Ground-nesting Bees

A reader asked us if we knew how to deal with some pesky ground-nesting bees that have made their home in potted plants in her nursery. She’s concerned that they might bother her customers, so we did some research and found out lots of interesting things.

Ground-nesting bees are part of a large group of natives called solitary bees who are not usually aggressive and rarely sting. They live and reproduce in tunnels that they dig into the ground (or in potted plants). They seem to like to nest near each other and their spring nesting activities, which last four to six weeks, may make them more noticeable.

We humans seemed to have found a way to make life difficult for our native bees, especially in urban settings (by definition this is anything that isn’t rural). In California between 60 – 70% of native bees live in underground tunnels (Urban Bee Gardens) and they need access to bare soil in order to build their nests. But we gardeners love to mulch and when we do we’re covering large areas of potential nesting sites.

If you do need to do something about ground-nesting bees in your yard, the University of Michigan Integrated Pest Management site says it’s best to deal with the bees by using cultural controls. Ground-nesting bees prefer well-drained soil containing little organic matter. Covering the affected area with mulch or ground cover and watering it regularly will discourage them.

Keep in mind though that these native bees have a very important role in pollination. Their place in the ecological system is especially vital because they are not subject to the human-caused health problems that plague honeybees and if honeybee populations continue to decline, solitary bees will become ever more important in pollinating wild plants, crops, and landscape plants. So discourage them where you must, but consider dedicating an out of the way area of your garden to the bees by keeping it dry and free of mulch, especially in urban areas where they need all the help they can get.

11 thoughts on “Ground-nesting Bees

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  1. An important thing to realize is that these bees do not sting, so they really don’t pose any threat to nursery customers or anyone else. Perhaps the nursery could post a sign, telling their customers not to be afraid because these are very beneficial native bees that won’t harm them, but that are awesome pollinators!

    Thanks for writing this, since it’s so important that people realize that not all bees sting and make honey – but they can pollinate a lot more efficiently than non-native honey bees!


  2. That’s sad someone would want to get rid of a nice bee. What more people need to do is build “Bug Hotels.” Bug Hotels provide shelter and a place to overwinter beneficial insects in your garden. Usually these are made with scrap wood that has holes drilled in it, old pieces of bamboo cane, etc. in something that provides shelter like a basic birdhouse minus the front.

  3. I have to disagree with the mulch madness vendetta. As I do see that in URBAN areas where soil is a rare thing – and potential nesting locations are scarce – THICK mulching could be a deterrent and a negative thing for native bees. HOWEVER. In non-urban areas where there is a diversity of soil structures for native bees to choose from I feel that the most helpful thing a person could do to support native bees is to grow healthy thriving flowering plants. And to grow a healthy productive garden, you need healthy thriving soil and MULCH is a very important factor in creating that soil ecosystem. SO, not only can bees live in the soil, but fungus, soil mites, WORMS, and other garden insects that need sheltered soils to thrive and make the plants healthier!! SO don’t just think about the bees here…think about all the other critters who need homes! If native bees need soils that are uncovered, have little organic matter, and little water…sounds like the garden is not the best place for them to nest, and should be nurtured to feed them instead!

    1. We never meant to give the impression that we have a vendetta against mulch, as a matter of fact we highly recommend using it for the all the very good reasons you state. However in urban areas if all the soil is covered with a 2″ to 3″ layer of much the native bees will be discouraged from taking up residence in that area. So we do sugest that the urban gardener leave a small out-of-the-way area of soil uncovered to provide nesting sites for our native bees who are so important to pollination, especially in light of the issues that honeybees are having with Colony Collapse Disorder.

      Thanks for clarifying the issue, Eliza.

    1. Brenda – not sure if the bees in your pot are coming from your hive. It’s possible, but not likely unless they are swarming and looking for a new home. In that case there would be a LOT of them.

      1. Thanks, it was scores but not hundreds and I saw them make a beeline for hive at dusk. My NC State Apiary inspector says they were looking for minerals. I moved the pot so dogs would not get stung going after bees.

  4. So interesting! Thanks for letting us know. Glad you moved the pot. My dog is a fiend for bees – terrified of flies, but will stalk and attack bees. She gets stung every time too. Doesn’t make the least bit of sense!

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