Nature does a lot to help our fruits and vegetables along, not least by providing a legion of beneficial insects to pollinate our crops and prey on pests. It's impossible to quantify just how valuable these creepy crawlies are in keeping things ticking over on the productive plot but suffice to say we're hugely indebted to them!
It wasn't so long ago that the majority of gardening books recommended spraying a crop to within an inch of its life whenever the tiniest pest dared to rear its head. Thankfully these are more enlightened times and rather than wipe out both pest and predator gardeners are nowadays encouraged to strike a balance in the kitchen garden, nurturing the beneficial creatures so that they in turn take care of the undesirables. Making an insect hotel is a great way of achieving this. By breaking ground on your own bug des res you'll be setting yourself up for a significantly less troublesome growing season.
An insect hotel offers free accommodation to its occupants. In return, when it's time to check out they'll be right on site to go about their pollination and pest predation – a beautifully symbiotic relationship. The good news is it costs nothing to make an insect hotel, just a little time and effort. Invertebrates aren't fussy as long as they have got somewhere to bed down and lay their eggs, so you can go as elaborate or simple as your tastes permit.
While ready-made insect hotels are available to buy, it's great fun making your own bespoke hotel. Use salvaged or recycled materials to build the walls and roof of your hotel – old shelving planks, drinks bottles, pallets, pipes, you name it.
The simplest structure is a wooden box open at one end and stuffed with the material that your insect will bed down in. Make sure your hotel is watertight so its residents don't get a drenching after every downpour. Tiles, offcuts of felt or corrugated roofing are some of the options for weatherproofing. You can make lots of small hotels or one major high-rise – the pictures here give a few ideas.
Decorating the rooms of your insect hotel is the creative part. Think like a bug and pander to their every need! Different types of insect will prefer different room furnishings. If your hotel is big enough you can mix and match, using different materials within each layer or section. Try one or more of the following materials.
Drilled wood: Solitary bees and wasps are attracted to holes drilled into wood as they offer the perfect place to lay their eggs in peace. Drill holes of different sizes, between 5mm (0.2in) and 10mm (0.4in) diameter so as to offer spaces for different species.
Rotting logs: Perfect for wood-boring beetles whose larvae will feast on the decaying wood. Place at the base of your hotel so the logs stay nice and damp and mix with other decaying plant matter to attract centipedes (which devour slugs) and other woodland litter insects such as millipedes and woodlice (which will provide a welcome source of food for birds). This is also a great spot for garden spiders.
Twigs, sticks and stems: Bundled together, sticks and twigs of different sizes offer welcome lodgings for ground beetles. These beetles chomp away at many of the pests that hinder our crops, including aphids and carrot root fly larvae. You'll also be offering a vacancy to ladybugs, which hoover up aphids and nuisance insects such as mites. Hoverflies will also be attracted to this type of material. Hoverflies are both pollinator and pest patroller – the larvae carry an insatiable appetite for aphids while the adults feed on nectar as they pollinate flowers.
Bamboo canes: Hollow stems such as bamboo canes provide another hidey hole for solitary bees, who will lay their eggs then seal up the hole using mud or leaf litter.
Straw, dried grass or rolled up cardboard: Just the material for a cosy lacewing hangout. While lacewings may be beautifully intricate to look at, they are truly the gardener's best friend, devouring aphids and other pests such as scale insects, many types of caterpillar and mites. Place your straw or cardboard inside an old open-ended plastic bottle to prevent it turning soggy.
It's all very well building a handsomely equipped insect hotel but for it to become the destination of choice it has to be in prime position. Set your hotel up in a sheltered area of the garden or allotment away from the prevailing wind. Most insects prefer slightly damp conditions but solitary bees demand the sunniest aspect possible to help them get out and about on a cold day. Your hotel will become fully occupied quicker if it is located close to an existing insect hotspot: a hedge, bank of nectar-rich flowers or a pond, for example.
Don't limit your insect-attracting ambitions to just one hotel. Remember that as well as helping the gardener out, insects support animals higher up the food chain, which will in turn go on to help us out. Log piles left in out-of-the-way corners, wildflowers sown around the perimeter of your productive plot, or a small pond are just a few of the other ways you can help. By doing so you'll be enriching the local ecosystem and ensuring your garden is as productive as it can be.
By Benedict Vanheems.