What Bees Live in the Ground: Discover the Benefits of Solitary Bees

what bees live in the ground

Though many of you will associate bees with hives filled with honey, a majority of the thousands of bee species live in the ground. Despite the cultural and historical associations we have of bees and honey, the honey bees represent a relatively small section of the over 20,000 species of bee. The bees that live in the ground are mostly solitary, unlike the large colonies of European honey bee, Apis mellifera, which can reach numbers as high as 60,000 members. If you find yourself asking the question of what bees live in the ground, you might find your answer by turning to your backyard or garden, where you may be surprised to find several species of these bees already living there.

You might have mistaken these ground-nesting bees for honey bees. There are many species of bees building nests under the ground in North America. They are excellent pollinators and may, in fact, be doing your garden a world of good.

Unlike honey bees, whose colonies feature large numbers of workers and drones all contributing to the benefit of queen and colony, the ground nest or miner bees do not exist in large colonies. In many of these species, the queen lives in her nest with her offspring, while in other species the males patrol the queen's nest to protect her, though even these species are considered docile in comparison to other bee types. You should also know which bees bite and which species watch out for. 

a bee

What Bees Live In The Ground

What bees live in the ground, and what bees live? There are many species of ground-nesting or miner bee in North America alone, forming an interesting subject for the entomologist, behavioral biologist, or gardener. The spring time will herald the return of these species, which play an active role in pollinating flowers by extracting pollen and nectar. These bees are generally solitary, their queens living in underground galleries with their young. It is not uncommon for queens to form nests nearby to other queens, but more on this later.

In terms of what bees live in the ground, as we have mentioned, there are several genera common in the United States. Of these, Colletes, Lasioglossum, Halictus, Agapostemon, and Andrena are significant, with Colletes inequalisin particular being abundant in the Northeastern and Midwestern regions of the United States.

The species within these genera form recognizable nests, piles of dirt with holes in the center about one-quarter of an inch wide, though it is important to distinguish these nests from yellow jacket nests. These latter insects are very different from the solitary bees, which are regarded as harmless. Though many gardeners may see bees and wasps as pests, the solitary bees are unlikely to sting unless greatly provoked, and entomologists recommend avoiding pesticide use with these creatures.

Some significant families of ground-nesting bees are listed below (these families include several of the genera already mentioned above):

  • Andrenidae (miner bees)
  • Anthoporidae (digger bees)
  • Halictidae (sweat bees)

Of course, now that we have a better idea of what bees live in the ground, the next logical question is, do these bees sting? Just like honey bees and bumble bees, the male ground bees are not capable of stinging. The females do sting though, again, they are not considered aggressive and generally will only sting if handled, so it's probably not a good idea to try and pick them up. In some species, the males may seem aggressive, but they lack stingers, and their behavior is essentially posturing.

Sweat bees, bees that are in the family Halictidae, have a behavior that may alarm some: they land on the skin and feed on human sweat, but this does not necessarily mean a sting. Whether or not they sting you has more to do with you then with the sweat bee, so though you may be surprised at finding one of these insects suddenly on an arm or a leg, you should not swat them away. Doing this will be regarded by the bees as an aggressive act on your part and may result in a sting.

solitary bees are what bees live in the ground

What Are Solitary Bees

Many of the bees that live in the ground fall under the solitary bee category, though not all of them do. Bumblebees, in the genus Bombus, also form nests in the ground, though they are not solitary, living as they do in colonies that can reach several hundred members. Though they are not quite flying solo, bumble bees are more solitary than their more famous relatives, the honey bees, which utilize signaling mechanisms to alert workers to the best flowers to pollinate.

Though the bumblebee is not a solitary bee, it has some behaviors in common with the solitary bee species, pollinating flowers diligently and alone. Bumblebees are also regarded as less aggressive than the more social bees that live in huge, complex colonies. Perhaps the best way to examine the solitary bees and their habits is to hone in on one species to study. Colletes inaequalis, a solitary ground-nesting bee that closely resembles Apis mellifera is a good choice for study.

You may have queens of this species in your backyard without knowing it. Like other solitary bees, Colletes inaequalis queens build galleries in the ground where they birth their brood, and it is common for as many as thousands of these queens to build nests in close proximity to each other. Most ground-nesting bees have a strong preference for dry, sandy soils, so an easy way to prevent them from nesting is to water the soil regularly with a sprinkler, but as the bees are benign, this may not be necessary.

Although Colletes inaequalis queens burrow nests and rear their young alone, a common activity in the springtime is for males to look for queens to mate with. In spite of this increased activity in your backyard or garden, the males do not have a sting. As with other ground-nesting bees, the Colletes inaequalis queens form recognizable mounds, so it should be easy to tell if they are present in your backyard.

a solitary bee on a yellow petal

the benefits of solitary bees

Like many other insects, bees can be very beneficial to humans and other mammalian species in the neighborhood, to say nothing about the flora. Besides the obvious example of the honey bee, whose winter stores of food the beekeeper takes and sells (or uses) for honey, bees have much to offer us. Bees are amazing pollinators, even being essential to maintain introduced plant species in some parts of the world, and the solitary bees are no exception.

The ground-nesting bees, Colletes inaequalis in particular, are significant pollinators of flowering trees and plants, like apple trees, cherry trees, and blueberries. Again, bees and other flying insects play a major role in allowing these flowering species to thrive, so it is detrimental not only to the ecosystem but to the human exploiting the ecosystem to use pesticides in cultivated areas in order to remove bees and other insects from the area.

This role in pollination that the solitary bees serve is not only beneficial for commercial crops, like apples, but also for ornamental plants, like the flowering plants that you have in your garden. With all the work you put into creating a serene, admiral physical space filled with flowers, using pesticides to remove insects is not only unnecessary but likely detrimental to the flowering plants that you have cultivated.

Entomologists and other scientists familiar with solitary bees make it clear that pesticides are inadvisable, at least in terms of backyards and gardens. If you really need to deter ground bees from nesting in your backyard or garden, you can either water the areas of ground where these bees have already formed nests, or if the bees have not yet formed nests, use a sprinkler to keep the area wet, which will encourage the ground bees to nest elsewhere.

Conclusion – What Bees Live in the Ground?

The benefits of bees are numerous, from providing us with honey for our table to pollinating many of the plants, trees, and flowers that have become essential to sustaining human life on earth. Though solitary bees are different from the more familiar honey bee, and may be regarded by some as less useful and more of a pest, these species are very numerous and, as such, play a significant role in pollination and, by extension, ecosystem maintenance.

In terms of what bees live in the ground, there are thousands, with two-thirds of all bee species being considered ground bees. There are many species in North America, with one of the more common being Colletes inaequalis, which resembles the European honey bee, Apis mellifera. An important fact to remember about ground-nesting bees is that they are mostly solitary, the bumblebee is a notable exception, and as solitary bees, they are considered more docile than other bees.

Though one may be tempted to use pesticides to remove the characteristic dirt mound nests that the ground-nesting bees live in, this is inadvisable as these bees are so beneficial to the ecosystem and essentially harmless that it is probably a better idea to just let them bee. At most, a sprinkler to keep the area of concern watered should be able to do the trick.

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