The Insect Hotel


In recent days I’ve been working with the pupils of Scoil Mhuire Ballyboden re designing their school courtyard and having a great time making a mess. Like many schools the grounds of the school can become a target for vandalism so we decided after a walk around the site to use the protected courtyard to make a large insect hotel and 6 new raised beds. As part of the design there is a bed for herbs, one for strawberries and 4 to grow the major vegetable families namely potato, pea, onion and cabbage. Each of the vegetable beds will be assigned to a class (group) to look after and so in time each pupil will have the opportunity to learn how to grow a variety of vegetables.

A large assembly hall opens into the courtyard which would become the base of operations for all the sawing, cutting and assembly out of the rain.


I don’t think anyone realised quite how much stuff we would need to collect. In the small example below the bamboo square which provides a place for some species of solitary bees to lay eggs feed and pupate took 24 feet of cut bamboo to fill. We put the call out by visiting each classroom and showing the children a variety of materials and what insects they are likely to provide shelter for. Each morning the children dropped off bags of materials and each day the principal repeated the appeal over the intercom.


Some past pupils were on hand to help with some of the heavy jobs like cutting and drilling the logs to attract solitary bees.


Under supervision the pupils got stuck into the work at a number of workstations in the hall.


Here the pupils are cutting the tops off bottles and rolling cardboard into spirals to create a habitat for lacewings. Lacewings will help to keep aphid  sap suckers in balance on our vegetables and flowers.


The pupils made a range of habitats to attract as diverse a variety of creatures as possible to the courtyard.  Will there be spiders I was asked and when will the creatures move in. Yes and soon..


Flower pots and vegetable trays make a good container for a damp woodlouse habitat. Add drainage holes and leaves to the bottom and weight down with pebbles and stones. A broken clay pot makes a little shelter. This is a creative opportunity for the children to consider the conditions various insects need.


In the upper levels of the hotel  we attached 10mm mesh to hold cones , straw,twigs and other lighter materials in place and stop them getting blown out by the wind.  It’s a good idea to be able to remove some materials for investigation from time to time. A rolled door matt is a good addition and can be taken out to look at what shelters inside.


The courtyard is covered in paving slabs 600mm square so we set about lifting some of these to site the Insect Hotel. Removing 4 slabs for the hotel and 4 for each of the 6 raised beds. We cut a few larger holes in the bottom two pallets turning the bottom one upside down. In these levels we placed heavy materials such as stone, brick, logs etc all the way through allowing for nooks and crannies throughout. The outside face provides a wonderful chance to play with pattern texture and materials.


The slabs and sand bedding have been removed and will be re used in another vegetable patch on the outside of the school. This will provide better access particularly in the wetter months.  The lone holly is not thriving in this spot so is being relocated.


We had pre ordered some 16 foot lengths of 6 inch decking and each length made up one raised bed. Pupils from the 6th class measured, cut and assembled some of these.


One of the 2 tonnes of compost soil mix needed to fill the six raised beds. A few small buckets, hand trowels and willing volunteers are all that is needed to empty them surprisingly quickly.


In time the depth of soil can be increased by adding a second level to the raised bed using some corner battens.


Work continues on the Insect hotel adding the upper levels and a touch of creativity. Stong pallets can be hard to come by but its worth the effort. The overall footprint is 1 x 1.2 metres. Some herbs including chives, mint, thyme are planted into the nearest raised bed . The mint is planted into a well drained pot to restrict its spread.


Some heather and primrose are added to an existing bed with a yew.


The drill master and some of the team that added the roof. Flowers and herbs in pots can be placed on top to attract Bees and Butterflys. A roof garden to top it all off with some trailing plants.


Still a ways to go with this one but a good start. The Insect Hotel is now a focal point in the school visible from two halls and circulation areas. Hopefully its presence will draw interest and investigation from around the school.


School Visits


In recent months I been having a great time visiting primary schools and running workshops in all things nature. I think it’s nice to know a little bit about the “real world” we live in and some of it’s magic.  Below we explored a hedge row on a bit of waste ground near some allotments. We talked about the importance of hedges and at how untended plants grow without any help. What tips and tricks could observing a hedge offer us in our allotment garden?  What effect does a hedge have on the wind, the sun, the creatures we might likely find? If we don’t have a “garden” at home  could this hedge be our garden  as we pass by on the way to school, a place where we come to observe , nibble and relax in this busy world of ours. Just because you don’t have a garden does’nt mean you cannot garden. What exactly is gardening anyway?


The approach I’m trying to take is what could be called Keeping it real, sometimes a challenge  for a teacher but a natural state of happiness to most children. Basically this means getting your clothes dirty, getting wet and doing something real, we are living in Ireland lets not forget.


Each visit is completely different and very much influenced by those one or two key teachers a school might be luck enough to have who see the importance in the natural world, food, health and the development of a love of nature. Again and again teachers from different schools have told me about how they grew up in a rural setting and spent their days out playing. This contrasts to how many children now grow up in urban environments in a very different culture.

I was surprised to find that in most classes there are a usually a few children who have never handled compost or soil. Thats dirty they might say , yes ” Good Dirt” .  By far the best and most interesting discoveries are made poking about in the soil with a trowel. A simple worm is so exciting that it’s important to do a worm count before any activities where they might be uncovered.

Simple stringlines using bamboo and twine are an excellent way to practice measurements in cm and Inches. A hand trowel is all that is required for most jobs with so much energy.




In go the broadbeans, garlic onions and green manures. In this pic the 4 foot wide beds make it difficult to reach the middle and the narrow paths make it a challenge for access with a group. This style of bed would be better with 4 foot paths for access and 3 foot beds for reaching into. Designing a garden for a class of 24 to 34 children to have space to work in at a number of stations is important to carefully consider from the start.


I was very luck to spend a week working  with the Ballyroan boys gardening club. Over the week we mulched the paths with cardboard and woodchips kindly droped by Setanta tree care, built a composting system from free pallets and filled the raised beds with soil for planting.

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The boys from the gardening club are great workers often giving up their lunch break in yard to do gardening. Here they are clearing an area to make a pallet composter.

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The boys in the gardening club get out regularly into the garden to do work. Here we are fixing some mesh to steps to improve the grip in the winter.



Its amazing once everyone gets stuck into the jobs how quiet everyone gets, working away on their project.


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Lining out the braodbeans

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The project is ongoing and we look forward to catching up again in the spring. That was a great week despite the rain.