Spring is a busy time of year in the world of pest control.
With hundreds of insects coming out of hibernation to breed and feed, it can seem as if the whole world is being overrun with creepy crawlers. Of the insects indigenous to the Tidewater area, few provoke as much curiousity and anxiety as do a group of pollinators collectively referred to as Ground Bees.
The word “Ground Bee” has evolved over the years into a slang-word that is used to loosely describe any stinging insect that nests in the ground.
Some of these “bees” can be seen swarming in large numbers over ivy or thinning grass when the weather warms up in the early spring.
Others emerge from a single hole in the ground in late August or early September.
To the untrained eye, Ground Bees are all the same – after all, a bee is a bee.
When it comes to ground nesters, though, there’s more than meets the eye. In fact, it’s interesting to note that the ground-nesters we are accustomed to dealing with in Virginia comprise two totally different species that exhibit dynamically different tendencies, behavior, and nesting habits.
This early emerging species of bee is classed in the family Andrenidae, and falls under the common name of Solitary Ground Nester. Though we tend to think of complex caste systems and oblong-shaped nests when we hear the word bees, it turns out that the largest portion of the 20,000 species of bees in the world are members of this solitary nesting group.
“These.. solitary bees.. do not live in colonies. Andrenid bee burrows are made in the ground, usually consisting of a long vertical tunnel with lateral branches off of this tunnel to each cell. Sometimes large numbers of these bees will nest close together, particularly in bare-ground areas.”1
In the Williamsburg area, the solitary ground bee visits from late-March through mid-June. For whatever reason, they seem to have a particular affinity for English ivy. When nesting there, the bees either burrow into the ground directly under the English ivy or set up camp in the dirt surrounding the outer edges of the leafy cluster, and then swarm in large numbers just over the top of the ivy during the day.
The bees’ habit of swarming over the ivy (or wherever else they might be nesting) is disturbing to some, who fear they will become aggressive and attack if approached by humans. Solitary nesters, however, are not aggressive in nature. Though the females are equipped with a stinger and are capable of inflicting a mild sting when handled roughly or stepped on, they do not seem to have a disposition to attack people. The male bees, which make up the majority of above-ground swarmers, don’t even have a stinger!2
During my inspection of areas reportedly infested with solitary nesting bees, I have, on more than one occasion, walked through swarms of several hundred of these bees without harm. For this reason, I rarely recommend chemical treatment as a means of coping with this species of insect. Though they seem to invade the area overnight, the bees typically depart as fast as they came, and their presence in any one area rarely lasts longer than a month. 3 Most professional pest management operators and entomologists agree that solitary ground bees pose no significant danger to the environment, and should be left alone if possible. In fact, since solitary ground bees are active pollinators, they are considered to be beneficial insects. If you are at home with some spare time and are curious about what goes on in the insect world, consider trying this idea from a clip off of http://www.pollinatorparadise.com/:
“My advice is to leave them alone; just don’t walk barefoot around the nesting area while the bees are nesting. They are unlikely to sting your kids or pets, and you should be able to mow without disturbing them very much. If you mow early in the morning or in the evening there is less bee activity, and thus less opportunity to disturb them. In fact, I suggest that you spend some time with your kids sitting nearby and watching the bees come and go from their nests. Try to figure out how they dig their holes, what plants they are visiting for pollen and nectar (and pollinating in the process); observe how male and female behavior differs. Each hole is the entrance to the nest of a different female bee. How does each female know which hole belongs to her? How long does it take her to collect a load of pollen? This is a good opportunity for you to help your kids develop an appreciation for nature.” 4
Around the time that this docile species of bees fades into retirement for the season, another ground-nesting insect begins to emerge into the summer heat. These brightly colored versions of the “Ground Bee” are most often seen boiling out of old rodent burrows, holes between tree roots, and even cavities in structural edifices. In reality, they are not bees at all. Instead, they are members of the genus Vespula (the wasp family), and are known as Yellow Jackets.
Yellow jackets, while similar in size to the solitary ground bee, are much different in behavior and nesting preferences than their peaceful counterparts. While the solitary ground bee nests alone in a freshly dug burrow, yellow jackets are social insects that build intricate nests inside of preexisting cavities like rodent burrows. Instead of feeding on balls of pollen, yellow jackets prey on other insects and nectar. They are scavengers of human wastes, and prefer foods and liquids high in protein or sugar to feed their young. They are aggressive foragers and are easily provoked by the presence of humans, making them a serious threat to the safety of those in their immediate vicinity.
In the early spring, fertilized yellow jacket queens emerge from their winter hibernation to begin searching for a suitable place to build a nest. Once a safe location is secured, the queen begins construction on the nest. She lays her eggs, and feeds them for a short time after they have hatched. Soon, these grow into workers, who take over the duties of feeding the rest of the larvae in the nest. 5
Yellow Jacket workers are typically seen foraging as early as June. As the season progresses, they become more and more persistent in their efforts to find food. They have a tendency to take over outdoor activities during the late summer and early fall, which is their peak season, and are often seen foraging boldly around waste receptacles, soda stands, outdoor dining, picnics, and anywhere else there is a food source for the nest.
The aggressive behavior of yellow jackets coupled with their tendency to attack as a group makes them a formidable pest to deal with. In almost all cases, it is best to call in a professional if a nest is located and needs to be removed. PCO’s are equipped with the correct tools, equipment, warning devices, and personal protective gear to get the job done without endangering themselves, bystanders, or the environment. Under no circumstances should gasoline be used to destroy a yellow jacket nest, as this is dangerous to both the applicator and the environment.
In case you find yourself at an outdoor activity or other situation where there is heavy yellow jacket activity, follow these simple tips to minimize the risk of getting stung:
Keep drinks covered
Remain calm when around yellow jackets
Carry an insect sting kit if you are allergic to bee or yellow jacket stings
Swat or crush yellow jackets (they will release a pheromone that will incite other yellow jackets in the area to attack)
Wear bright colors or heavy perfume during yellow jacket season (dressing in white or khaki is best)
Panic when you see a nest – walk slowly away
Though you may do all you can to avoid being stung, you still may find yourself nursing a wound or two by season’s end. If you do, ibuprofen or a comparable pain reliever will provide some relief, while meat tenderizer or a baking soda/water paste is said to work well as a local at the site of the sting. 6
If you have been stung and have a history of allergic reactions to bee stings, get immediate medical attention – even if symptoms are not yet evident. Massive swelling at the site of the sting, shortness of breath, dizziness, and hives are all symptoms that indicate a need for prompt action. 7 There are an estimated 50 deaths per year as a result of yellow jacket stings, so don’t be one of them! 8 Better to spend a few hours under observation at a hospital than to underestimate the seriousness of a situation and lose your life.
As you prepare to enter yet another stinging insect season, make sure you prepare yourself with the necessary supplies and information to keep you out of trouble with the local wildlife. Hopefully, you will be a little less alarmed this year when you see those docile, early emerging bees in April and a little more cautious when you encounter the audacious late-August yellow jackets.
Who knows….you might run into a friend or neighbor at the hardware store who is at wit’s end over how to get rid of the “Ground Bees” that have taken over the back yard.
When you hear their complaining, you’ll know the right question to ask before you offer advice:
“Are they Solitary Nesting Ground Bees or Yellow Jackets?”
“What’s the difference?” your neighbor might ask. “A bee is a bee!”
To the untrained eye, that might be true.
A year ago, you might have agreed with him.
But this year will be different.
This year, you’ll know exactly what to tell him.