When the local government in this small city just outside Antwerp set out to build its newest hotel, it wasn’t hoping to draw in businesspeople or tourists. Instead, its target clientele is insects: beetles, woodlice, hoverflies, butterflies and bees.
Opened in July, Deurne’s “insect hotel” is part of a trend across Europe led by educational institutions, conservation groups, and local governments to find innovative ways to preserve biodiversity that also raise awareness. Cities including Basel, Switzerland, are investing heavily in green-roof technology, where vegetation is planted on the tops of buildings, while nonprofits are pushing to create “rewilded” natural landscapes for wildlife and plants in Portugal, Bulgaria and Romania. Deurne is already planning a second bug habitat.
Scientists say insects are a key to biodiversity efforts aimed at protecting plants, animals and ecosystems, as 80% of all organisms on earth are insects. Three-quarters of leading global crops and almost 90% of wild plants depend on animal pollinators including bees, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature. Insect populations have plummeted in recent decades, hit by the combined forces of industrial agriculture, deforestation and extreme weather patterns.
Over 40% of all insect species are in decline, and a third are endangered, according to a 2019 article in the peer-reviewed journal Biological Conservation. A quarter of insects could be wiped out by 2030, the researchers forecast.
In one of the more unusual efforts prompted by such findings, universities and conservation societies across Europe are working with local communities and schools to construct the habitats for bugs known as insect hotels. These structures actually function more like a housing complex. Bugs lay eggs inside different “apartments” and bring food, like pollen from nearby flowers, to provide for offspring. In colder months, insects will use the structure to hibernate.
In the U.K., Manchester Metropolitan University has worked with local organizations and schools to build an insect hotel on its campus using found materials. German national railway company Deutsche Bahn installed an insect hotel at a train station outside Hamburg. The four-star Thon Hotel EU in central Brussels features its own insect hotel and beehives—producing nearly 90 pounds of honey this year.
Bugs may not seem the most appealing feature at a hotel for humans. But at the Thon Hotel EU, which has an ecological certification, people always want to learn about the insect hotel, says Kelly Gallier, who is in charge of the location’s green initiatives.
In recent years, as Green political parties gained power across Europe, environmental issues have moved to the forefront. The environment ministry in Flanders, the Flemish-speaking part of northern Belgium where Deurne is located, recently released a plan to halve the use of harmful pesticides by 2030 and introduce educational programs on insects’ role in local ecosystems, among other initiatives.
Zuhal Demir, the environment minister of Flanders, posed for a magazine covered in bees ahead of Bee Week in May. Hollywood actor Angelina Jolie famously did the same for National Geographic last year.
Similarly, bug hotels function as a physical reminder to local residents of the importance of insects, in addition to providing them with homes. “These hotels are useful to raise awareness among people that they, in their own gardens and terraces, can do so much to protect pollinators,” says Ruth-Marie Henckes of Greenpeace Belgium.
Deurne’s insect hotel, a 36-foot-long structure built from locally sourced wood, is billed as the largest insect hotel in Belgium. It is situated in a local cemetery, where a nearby meadow left to grow wild provides ample food.
Eva Verbeeck for The Wall Street Journal.
Tjerk Sekeris, the town mayor, says some older people in the community initially didn’t like the tall grass growing near the graves, but have grown used to it.
“You don’t have to clean it,” says Michiel Groendiest, an environmental expert employed by the city of Deurne, as he showed off the hotel’s straw beds and pine-cone shelters on a recent July day. “You just have to let it be.”
The best insect hotels mimic nature, says Jens D’Haeseleer, a wild-bee researcher at Natuurpunt, the largest conservation nonprofit in Flanders. In nature, hatching wood beetles drill small holes to emerge from dead trees. Solitary bees—species that don’t live in hives but are important pollinators—then make their nests in these holes.
Eva Verbeeck for The Wall Street Journal
It’s easy to go wrong with insect hotels. Different bee species prefer different-size holes, some as small as a tenth of an inch in diameter. Wrong-size holes in insect hotels won’t attract the right bees. They can also lead to disaster if an electric drill leaves a splinter inside. “Bees have four wings, but if there are splinters they will come out with three wings, and soon have no wings at all,” Mr. D’Haeseleer says.
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These habitats can also be a magnet for parasitic bugs, such as parasitic bees or flies. Some research has shown that building many artificial nesting sites together—as in an insect hotel—can increase the loss of bees, as parasitic insects eat the pollen other bees have collected, starving their offspring. Mr. D’Haeseleer notes parasitic insects wouldn’t damage the hotel structure, and that new insects would come to the empty hotel after the others have died.
Deurne’s insect hotel has few inhabitants this summer, as insects in the area build their nests in colder months. Mr. Sekeris says the city has plans to build a second hotel in another cemetery.
Much more than insect hotels is needed to tackle biodiversity loss that, if left unaddressed, could prove irreversible, environmental advocates say.
Still, it’s often helpful to start small, some say.
“Big policy changes seem farther away at times,” says Ms. Henckes of Greenpeace Belgium. “Sometimes it’s good to think: What can I do this summer in my garden?”
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