From Backyard to Biodiversity: Clancy Lester’s Bee Hotel Project

In this conversation with Balance the Grind, Clancy Lester, a Master of Science (BioSciences) graduate, shares his journey of enhancing urban biodiversity through his innovative backyard bee hotels – a project that evolved from his studies under the Wattle Fellowship, which is a year-long co-curricula program for students to foster leadership on global sustainability.

With a deep-rooted passion for Australian native flora and fauna and a solid background in native bee ecology from the University of Melbourne, Clancy’s Wattle Fellowship project aims to support native bee species and promote urban ecosystems. he talks about his love for conservation, the challenges native bees face in cities, and the importance of community involvement in fostering biodiversity.

Clancy, can you explain the concept behind your backyard bee hotels and their role in urban biodiversity?

From a young age, I’ve held a deep appreciation for Australian native flora and fauna, which has been further nurtured through my studies at the University of Melbourne, where I’ve gained a background in native bee ecology.

My passion for conservation of our beautiful environment, paired with my recent scientific insights, has driven me to develop a conservation project through the Wattle Fellowship, aimed at enhancing urban biodiversity by supporting native bee species. 

My mission is two-fold: to educate the public on the importance of urban biodiversity and the critical role of pollinators, whilst also empowering city dwellers to take action and create small changes on a large scale.

One of the most effective ways to achieve this is through the implementation of bee hotels. These structures mimic natural nesting environments for solitary bees and provide essential habitat for over 2000 Australian native bee species and aren’t designed for introduced European honeybees. 

Well-designed bee hotels attract a diverse range of solitary bee species, with females laying eggs in each of the cavities until they reach capacity, thus ensuring the continuity of vital pollinator populations. Through fostering the next generation of native bees, we are supporting ecosystem networks and also promoting sustainable urban environments.

What challenges do native bees face in urban environments, and how do your bee hotels help?

Urbanisation poses significant challenges for native bees, including habitat loss (especially nesting habitat) and disrupted pollinator networks. While metropolitan regions generally offer abundant flowering resources and food, they are heavily limited by the amount of available nesting material and habitat.

Cities often lack large native trees, indigenous grasses, and ‘messy’ logs and dead annual wildflower/plant stems. Many native bees (like other insects) depend on cavities in native hardwood, pithy hollows of reeds and bamboo as well as inside the stems of dead flowers to nest in.

The widespread conversion of ground surfaces of urban landscapes to buildings, concrete, and asphalt has had a detrimental impact on the 70% of Australia’s native bees that nest in the ground.These bees require firm topsoils and clay banks to nest in and have been severely affected by the uptake of impermeable surfaces. Considering these impacts on nesting, this is where bee hotels help native bees live and reproduce urban environments by replicating natural nesting habitats in our suburban backyards.

Recent urban greening trends/initiatives such as the Heart Gardening Project in the city of Port Phillip, Melbourne, have amplified this opportunity for bee hotels as we have seen many city councils facilitate stronger pollinator corridors within cities through planting native trees/wildflowers while also permitting nature strip gardens. These advancements would be nicely complimented by bee hotels and enhance their effectiveness in bolstering urban biodiversity.

How do you construct these bee hotels, and what makes them suitable for urban settings?

There are 3 simple, easy to make yet effective designs I implement.

1. Using native hardwood such as eucalyptus that is cut to around 200mm lengths, drill holes with extra-long timber drill bits. Vary the drill bits from 3-9mm in diameter to cater for a range of different sized native bees. Attach wire/string and hang or place securely about eye level off the ground near some flowers with the drilled holes facing the N/NE. Extra tips: avoid treated wood, hang securely so the hotel doesn’t swing, and smooth the entrances with sandpaper.

2. Using bamboo, hollow reeds, and/or dead flower stems, cut them to around 200mm lengths and jam them into a pcp pipe, empty tin can, or even a plastic bottle. Ensure that they are securely in place and hang or place securely off the ground around eye level near some flowers with the hollow ends facing the N/NE. Extra tips: use sharp secateurs to get clean cuts and avoid treated/imported bamboo as it would have been fumigated at customs.

3. Using a mix of clay and sand, pack the combination into something like empty pot plants, 2L alternative milk containers, concrete besser blocks or any durable container. Use the tip of a pencil or a stick to poke small holes to give native bees some inspiration and place them horizontally on the ground in an area that receives plenty of sun, usually the northern aspect of a building/garden. Extra tips: leave patches of un-mulched bare ground in the garden, and place these types of hotels in aggregations as some ground nesters like blue banded bees like to live near each other (despite being solitary).

For video instructions and more information, you can check out my website or Youtube channel.

In what ways has the Wattle Fellowship enhanced your ability to execute this project?

The Wattle Fellowship has been absolutely pivotal in shaping my journey. Working alongside a diverse group of passionate individuals from various backgrounds has been incredibly inspiring. It’s evident that each fellow or “wattle” is driven by a shared goal of making a positive impact in the world, and being part of such a community has been truly motivating.

Through the fellowship, I’ve delved deeper into topics like creating change, wicked problems, sustainability and climate change, whilst gaining valuable insights that have fueled my passion for conservation.

The opportunity to learn from guest speakers who are global leaders in their respective fields has been invaluable, providing me with new perspectives and ideas to incorporate into my project.

Participating in Wattle Fellowship-led workshops has not only honed my professional skills, such as project management and public speaking but also fostered personal growth. The supportive environment of the fellowship and fantastic guidance from its directors – Linh Do and Matt Dunne has been really helpful.

Being surrounded by ‘do-ers’ has given me the confidence and drive to translate my newfound knowledge into action with my native bee hotel project. Overall, I’m super grateful for the experience.

Have you collaborated with local communities or schools in spreading awareness about the importance of bees in biodiversity?

Yes, absolutely. The Wattle Fellowship has also helped me connect with the right people to spread awareness for my project. I’ve collaborated with various conservation and sustainability groups to raise awareness about the importance of native bees through workshops and public events. Moonee Valley Sustainability, in particular, are champions in the space and have been super accommodating to get the word out about native bees to those in the western suburbs.

I’ve also had the privilege of partnering with the wildlife conservation society at the University of Melbourne to host a workshop with many of their nature loving members where we made at least 30 bee hotels for attendees to take home and contribute to my project goal.

Conferences like the Victorian Biodiversity conference have been useful platforms to share information about native bees and conservation in general. An incidental theme of the 2024 conference was urban biodiversity with a number of recent developments bringing attention to the growing topic.

Additionally, I recently jumped on board with a not-for-profit organisation ‘PlantingSeeds’ as an environmental educator, for a few of the 160 schools on the east coast of Australia that they work with. PlantingSeeds focuses on teaching the next generation about the value of native pollinators and biodiverse ecosystems.

Amongst all of that, being featured on the University of Melbourne’s research news publication, Pursuit, has definitely been a highlight. 

What has been the community response to your project so far?

The community response has been wholesome. I have received so many kind comments and inspiring feedback and realised just how many people are more than happy to help out and want to contribute to doing good in the world, starting in their own backyard. It has been refreshing to connect with so many inspiring people eager to do their part.

I feel like the general response has made me realise that many of us have the right mindset to be on track with improving urban biodiversity, which is great because I feel like the community spirit is often forgotten or overlooked in a large city.

From over 200,000 views, over 25,000 people have interacted with my educational content so far. And through face-to-face interactions at markets, events, and workshops, I’ve had the privilege of engaging with hundreds more.

The consensus is clear to me: the idea of saving our pollinators is in the mind of many, and people are eager to contribute however they can, which is why providing such a low cost, simple and easy solution (like bee hotels) has the potential to make a substantial difference in promoting native bee diversity and the related gains in overall urban biodiversity.

What are your future plans for expanding the reach and impact of your bee hotels?

I’ve come to realise that being only one person with a limited amount of time, I can only do so much on my own. Therefore, my focus is on expanding the reach of my project rather than being limited to the number of bee hotels I can create personally.

Currently, I’m dedicated to producing online educational materials and content aimed at the general public. Individuals that come across my content will potentially be inspired to create their own bee hotels, and are also empowered with the tips and tricks to do it correctly. 

In addition to online initiatives, I’m open to hosting more workshops and native bee talks where participants can learn to build bee hotels and gain a deeper understanding of our vulnerable native bee populations.

By engaging with communities through both online platforms and in-person workshops/talks, I hope to inspire more people to take action and become advocates for bee conservation. Readers can follow me @beesandblossoms.aus, look at my website or connect with me personally on LinkedIn or through email – [email protected].

About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.