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Bees that nest in the ground

Posted 3:32 p.m. Friday, May 26, 2023

Danielle Hudson, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse graduate student in biology, has been conducting research on ground nesting bees in early spring outside on the university campus. The bees are typically out until the end of May.

The vast majority of bees are living underfoot (not in hives) and they're playing an important role in pollination 

We often hear most about honey bees and their hives — thanks to pop culture and Winnie the Pooh. But a whopping 70% of the world’s 20,000 bee species lay eggs in underground nests. 

If you’ve stumbled over a bee nest in your yard, resist the urge to figure out how to get rid of them. Ground nesting bees are important pollinators and also very docile. They are so mellow, you probably won’t even notice them unless you are looking. You may spot small dirt piles created from the holes they dig or see them flying just above the surface of the ground. 

We asked University of Wisconsin-La Crosse Biology Graduate student Researcher Danielle Hudson about ground nesting bees and their important place in the ecosystem. Also, read Hudson's suggestions for the best flowers for bees.

About nesting ground bees

Both nest locations for bees found on the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse campus (in front of Wittich Hall and next to Murphy Library) have been mowed over consistently for years, yet the bee populations continue to grow. Here UWL student Danielle Hudson samples bees with student Angelique Vega.

When do ground bees come out? 

Ground nesting bees typically emerge in the spring. Their lifespans are short; usually just a few weeks. 

Are ground bees a danger when mowing your lawn? 

From my observations researching bees at UW-La Crosse, mowing over their nest location does not cause them harm. The bees will either dive into their nest or fly away. Their nests are not at the surface and won’t be damaged either.  

Are ground bees aggressive? 

These bees are not aggressive, and they will not sting unless they are being handled or stepped on. At UWL we have a group of hundreds (potentially thousands) of bees nesting in front of Wittich Hall in a high traffic area. While conducting research, I found that students would walk right through the aggregation or even play frisbee in the middle of it. Not once was a bee aggressive, and most students didn’t even notice them! They fly low to the ground and have a relatively quiet buzz, so it’s easy to miss them. 

Which ground bees sting? 

Most ground nesting bees do have stingers, but they are all docile. 

Are ground bees pollinators? 

Yes. Since they emerge early in the growing season, they are essential to early-blooming plants. Some ground nesting bees are specialist pollinators, meaning they only feed from one plant species. Specialist bees are often the most effective pollinators of their preferred plants, and the two organisms have a close symbiotic relationship. 

Where do ground bees go in winter? 

A ground nesting bee’s lifespan is short once they emerge in the spring. After mating and laying their eggs, they are done for the season. The larvae will stay in the nest, eating food provisioned by their mother and pupating through winter before emerging the following spring. 

What is the difference between a ground bee and a honey bee? 

Honey bees originated in Europe and were brought to North America for their honey production and to pollinate crops. Ground nesting bees found in La Crosse, Wisconsin are native to this area and do not produce honey. They do provide important pollination services, though.