Bird houses are certainly common sites around homes and gardens. Even butterflies and bats have their own specific domiciles. Now bees are joining the ranks of the "landed gentry" with structures created specifically for their housing needs.

This summer, Hickory Knolls Discovery Center embarks on its latest effort in attracting and supporting native pollinators with the unveiling of its first official Bee House. The project is part of a collaborative effort led by Denis Kania, Manager of Natural Areas; Jason Pettit, Ecological Restoration Technician; and volunteer Carolyn Erwin.

The public is invited to join representatives of the park district at a ribbon cutting ceremony for this new addition to the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center campus on Saturday, June 10, at 9am. Trish Beckjord, Park District Commissioner and Program Manager for The Conservation Foundation's Fox River Education and Outreach Initiative, will present a program on practicing conservation at home, and how such personal practices reap benefits throughout the Fox River area. She will also share information about how homeowners can become a recognized Conservation@Home member.

"Native pollinators are essential parts of our ecology," said Kania. "Without them, we would not have the fruits and vegetables and other plants we need to survive nor would the environment be as stable and supportive without their contributions to processes like increasing carbon sequestration and preventing soil erosion."

The bee house project is an important part of this conservation effort. It is the brainchild of volunteer Carolyn Erwin, a St. Charles resident and science teacher at the Addison Trail High School in Addison. While pursuing a second master's degree through Miami University of Ohio, Erwin became fascinated with the honeybee hive and tube at Hickory Knolls and considered how a similar house could be useful for native bees.

"Native bees are often in competition with honeybees for habitat and food sources," said Erwin. "Once native bees start nesting in an area, they will return year after year. I thought having a permanent bee house would be a good way of encouraging them."

Denis Kania was immediately enthusiastic about Erwin's proposal.

"I had already been thinking about constructing a bee house so when she asked about the possibility, we both just jumped in feet first," said Kania. "Carolyn is really enthusiastic about bees, to say the least. She is very willing to come in to work on the construction and harvesting of the plant materials that will be needed for the house. She's a super good person to have as a volunteer for the park district."

Located near the walking path adjacent to the Discovery Center, the bee house stands on posts about 4 feet off the ground. Two sets of chambers are available for bee nesting on alternating years, with only one exposed each year. Each set of chambers is 3' x 3' and is further divided into smaller sections containing a variety of natural nesting materials that will be attractive to bees. The entire structure is six feet long and three feet tall and covered by a roof for weather protection.

"This kind of house is designed to attract solitary bees, such as leaf-cutter and carpenter bees," said Erwin. "These are the bees that do not live in colonies or nest in the ground. We have over 400 species of native bees in Illinois alone. We're hoping to get a lot of biodiversity in the types of bees that will want to nest in this house."

The biodiversity of plants available to pollinators is a key factor in the success of the bee house. Not only do they require a variety of native plants for their food sources, they also are looking for suitable nesting material. Plants like Great Angelica, Evening Primrose, Joe Pye Weed, Rattlesnake Master, and Purple Coneflower have hollow stems that bees desire. Other material like pine cones, logs and branches will attract bees that like to drill into wood to create their own nests, according to Erwin.

"We'll get an idea for what they prefer and be able to modify our housing materials accordingly," said Erwin. "The house has a great design which lets it be cleaned out and changed easily, and there is an abundance of material on site for the bees to pollinate."

An interpretive sign will be attached to the portion of the bee house not in use by the pollinators, further educating the public on the importance of native bees in conservation efforts. A smaller, black-and-white version of the park district's colorful signature "Supporting Pollinators" yard sign will be available for purchase for $10 at the ribbon cutting ceremony.

"This weatherproof sign not only identifies your yard as being a landscape that invites native pollinators, it can also help raise awareness with neighbors and friends about the importance of bees, butterflies and birds to our local ecology," said Kania.

Packets of native plant seeds and native plant plus will be given out at the ribbon cutting ceremony along with information on how homeowners can create a bee house for their own garden. Families can join in on a crafts project to create their own make-and-take bee house to get them started attracting these beneficial creatures to their own backyards.

"Solitary bees are fascinating creatures," said Erwin. "So many people have an innate fear of bees, so we're hoping this new bee house can help overcome some of those misgivings and let people know how non-threatening these species are and how beneficial they are to our environment."

The native bees that will use this structure are solitary in nature and are not territorial and protective like honey bees. You are not likely to be stung by these native bees and many species do not even have stingers.

For more information about the bee house at Hickory Knolls Discovery Center and the public ceremony on June 10, contact Denis Kania at 630-513-4367.