the bee house tubes then block them up with dirt or leaves so that the larvae can develop undisturbed inside the nesting tube.
Hang your house in a sunny dry spot out of the direct wind, nicely secure so that it won't sway around, ideally at least three feet off of the floor, and out of the reach of any mosquito control fog.
Step 6: Encourage the bees to come
The type of bees you are most likely to get using your bee house are from the Megachilidae family. They absolutely love the Golden Shower Tree (Cassia Fistula) which is found abundantly in Singapore and luckily there are three right outside of our balcony.
If you're not so lucky you can entice the bees to your house with Bougainvillea, Simpoh Lak, Orchids and Hibiscus plants.
With any luck, your children will be watching bees come and go from their very own bee house very soon. Change the contents of your bee house once per year and add more wax to the roof.
Claire is an environmental scientist by training and an environmental sustainability consultant and educator by trade (aside from being a busy mum to two young (and sometimes wild) children). Claire enjoyed a very outdoorsy childhood collecting acorns, making daisy chains and sifting dirt to get the perfect pile. Once upon a time Claire was an enthusiastic ultimate frisbee player and recently taught pre-school sports classes. Claire is on a mission to help City kids experience a wilder childhood through the Forest School approach to learning and founded Wildlings offering Forest School and environmental education in Singapore to do this.