This weekend I have been ticking off a major ‘bucket list’ activity – I have been building a hedgehog house and bug hotel on the allotment in an unused and unproductive corner. Hopefully lots of critters of all kinds will take up residence and repay us with plenty of pest-predation and plant-pollination duties!
But what is a bug hotel and why am I bothering? Let me explain a little more…
Regular readers of these blogs will know how important wildlife is to me, and therefore how important it is, naturally to everything I do on the allotment plot. Working with nature, rather than fighting to control it, is to me, the only logical way to manage all the challenges of gardening, whether growing produce or creating an enjoyable outside space.
This autumn Amp and I have taken on an additional section of allotment adjoining our existing plot. This is exciting news and the new plot is full of potential, however, it is currently a little over-grown. Although the new plot is not currently in a productive state from the point of view of veg growing, it undoubtedly harbours a vast biomass of wildlife. From frogs and toads to spiders and beetles, the dense grass, damp corners and limited disturbance means the plot is home to many different kinds of animals, and visited by others such as birds. Appreciating how vital these critters are to not just the workings of the plot, but the wider environment as well, I was concerned that by cultivating the plot we would alter the balance and lose the myriad of benefits these creatures bring.
There have been some worrying statistics in recent reports that suggest the ecological balance is in serious trouble. Significant declines have been seen across key areas such as invertebrates and pollinators, and some of our most loved animals such as bees, songbirds and hedgehogs. Whilst the causes of these declines are in some cases still debated, what is clear is that wildlife is in trouble, but we can all do something to help. Which brings me back to the bug hotel…
One corner of our plot had become what can only be described as a bit of a dumping ground. All those odds and ends that either ‘might be useful one day’ or just hadn’t made it to the local recycling centre, were gathering weeds and fallen leaves, and we were keen to tidy up before winter. The corner in question is partly shaded by over hanging trees, and unproductive, squeezed between the side boundary fence, the wildflower bank and the mini-orchard. It was the perfect spot, I decided, to turn our expanding collection of ‘junk’ into something far more valuable and practical.
Stage 1 – preparation and connection
A wild rose, grown from a seed perhaps dropped by a passing bird, was removed from its existing pot and planted in the ground, filling in the dip where the wildflower bank dropped away under the fence. Turning the corner from the bank, the first phase of bug hotel construction was to bury some logs for beetles. We dug a hole alongside the fence and ‘planted’ an old milk crate. This crate will contain the logs, but has plenty of gaps and holes in its sides and base to allow the wood to have direct contact with the earth, plus allow the passage of water and soil creatures. Logs were placed in on end, so that they are stacked upright, half buried, and creating different heights. The log crate will also provide a connection between the wildflower bank (and the woodland beyond), and the bug hotel itself.
Stage 2 – home for fuzzypeg
The lowest level of the bug hotel is a cavity, designed to provide a cosy place for hedgehogs to nest or hibernate. The basic construction is a double height of bricks forming a square that measures approximately 1m along each side. As shown in the photos, bricks were placed at right angles to the main wall at the entrance to create a baffle. This should make it more difficult for predators to reach into the cavity, and slow down any wind draughts. The entrance is no smaller than 13cm square, and faces away from the main plot, towards the wild flower bank. Hedgehogs do not like being exposed as they can be vulnerable out in the open, and they often use banks, hedgerows and fence-lines as highways to navigate their large territories.
The hedgehog house was filled with dry leaves that had been swept up from my parent’s car-port, and then it was topped with a triple-layered roof. This ‘roof’ is a sheet of corrugated cardboard for stability, a piece of coco-matting fibre (often used for lining hanging baskets) for thickness and insulation, and empty plastic compost bags for waterproofing.
A small wooden pallet was placed on top to create the structure for the next layer.
The sides of the hedgehog house, made from broken bricks (flat/smooth side inwards) lacked a natural look, and had a lot of small gaps. To strengthen the walls, insulate from draughts and create further wildlife habitat, we lined up large fungi-covered logs along the side and a wooden plank along the front, all firmly wedged into place.
Stage 3 – the layers
Once the hedgehog house was complete, it was time to think about providing a habitat for not only the bugs that any visiting hedgehog might be looking for to eat, but also all the beetles and other creatures that do great pest control work on the plot. The obvious choice was dead wood. We had some old hazel bean-poles that were no longer strong enough to use on the veg patch, and some branches that had blown down from the overhanging ash trees in previous storms. These we cut or snapped into lengths and stacked in the slots formed by the wooden pallet. On top of the pallet we used lengths of timber combined with cardboard boxes to create another layer of compartments, and these were filled with ‘soft’ materials such as pine cones, fruits and seeds and nuts from autumnal displays, bamboo tubes, torn up newspaper, rolls of corrugated cardboard stuffed inside a plastic bottle, and the offcuts of the coco fibre matting. Ladybirds, lacewings, pollinators and spiders are all likely to use this layer to escape the harshest winter weather or as a home throughout the summer. The hollow tubes may be used by solitary bees as nesting holes, although I do have several other opportunities for this located in sunnier spots around the allotment plot.
Layer 4 was the harder materials, to create a contrast to the woodpile and soft layers below. An old broken chimney pot and roof tiles were stacked in, creating a variety of dark gaps and crevices.
Stage 4 – the crowning glory
Once layer 4 was filled, the finishing touches were added to the top. A redundant metal basket lined with cardboard forms a planting space which will be filled with pollen and nectar rich flowers, whilst beside it the layer is completed with leftover tiles and wood to bring it up to the same height as the basket for a level top. The front of the basket, between the metal and the cardboard is stuffed with moss, ideal for hiding invertebrates now, and likely to be pulled out by birds for nesting materials come the spring. A terracotta flowerpot stuffed with straw adds height and interest to the planting basket until flowers come into their own in the spring, and an old garden spade handle provides a quirky perch for inquisitive birds such as the robin.
The resulting ‘bug hotel’ looks fantastic and should only improve with time – we can add material whenever it becomes available such as branches from winter apple tree pruning, and I will sew seeds in the planting area in the spring.
The idea of a bug hotel can easily be adapted to suit any size or space, or any style of garden, and can be made with any materials that you might have to hand or can scavenge from neighbours and friends. It is also a brilliant project to do with kids, and great for school gardens.
I can’t wait to see what creatures move in!