For many people, bees are divided into two types: honeybees and bumblebees. However, this is far from the truth, as there are actually over 20,000 species of bees. Today I want to focus on a species of bee that most people don’t know about – the digging bee.
What are Digger bees?
Digger bees (also known as long-horned bees) are usually large, unusually fluffy bees that tend to build their nests in the ground – hence the name. You can find them all over the world. There are thousands of species of Digger bees, at least 900 in North America.
This classification includes miner bees, wasps, sweat bees, and plasterer bees, as well as many other bees. Digger bees are excellent pollinators and are said to be more useful to us than bees and bumblebees.
Speaking of which, despite being in the same family as honeybees and bumblebees (Apiidae), beekeepers (and hobbyists) are simply intrigued by their atypical behavior. From their appearance, their company, and their habits, they hardly resemble their more common cousins.
What does a Digger Beeslook like?
Aside from a few traits we can use to identify them, keep in mind that “digger” is a generic term used to describe many different species. If you want to determine the exact species of bees, you need to look at the unique characteristics of each species.
There are some general characteristics. Excavator bees vary in size from the size of a bee to the size of a bumblebee. They should be between a quarter and a half inch in length.
Some of them are glossy or metallic, although they are generally fuzzier than most bees. Patterns, markings and coats all depend on their species. Another clue is that male Digger bees have enlarged antennae.
Of note, however, let’s focus on individual bees. Let’s take a quick look at the most common types of diggers.
Mining bees are located on the smaller side of the Digger bees and are usually between 0.3 and 0.7 inches in length. Their bodies are metallic black (but may also be blue or even green) with a moderate amount of fur on their abdomens. Their hair is light, but the shades range from orange-brown to almost white.
Yellow-faced bees are similar to wasps. They are slimmer, sharper and arrow-shaped than our friends, honeybees, bumblebees and carpenter bees. They don’t have as much fur as you’d expect from a bee, and they get their name from the distinctive mask-like yellow markings on their faces.
Sweat bees are arguably the most “bee-like” of the Digger bees, but within their family their markings and traits vary so much that no two sweat bees look alike. They are furry and often have the more common black and yellow stripes characteristic of bees.
Usually their stripes are sharper and more pronounced than those of bees, but not as bright as those of bumblebees.
This is just a digging bee’s overview of how we look. If you really want to be sure that you stumbled upon a digger, its patterns won’t help much (unless you study each one carefully and can tell them apart right away).
It is much better to identify a digger by its most obvious characteristic: digging.
It’s easy to confuse nesting bees with Digger bees, but they’re not the same thing. It can be said that all burrowers are burrowers, but not all burrowers are burrowers, like bumblebees and carpenters.
One of the most important identifiers is their solitary state, but it takes some explanation to understand why they are so special. I mean, carpenters are also ground-nesting solitary bees, so why aren’t they diggers?
Here’s a fascinating fact: Digger bees are socially solitary bees. They nest alone, but close to each other, giving us the impression that they live in a colony even though they are not.
Because they nest underground, their nests look like a series of mounds in the ground, with obvious and uncovered entry holes. However, not all Digger bees build their nests underground. Some are known to burrow in wood, while others are parasitic and don’t burrow at all.
Digger bees still build wax cells underground, which are used for brooding and food storage, just like other bees.
Digger Bees Society
Since Digger bees do not live in colonies, they do not follow the queen and have no workers. Their behavior is almost the opposite of a bee colony, as they do not need to maintain a hive.
Female Digger bees are responsible for building nests and cells, and like in other bee societies, drones serve no great purpose other than reproduction. This is interesting, however, because the excavator drone is more active than the other drones when it comes to mating.
Excavator drones have been studied as a first step. They seek out females: you can sense them underground and wait precisely for them to surface. When females reach the surface, males become territorial and have been known to compete for females.
Generally speaking, solitary bees have a short lifespan with sole focus on reproduction as colony bees. Once they mate, they die and new bees continue the cycle.
Facts about Digger bees
Finding information about Digger bees can be difficult because they are not as popular, or respected as bees. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about mining bees.
Do Digger bees produce honey?
While diggers are associated with bees, they do not produce honey. In fact, bees are the only ones that produce honey the way we like it. Although excavators don’t produce anything we can harvest directly, they are efficient pollinators and we owe them a lot (like our food).
However, they secrete wax (or wax-like substances), which are used to build subterranean cells.
Is Digger bees Dangerous?
Not sure that Digger bees are aggressive, but of course there is the usual disclaimer that they will attack if provoked. They are more docile than other bees (their stings are smaller), but the risks are different.
More aggressive ground-nesting insects such as yellow jackets are often mistaken for passive diggers. Be extra careful if you stumble in the house or on nearby hills. You may be dealing with wasps. While not inherently more aggressive, they are more easily provoked, and their sting is more unpleasant.
Are Digger bees threatened with extinction?
There’s no evidence that Digger bees are threatened, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t. Factors that put other bees on the vulnerable bee list (climate change, human interference, deforestation, etc.) still affect burrowers.
However, their greatest threat is humans. They look (and sometimes behave) like wasps, so Digger bees have an unfair reputation for being dangerous. When people don’t know they are docile and find them, they panic and order them removed.
While it’s understandable that not everyone likes bees around, Digger bees won’t bother us (or damage our property) if left to their own devices. Unfortunately, very little is known about it, and many Digger bees are killed due to our ignorance.
Digger bees are fascinating because they are very different from the bees we usually hear about. They nest underground in groups, and males have an advantage over other species. They are excellent pollinators, and their unconventional appearance makes them stand out.
Still, little information is available about mining bees as a whole. If you want to know more, you have to study individual species. These bees need more awareness so others can learn not to fear them or kill them unfairly.