Welcome to Wildlife Week, an exploration of what happens when nature and home meet.
A few years ago, I found a small beehive—exactly the way they’re drawn in cartoons—sitting on a tree outside my house. I was fascinated, and frankly, a little terrified of being stung. But as the days went by, I found myself getting used to the hive, and being able to stand outside close to the tree without looking over my shoulder every few seconds, afraid of an incoming swarm. A few weeks later, the hive was removed from the tree, and with it, the bees that inhabited its walls. The sense of peace I’d found with the hive in place also left, replaced by the noisy crows, whose loud squawks disrupted my early morning cup of tea.
I missed the beehive. Coincidentally, around that same time, I started reading about how the loss of habitat was a threat to bee species—yet another result of climate change. Reduced pollination means a massively disruptive shift in multiple ecosystems. I wondered if I could open my door to this slice of wildlife. For those of us who find hives in our homes and want to let them thrive safely, what did I and others need to know?
The bees are (generally) your friend
Worldwide, there are about 20,000 different species of bee, and some are rarer than others. "The honeybee is—globally—probably the single most widespread and abundant bee on Earth as it has been spread all over the world as a farmed animal," says Dr. Richard Comont. He leads the Bumble Bee Conservation Trust’s science program in the UK that aims to work towards nurturing a society that is knowledgeable about bumblebee conservation and its ecology in order to let bumblebees thrive and increase in number.
The number of honeybee hives has increased steadily over the past few decades, but the chances of finding wild bees nesting in and around houses are quite low for honeybees and much higher for various species of solitary bees or bumblebees.
Honeybees can build large, multi-year nests with tens of thousands of workers which collect kilograms of nectar, so having a nest established in a house wall or roof can cause damage (it's often noticed when honey starts leaking through the wall!) Removing these hives are both difficult and expensive; the workers will sting in defense of the colony and oftentimes, large chunks of brickwork have to be removed to get the nest out.
There are a few species that will nest in and around buildings. The tree bumblebee, Bombus Hypnorum, nests in holes in hollow trees, but as these habitats are quite rare, they’ve discovered that bird boxes and house roofs are a decent substitute. This species can sting, and have sometimes been reported defending their nests when they feel threatened, but generally, there's no issue with the nest remaining where it is.
Several solitary bee species primarily nest in holes in walls—these are the species that often nest in ‘‘bee hotels"—bamboo tube structures that can be placed in your garden and on trees to provide shelter and safe nesting spots for solitary bees. A frequent visitor of bee hotels is the red mason bee (Osmia Bicornis) and a handful of leafcutter bee species. Half the bees present at any time will be males and so can’t physically sting (they just don't have the equipment) While the females can sting, they have a lot of tolerance for human disturbance and a very weak sting—much less noticeable than a nettle sting if they can be goaded into going for you. "These bee species are harmless and do no damage to the fabric of the building, so no need to bee-proof the house or remove the nests once established," says Dr. Comont.
Make your house a home (for the bees)
Deciding whether you want to extend your home to be a safe space in which bees can thrive is a better invitation when made as an intentional choice. "The success of a colony of bees is increased by monitoring the success of the queen, protocol for medication for mites, colony health, and making sure that the bees have enough ‘stores,’ (honey & pollen)," says Todd Hardie, a seasoned beekeeper and Bee Guide to Runamok, a Vermont-based company that produces maple syrup and honey.
If you want to make your space friendly to bees, look around your home to find a hospitable environment. "Think of a place that you can safely have access to for working with the bees," continues Hardie. "In the north of the Northern Hemisphere, this would be on the south side of the house, in a place that is protected from the wind. In the south of the Northern Hemisphere, consider a place that is not in the direct heat of the sun."
Planting pollinator-friendly plants can also be a key point in attracting and keeping bees attracted to small urban gardens. A study published in the Journal of Nature Ecology and Evolution shows how residential gardens and allotments (community gardens) can be pollinator ‘hotspots.’ A variety of pollinator-friendly flowers like daisies, lavender and marigolds are just a few examples. It’s important to research which plants are native to your area so that they can bloom in abundance and you can have a variety of flowers available as a food source for the bees. Keeping in mind the colors and petal lengths of the flowers you grow can play a role in making your small urban outdoor space more inviting to the bees, as well as cultivating your pollinator friendly zones without pesticides.
When and how to bee-proof your home
Certain situations require different responses to bees entering your space, whether they be solitary in nature or a colony looking to build a hive. If you know that your building foundation has cool, dark crevices and crawl spaces you may want to bee-proof your house as a preventative measure.
"In general, it is better not to disrupt bee nests (of whatever species), so it’s never going to be a good idea to let bees nest in an area where you know you're going to want to evict them," says Dr. Comont. If you did want to extend your home to bees and other wildlife, it would be best to make sure you’ve protected the spaces you are not willing to give up. Talking to a qualified carpenter and beekeeper is the best first step if bees manage to gain access to your home, as you can establish the amount of work it could take to safely remove the bees. Unfortunately, if the damage were to go past a point of no return and required thousands of dollars of work, many would feel forced to exterminate the bees rather than protect them. Therefore, ensuring that you protect the parts of your urban space that you cannot share is a vital step in opening up your home to wildlife.
If you do find yourself averse to letting bees enter your living spaces, you can take preemptive measures to bee-proof your home. "Walk around your home and see where there are potential openings for bees to enter and gain access. Caulk these openings. Then walk around your home from time to time and see if bees have gained access. If you then close off the entrance where the bees have come in, you can limit the growth of their families before the population grows in numbers," says Hardie.
What’s good for the bees and also for you?
Though it might seem like the best thing to do for the bees’ sake is to have hives safely removed after letting them thrive in your urban spaces, advice from experts would indicate otherwise. Removal should be a last resort, only used when the presence of the bees has become damaging or dangerous, or if they pose a health concern. Leaving them until they move on naturally may be the best way for us to contribute.
"Removing bee nests is always detrimental to the bees, to a greater or lesser extent, and as such doesn’t truly help them," says Comont. Hence, providing habitat and a variety of flowering plants for bees to easily find a food resource, build their nests and hives safely, and then move on, is better than having them removed.
What if you’re afraid of bees, but still want to help? To get used to bees, Dr. Comont suggests just watching them—sitting still and quietly in a garden or park near some flowers that the bees are hovering around, and paying attention to what they’re doing. You can do that from whatever you feel is a safe distance and move closer when you feel able to.
For many of us who’ve mostly lived in incredibly urban settings, the absence of an abundance of wildlife can always be felt. It shouldn’t feel impossible to allow the natural world into our homes and in turn, maybe give back to the wildlife.
Illustration by Masako Kubo