Jan
23

As snug as a bug in a…posh four-star insect hotel

Humans aren’t the only ones who enjoy snuggling up in a winter retreat during the coldest months. Horticulturist Janet Draper shows us how to help even the garden’s tiniest inhabitants spend the winter in style.

 

Wall mounted insect habitat

Inspiration from Flora Grubb Gardens

Everyone needs a warm place to snuggle up for winter. That includes members of the insect world! With this in mind, my coworkers and I created a beautiful overwintering habitat for bugs in the Ripley Garden! Call it a Bug-A-bode. Or a Bug House. Or an insect-ominium. No matter what you call it, hopefully it will attract many welcome residents!

In natural settings, insects find cracks and crevices to nestle into. Adult insects frequently lay eggs in the most protected spot they can find, then go off to die, hoping that this precious cargo will make it through the winter to sustain the insect population. However, in urban areas with miles of pavement and neatly manicured gardens, insects face a significant challenge because there are few overwintering sites left for them.

Why are insects important? Basically they are the foundation of our entire ecosystem.  Insects pollinate the food we eat, serve as food for birds and other animals, and help decompose dead material. A world without insects would be quite bleak. To help bolster the essential insect population, gardeners all over the world create all kinds of bug sanctuaries. Some are as simple as not cleaning up a garden in the fall, and leaving dried plant materials standing over the winter. Or leaving a pile of twigs, stems, leaves and such in a back corner of the garden. Or keeping bundles of hollow stems tucked around so that insects can overwinter or lay their eggs in the pithy stems.

I wanted to create such a sanctuary in the Ripley Garden, but I also wanted it to be attractive and functional. A visual cruise around the Internet yielded several ideas. In the end, I was inspired by a design created by master builder Kevin Smith for Flora Grubb Gardens in San Francisco.

Now I just needed natural materials to fill it with – so off I went hiking over the Thanksgiving holiday to procure a carload of wild materials of various textures and colors (thank you to my dear husband who let me do this to his new car!).

Back of car filled with branches and vies

The results of hiking with a horticulturist. (Photo by Janet Draper)

Next was a trip to the local hardware store to get some basic supplies (untreated lumber, screws, and copper flashing) and then my talented colleague Rick Shilling went to work building boxes. We wanted the depth of the box to be 6,” so first Rick created the outer frame and attached it to a backing of plywood.  Then he crafted individual boxes of various sizes that we placed inside the outer frame and moved around until we liked the visual effect, then fastened them down using a nail gun. To give the habitat an artistic finish we added copper flashing to the face of each compartment before filling the boxes. From there it was just a matter of playing with the materials to create a pleasing collage, and figuring out how to secure the materials in place so they would not fall out.

Shilling and Draper working on plywood insect habitat box

Construction in progress! (Rick Shilling, left, and Janet Draper)

 

Partially completed insect habitat box.

Construction in progress.

Rick devised a way of installing some Chamaecyparis trunks in the two outermost compartments. The other compartments were filled by Smithsonian Gardens new Integrated Pest Manager Holly Walker. With additional manpower from other team members, the box was installed in the garden, and presto! An amazing insect habitat that is not only functional for the bugs, but artistic to boot! A huge thank you to all of my coworkers, especially my trusted co-engineer, Rick Shilling, for all of their help.

Four men, one with drill installing insect habitat

Installation in the Ripley Garden. Thanks to Matt Huber, Rick Shilling, Mike Guetig, and Nick Guy for their installation assistance! (Photo by Janet Draper)

 

Installed insect habitat box with compartments full of different materials

The finished product. (Photo by Janet Draper)

If you’re looking to build your own insect house, it does not need to be this elaborate. I have installed a few simpler versions in the Ripley Garden. For example, a pot filled with acorn tops protected with wire mesh to keep animals out or a bundle of bamboo can also do the trick.

Montage of four photos showing various insect habitats

Simpler insect hotels are installed throughout the Ripley Garden. (Photos by Janet Draper)

Or the easiest bug habitat of all is simply to leave your garden a little messy over the winter to provide our much needed insect population with some warm shelter during the cold frosty months.

This post by horticulturist Janet Draper was originally published by Smithsonian Gardens.


Posted: 23 January 2017
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