Ground Bees: What They Are And What They Look Like (With Pictures)

by | Ground Bees, Insects

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We all know that honey bees make honey and live in hives in rocks and hollow trees, so what makes a ground bee a ground bee?

Ground bees are all the bees that build nests on or underground, either by digging in loose soil or by taking over the abandoned burrows of animals. Ground bee nests can be shallow, above or just under the soil’s surface, or up to 3 feet (1 m) deep underground.  

Experts estimate that there are 14 000 species of ground nesting bees in the world, which is about 70% of all bee species. This means that nearly three-quarters of all bees lay their eggs in the ground in spring, and the eggs hatch the following spring to start a new cycle.

Most ground bees are solitary and live alone, but a few are social and live in a colony.

In this post, you’ll find out:

  • What ground bees look like
  • The common types of ground bees, with pictures so you can identify them

What ground bees look like

Ground bees are not a species – they are many different types of bees.

The only thing that makes a ground bee a ground bee is the fact that it builds nests on or underground, where females lay their eggs. The different ground bees may share traits when it comes to their nests and behaviors, but this is not the case when it comes to their looks.

Photo of a ground bee on the soil
This is a ground bee because it nests in soil.

Ground nesting bees come in many sizes and colors. The biggest measure up to 1.6” (4 cm) and the smallest around 0.25” (0.6 cm) long.

Ground bees may be black, tan, yellow, orange, white, blue, green, or a combination of these colors. Some have furry bodies and others have smooth bodies.

Click here to see my full article on whether ground bees are dangerous and how to stay safe.

Common ground bees

It’s impossible to give a list of 14 000 ground bee species here, but below is a list of some of the most common types of ground bees followed by pictures and more info, so you can identify these bees in your own backyard.

Some common ground bees in North America that you might have heard of are:

  • Alkali bees
  • Borer bees
  • Bumblebees
  • Digger bees
  • Miner bees
  • Sweat bees

Alkali bees

Alkali bees are ground bees found in the western United States, where there’s a lot of salt in the soil. These bees are about two-thirds as long as honeybees, with metallic stripes separating black segments in the abdomen.

Alkali bees are solitary bees, which means they live alone in their nest. But they are still social in that they like to build their nests close to each other, and sometimes two sisters live in the same nest.

A female alkali bee digs a main tunnel up to 21” (53 cm) underground, with as many as 20 chambers along the tunnel. It’s in these chambers that she stores pollen and lays her eggs.

The female flies up to 3 miles (4.8 km) from her nest to collect pollen on her back legs during the day, before returning to put the pollen in a chamber and lay eggs.

Photo showing what an alkali bee looks like
This is an alkali bee, a type of ground bee.
Source: Allan Smith-Pardo, Bees of the United States, USDA APHIS PPQ, Bugwood.org

Bumblebees

Bumblebees are ground bees found across most of North America. The bees are large, growing up to 0.6” (1.5 cm) long. Their body and legs are hairy, and they make a buzzing sound as they fly along.

Bumblebees have black and yellow or orange stripes on their body, often with a white tail at the end. Sometimes the tail is red or yellow.

Photo showing what a bumblebee looks like
This is a bumblebee, a type of ground bee.

Bumblebees are social ground bees, which means that many live together in a nest. A bumblebee colony also has a queen.

Bumblebees often build their nests up to 3 feet (90 cm) underground, find naturally occurring holes in the ground to move into, or take over abandoned burrows from other animals, such as rats or rabbits. Other bumblebee species make a nest above ground, covering it with grass and plant debris.

When spring arrives, the queen stays in the nest to lay eggs while the worker bees and male drones take on the rest of the responsibilities.

The next generation of queens find a safe place to hide out for the winter, and the original queen and her colony die by the end of summer.

Miner bees

Miner bees are ground nesting bees that live across the eastern United States. These bees reach up to ¾ of an inch long. They usually have black or brown wings, and their black bodies may have cream, yellow, orange, tan, or white stripes on them.

The bees have fine hairs on their bodies, from their head to the ends of their legs.

Photo showing what a miner bee looks like
This is an alkali bee, a type of ground bee.
Source: Allan Smith-Pardo, Bees of the United States, USDA APHIS PPQ, Bugwood.org

Miner bees build nests in dry, well-drained soil. As solitary bees, they live alone but often build nests close to each other.

A female miner bee digs a tunnel in the ground and uses loose soil to build a turret, which looks a lot like a chimney. This is why miner bees are also called chimney bees.

A ground bee’s nest is often mistaken for an ants’ nest, and people try to poison the ants without realising they are poisoning these important and often endangered bees. Click here to find out how to identify ground bees in your backyard before doing any pest control.

Photo showing an ants nest

I'm Monique. I love gardening and spending time in my backyard growing things. Here's where I share what I know about backyard pests and what to do about them, so you can enjoy your yard too.

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MONIQUE

Monique loves gardening and spending time in her backyard, where she grows flowers, succulents, herbs, fruits, and vegetables.

Monique spends a lot of time researching how to protect her backyard from harmful pests and trying to attract beneficial insects and animals.

She shares everything that she learns and tests here at Backyard Pests.