How to Identify Ground Bees

These non-aggressive bees are superior garden pollinators

Ground bees in a hole in the earth

Panoramedia / WikiMedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Ground bees are non-aggressive, beneficial insects that rarely sting. Their nesting season is limited, so unless you or a family member has an allergy to bee stings, you can feel comfortable leaving their nests alone and letting them carry out their business in peace.

Fast Facts: Ground Bee Species

Ground bees are members of the superfamily Apoidea. Species include:

  • Digger bees (family Anthoporidae)
  • Sweat bees (family Halictidae)
  • Mining bees (family Andrenidae).

Ground Bee Traits and Nesting Characteristics

As the name implies, ground bees dig their nests in the ground, often in bare patches of the lawn or garden. Ground bees become active in early spring. Females are solitary creatures, excavating nests in dry soil.

Each female fastidiously mounds the loose soil around her nest entrance, then provisions her home with pollen and nectar for her offspring. Despite their solitary nature, it's not unusual to find dozens of ground bee nests in one area if conditions are suitable.

Female ground bees may sting if sufficiently threatened, however, being non-aggressive by nature, they rarely do. Males fly over burrows patrolling for potential mates, and while males of some species may behave aggressively when in proximity to a nest, they lack stingers, so other than being scary, they're essentially harmless.

How to Identify Ground Bee Nests

If you find mounds of soil similar to anthills but with larger openings, they might be ground bee nests. Be aware that bumblebees also nest in underground burrows, although they typically use abandoned rodent burrows rather than excavate new ones. Unlike ground bees, bumblebees live in social colonies.

Always observe a bee's nest from a safe distance when you're trying to identify a species. Watch for bees flying low over the ground and entering the burrow. Do you see a single bee coming and going, or multiple bees entering the nest? Numerous bees are an indication of a colony. Social bees—including bumblebees—will defend their nests aggressively, so before you take any action, it's best to be sure you know what you're dealing with.

Likewise, yellowjackets (nasty stingers) nest in the ground, and like bumblebees, often repurpose old rodent burrows for their nests. Some solitary wasps are ground nesters, as well. It's never safe to simply assume a nest is filled with docile, ground bees. Make sure to learn the differences between bees and wasps and take proper precautions to protect yourself and your family accordingly.

Should You Rid Your Yard of Ground Bees?

Before you decide to evict ground bees from your property, first and foremost, remember that these bees are beneficial insects that perform an important role as pollinators. Since they're not generally aggressive, you can usually mow your lawn and continue regular outdoor activities without fear of being stung. Finally, their nesting activity is limited to spring, so ground bees aren't in residence for very long. Unless you have concerns for a family member with a bee venom allergy, it's preferable to leave ground bees alone whenever possible.

Best Practices for Controlling Ground Bees

Ground bees nest in dry soil, avoiding damp areas when choosing nesting sites. The easiest, least-toxic method for controlling ground bees is to simply keep potential nesting sites well watered. As soon as you notice ground bee activity, begin soaking the area with a full inch of water each week. This is usually enough to discourage females from burrowing and to persuade them to relocate to drier ground.

A thick layer of mulch on bare garden beds can also make ground bees think twice about nesting. Pesticides are not recommended for ground bee control.