Creating an insect habitat in the Ripley Garden

January 4, 2017 at 1:19 pm 4 comments

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.


Inspiration from Flora Grubb Gardens

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!).


The results of hiking with a horticulturist! 

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.


Construction in progress! 


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.


Installation in the Ripley Garden. Thanks to Matt Huber, Rick Shilling, Mike Guetig, and Nick Guy for their installation assistance!


The finished piece! 

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.


Simpler insect hotels in the Ripley Garden

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.

– Janet Draper, Smithsonian Gardens Horticulturist 

Entry filed under: Design, Ripley Garden, Uncategorized.

Brassavola nodosa (the Lady of the Night orchid) Vanilla blooms abound!

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. kahollis  |  April 18, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    I love these, but unfortunately where I live it would only attract black widow spiders.

  • 2. Suzanne Catty  |  April 18, 2017 at 7:29 am

    It would be nice to have more specifics in the article. Exactly the type of plant material used and the specific insects that each type attracts. That would allow people to use the most appropriate material for the insects in their local environment. Vagueness is unscientific.
    Practical and informative, concrete advice is what people need. Bees and insects need habitat and a chemical free environment, why not put it all together for the best results.
    Good to see a garden blog from Smithsonian.

  • 3. Cindy at enclos*ure  |  February 1, 2017 at 8:14 am

    I always feel just a touch skeptical about these insect houses — do insects really move in?. Will you do an analysis at the end of the winter to see which sections looks the most inhabited (or not inhabited)? (All the hotels are great looking though! — well, as is everything coming out of SI Gardens.)

    • 4. smithsoniangardens  |  February 16, 2017 at 1:40 pm

      Thanks for your question and the compliment! Our integrated pest manager is eager to observe who hunkers down in there this winter so we’re keeping a close eye on it. That said, we don’t have a formal analysis planned. That would require dismantling the structure and we’d like to reuse the structures in future years if we can.


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