Miner Bees – Everything You Need to Know About Them

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Have you ever looked out over your garden or yard in early spring and seen a swarm of insects fly low to the ground?  You might have thought them to be honeybees, based on how they looked. But those are not usually out that early in the year.  And they don’t usually buzz around close to the ground. Yellowjackets often are more aggressive and live in the same nest. Could it be that you saw some miner bees in your yard?

The Facts

Did you know that 70% of the over 4,000 different bee species native to North America nest underground?

Whenever you think of bees, you probably image a hive-building, honey-producing swarm that will sting you every chance it gets.  You’re not alone.  Most of us spent our childhoods wary of painful stings .

Well, it turns out you don’t have all the facts. Today, we’re going to look at the facts, specifically, how they relate to the miner bee.

Andrena is the largest genus in the family Andrenidae, which has over 1,300 different species.  It is one of the largest genera in the entire bee family. 

If you are anything like I used to be, you probably don’t know whether these insects are beneficial to your garden, how to find their nests, or how to get rid of them.  You’ll find all that information here.

And you’ll also unearth (pun intended) the answer to the one question we all have about this particular insect: What about the sting?

Distinguishing Miner Bees from Other Types of Insects

It can be challenging to distinguish this solitary, ground-nesting insect from a small bumble bee or wasp.  They are all fuzzy-looking, dark in color, banded, and about the same size. So how can you tell the difference?

The key is to pay close attention to what the insect does.

Most adults of this species are directly tied to specific plants that they can pollinate.  They time their emergence to coincide with the blooming of those specific spring flowers, so they are usually among the first you’ll see in the spring.  They will visit early spring wildflowers in your lawn to collect pollen and nectar as soon as March or April, and sometimes even come out before the snow has melted.

Another way to distinguish between these similar-looking insects is to look for where they make their home. 

A miner bee builds its nest in an area of sandy or dry dirt that has little plant life growing on it.  This can be an old field, a dirt road, or even a hiking trail.

One of the most distinguishing features of this ground-nesting insect is that it is solitary.   It is “sub-social.”  This means there is no hive and no queen to work for.

Instead, these pollinators have more of a communal arrangement.  Although each keeps its own nest, they live close to one another and share natural resources like flowers and other plants. 

The Nest

The female of the species begins building a nest by softening the ground with regurgitated water.  Then, it removes the soil with its mandibles and builds a tunnel that is about 1 inch deep and 4.5 inches long. 

Once the tunnel is complete, the industrious builder creates five to eight cells inside each tunnel.  Each cell gets lined with a clear liquid from a gland located in the abdomen.

This lining serves two purposes.  It strengthens and waterproofs each cell and also serves as a food source for the larvae.

Once the tunnel complex is complete, the female begins to construct a chimney or turret at the entrance by building up individual particles of soil around the tunnel’s entry point.

Usually, the female only builds one next, but some will build two or three.

After all that building, surely, it’s time for this builder to take a break, right?  Wrong.

Every tunnel is built with one thing in mind: Procreation.

Reproduction

As soon as the nest is completed, the adult female visits plants and flowers to collect pollen and nectar. It stores its “harvest” by combining the pollen, regurgitated nectar, and abdominal fluid, thus creating a pollen mass that is kept in each nest cell.

Once the female has formed the mass, it emerges from the nest to mate.  Then, the eggs are placed on top of the pollen mass.  Each cell is closed off with soil for protection from predators.  Once this has been completed, the tunnel entrance is plugged up with soil from the ground as well.

It takes about five days for the eggs to hatch.  The larvae will consume the pollen and nectar mass the female left in the cells and mature relatively quickly.  They will overwinter as pre-emergent adults within the individual cells.

Life Cycle

The life cycle of the female is between 4 and 6 weeks.  The life cycle of the male is half of that.  Generally, more males are produced than females each time miner bee eggs hatch.

The Importance of Miner Bees

This species may not produce honey, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t important. In fact, unlike other pests, such as ants, who cause more harm than good, these insects are considered a beneficial part of your garden.

They Are Pollinators

These ground-nesting insects play a significant role as pollinators for your lawn and garden.  Remember that they collect pollen and nectar to feed themselves and their larvae.  So they are spreading a lot of that golden goodness around your lawn and garden in early spring.

They Don’t Produce Honey

Wait, what?  How could that possibly be a good thing? Honey is delicious! Well, remember that people aren’t the only ones who enjoy honey. The fact that this insect does not produce the sugary substance is a good thing.  You won’t have to worry about errant bears, rats, raccoons, opossums, or any number of other wildlife invading your lawn or garden.

They Are Not Aggressive

Unlike their hive-dwelling counterparts, these pollinators do not have a queen, a hive, or honey to protect.  The only time they might be aggressive is when they protect their eggs or young from a threat.

They Help with Your Yard Work

You already know that this insect tunnels into your ground to form its nest. By digging holes in your soil, it is naturally aerating your soil.  So not only are they helping your plants on the surface, but they are also helping the roots—just as earthworms do.

The tunnels allow water and nutrients to flow readily to the roots of your plants and flowers.  They will also ease compacted soil.

Getting Rid of Them

If you would like to get rid of these helpful insects even after hearing about their benefits, you’ll want to try the following.

Find the Nest

If you haven’t already, you need to determine the location of the nesting site. 

These pollinators fly low to the ground.  If you see a number of them buzzing low in a centralized area of your lawn or garden, you have probably found the nesting site.  You’ll need to remember this area of your lawn or garden.

Plan a Nighttime Raid

The insects are less active at night, so a nocturnal assault is your best bet. 

Before you set out, be sure to dress appropriately.  Wear long sleeves, long pants, boots, and gloves.  You are a threat to the young in their nests, so the adults can become aggressive.  Protect yourself accordingly.

Make your way to the nesting site using indirect lighting.  Try not to use a flashlight, as this may attract bugs.  The only exception is if you cover the light with red cellophane as the insects cannot see red.

Use the Right Poison

Choose insecticide dust that is designed for ground-nesting insects.  Spread the insecticide dust over the nests and the soil around it.

Use a rake or a garden hoe to cover the nests and channels.  Destroy as many as possible.

Spread more of the insecticide dust over the site. 

As the adults emerge to begin rebuilding their nests, they will be coated by the poison.  Consequent grooming will lead to ingestion of the insecticide, and the insect will die.

Make sure you have exterminated the entire population.

Wait two weeks, and then cover the area with mulch or sod.  Water the area regularly, as this species avoids a moist environment.

Reconsider Getting Rid of Them

Before you destroy the nesting site, remember everything good you’ve read here about these pollinators.  They are not aggressive, they pollinate early spring flowers, and they improve the quality of the earth as they dig under your lawn or garden.

The only drawback is that they don’t produce honey.  If you want my opinion, I would rather have incredible flowers and vegetables in my garden than honey. Not only would it be difficult to harvest, you would also never know when a bear might turn up.  No, thank you.

Do Miner Bees Sting?

Here is the million-dollar question.  For most people, deciding whether they like this insect or not depends on the answer to this question.

The males of the species are pretty much only good for one thing:  Breeding.  They breed, and then they die.

Not only that, the males do not even have the equipment necessary to sting you.  They are small and harmless.

Females do have a stinger.  What they do not possess is the necessary aggression.  They are not prone to attack unless they feel threatened.  This usually happens when you get too close to the next.  Females will protect each cell they have built by stinging you. 

However, these stings often won’t even puncture the skin.  If they do puncture the skin, the effect is not nearly as painful as the sting of a wasp.

Bottom line, steer clear of them, and they will leave you “bee.”

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Happy Planting!

About the author: Carley Miller is a horticultural expert at TheGreenPinky. She previously owned a landscaping business for 25 years and worked at a local garden center for 10 years.

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