Cheers for Bees


This year several readers have written to me about ground bees. Should they (the reader not the bees) be afraid? Do the bees damage the garden?

You may have noticed small holes in your garden or lawn. You may also have noticed small bees that resemble honeybees emerging from them. After all, there are about 2,800 different types of bees in North America. Take time to really look, because yellow jackets, which are wasps, also emerge from nests underground. Yellow jackets tend to be territorial, another word for aggressive. But even yellow jackets will not bother you if you leave them alone. (Recently I was cleaning up a garden bed and received four yellow jacket stings on my arm due to my own carelessness.)

Two years ago, we had a yellow jacket nest near the back entrance to our home. I spent time observing them coming and going from the hole in the ground. They were bringing back dead insects that they had captured to feed their young who were in the underground nests. It was truly neat to watch this. We left them to their business and they did the same for us.

Back to ground bees... Ground bees tend to be native species. They weren’t brought here from other parts of the world, as were the honeybees. They don’t form hives, but live solitary lives except at mating time. A female lays her eggs and tends to the developing larvae in the nest. You may have noticed, however, that there may be several holes in the ground near each other. The females seem to aggregate in one area. You will see a cone-like pile of soil around each hole. Consider this: if they like a particular area in your garden, think of it as prime real estate! Ground bees don’t produce honey. They are gentle (well, if you stop waving your arms around them!). I truly don’t know one person who has been stung by a ground bee, although I wouldn’t sit on top of an opening. They may get accused of being a nuisance, but I truly believe this is driven by human fear.

The most common ground bee in Western New York State is Colletes inaequalis. The males emerge before the females here in late March or early April. The males hang about waiting for the female bees. Mating occurs in the air or on the ground...what a sight! The males sip nectar from tree blossoms but die shortly after mating, their purpose in life already served. The mated females dig a tunnel about a quarter inch in diameter and about eighteen inches down into the soil. They lay the fertilized eggs into cells dug into the walls of the tunnel. Before each egg is laid, the female collects and deposits pollen and nectar, lays the egg, and finally seals it with a substance that is chemically similar to polyester. Because of their pollen and nectar collecting, the females are incredible pollinators!

Other species of ground bees include Andrena and Halictus. Note that ground bees are important pollinators of blueberries, apples, and other fruit. Please don’t spray them! Gardeners treasure the creatures in their world. We all have a place. Sprays don’t!


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