a rediscovery of bees

Nearly a year ago to the day, I was sitting outside enjoying my last few days of a much-needed vacation and was astounded to see bees flitting about my yard. I guess spring is my preferred vacation time, because this year I found myself in the same situation. Only now, I knew to be on the look out for the mining bees.

I had been looking forward to spring not only because Wisconsin winters always feel too long, but because I was eagerly awaiting the emergence of the mining bees come April or May. After all of my research about last year’s bees, I couldn’t wait to see the life cycle continue and observe the adult bees emerge, knowing that they had hatched from the eggs laid last spring. Perhaps some of them would even be the sons and daughters of Delilah!

Day 1 | Saturday | 22 April 2017

With only a couple days left of my annual spring vacation, I am fortunate enough to have a warm sunny day to relax outside. I glance through my bedroom window that is only inches above the ground and hold back an audible squeal of excitement. The bees are back! I grab my camera, slide into my shoes, and dash out the patio door and stand in awe as my eyes fly eagerly scan the yard. The sun is bright and hot, and the heat stirs the bees beneath the earth, enticing them to emerge, and welcoming them with a warm embrace of light.

It must be one of the first days the bees are out of the ground. At least, one of the first days that both male and female bees are out together. Where I was late to observe the bees last year, this year I think I am lucky enough to see two different mating pairs. I squat in wonder, as I watch within a few inches of each other, a female claw her way slowly out of the earth and a male and female bee twist their bodies together in what I can only assume to be their mating ritual. 


A male and female mining bee presumably mate. Males are light yellow to grey in color and females are dark yellow or orange in color. 

They fly about me peacefully, allowing my awkward form to kneel and crouch among them with my phone only inches from their small bodies. Knowing that only the female bees sting, and presuming that they are not too territorial yet without their own homes to defend, they are quite amiable to a human lumbering about. 

After I have my fill of picture taking and video recording, I plop myself in a lawn chair with a book and read while they carry on beginning their short adult lives. Amazement and excitement continue to distract me from my book, especially when a bee lands on my leg and rests for a while there, its wings raising and lowering in a slow rhythm, as if it is trying to catch its breath.

Day 2 | Sunday | 23 April 2017

The bees do not come out until the sun has had time to warm the top soil and beat heavily on the area instinct had brought bees to last year (or perhaps the year before). It is a windy spring day and after a failed attempt at a bike ride, I settle into my spot outside my window, balancing on a two-by-four frame nestled in a bed of rocks. It allows me to sit close to the bees and observe their movements while not taking up valuable land. I see less male bees flying around, and of those that I do see, their energy is definitely waning. 


Three female mining bees look for the perfect spot to build their homes.

The females on the other hand are busy testing the sandy soil and preparing to burrow into the ground, creating tunnels for each of the eggs they’ll lay upon a pod of pollen. I wonder what they think of me looming over them, casting a cold shadow over their home openings. At least I serve as a real scarecrow. Many birds watch from the trees, but they stay clear of the insects hovering over the ground as I watch.

Day 4 | Tuesday | 25 April 2017

A few days later, I only have a short amount of time after work to observe how the mining bees are faring. The evening weather is a bit dismal; the clouds send down sprinkles of rain every now and again. I can see though that the female bees have been extremely busy. The ground is littered with dark circles of dirt. The conical mounds around each new bee home are slowly becoming more defined. 

20170423_165522A few bees flying slowly over the ground keep me company as I grill dinner. It is the first day I no longer see any male bees and I wonder if they have perished already or if they are underground with the other females. I realize that I have no idea if the bees go back into the homes from where they came while they search for new places to dig new nests. Do the males dig their own homes? Or do they just emerge to mate and then fly off in search of other mates and food and die far from their original home? 

Day 6 | Thursday | 27 April 2017

My evenings are often busy and do not allow me much time to sit outside and observe my bees. It is late in the evening, near sunset when I am able to see what is happening in my yard. I have just finished about a three mile walk in cold and dreary weather, but still I see two bees floating above the ground where the homes have now become more defined. The bees work so quickly, but there are not too many budding plants around. I wonder how far the bees travel to find pollen to pack away underground as a food store for the eggs that will soon be laid . . .

At the time of my writing this, it would be day ten since I saw the bees for the first time this spring. It has been a few days of cold and rain, so I haven’t seen the bees, and the holes to their homes are hard to spot in the flattened and soaked earth. I wonder if the bees take the time during these rainy days to construct their tunnels and wait for the water and future sun to generate a more varied array of flowers to bloom.

From what I have read, mining bees live for four to six weeks once they emerge, so perhaps I shall see them again when the rainy days end. Or, maybe they brave the wetness, knowing they can not wait for a respite from nature if they are to successfully lay their eggs and have enough food for their brood to consume as the egg transforms into a larva and then a pupa and finally into an adult.

There is so much I do not know, and probably never will know about the mining bees. I still am not sure what species lives outside my apartment although it’s a good chance it is Andrena dunningi. But I do not need to know every detail of their lives to still be ecstatic each time I see the bees. I don’t know how to explain what I truly feel watching the bees. It is an odd mixture of happiness and giddiness. Perhaps it is a sense of novelty. Or perhaps it is a feeling of honor to have the chance to observe a native bee species in its natural habitat in a world that continually threatens the lives of such benevolent and beneficial pollinators such as my mining bees.

Watch my video of this year’s mining bees and witness the bees mating and burrowing as detailed in this post.


a discovery of bees: part two

All of my bees are dead. They have been for quite some time now. Although, that is probably obvious as it is winter in Wisconsin. But the lives of the mining bees lasted only several weeks, and it was a short-lived bout of excitement for myself. I felt like I missed out on witnessing their entire adult lives, either because of my hectic life, or because their windows of activity were quite short and irregular each day. But, alas they are gone, and in only a few short months, I may witness the emergence of the next generation that my bees laid with care beneath the earth outside my apartment. For that, as I discovered through a bit of research, is the sad and yet beautiful life cycle of the mining bee.

It’s surprisingly difficult to find information on my bees. I told you in my last post about the day I first discovered the bees in my yard. After taking ample images and videos, I hustled inside to do a bit more research. I tried finding my exact bee online, but there was always something not quite right about the bees I was finding. They looked very similar, but they just weren’t my bees. After trying to narrow my focus to just mining bees and native bees in Wisconsin, I found a PowerPoint presentation done by a UW-Madison graduate student. She had her contact information on it, so I emailed her a couple photos asking for her expert opinion on what sort of bee I had discovered. Although she only “could give [me] a definitive ID if [she] had the bees under a microscope,” she surmised that my bees were called Andrena dunningi. She also encouraged me to post my pictures on the Bug Guide, as many professional taxonomists visit the site and could help identify my bee with more precision.

Andrena dunningi

A sketch of one of my mining bees. They look very much like honey bees but are smaller, thinner, and darker.

After a somewhat thorough Google search and after sifting through my pile of library books (surprisingly, children nonfiction offers the most helpful information of bees), I learned the sad truth that my mining bees would only live for four to six weeks. At the time I had already witnessed a decline in the population flitting about when the early spring sun beat down the heaviest on their homes and I would dash outside to see them at work. I didn’t know when the adults had first emerged. They could have been out for a week or two already by the time I initially saw them. And now my time with them was already ending. But it was still a cool thing to have witnessed after learning what they had been doing with their short lives.

The adult mining bees emerge in late spring. Well, it actually depends on the type of mining bee, as some will emerge in summer or fall, depending on what their food source is and when it blooms, thus aiding in pollination while being able to gather pollen and nectar to store with their eggs. What’s fascinating about insects like bees, which are so important to the life of so many plants, is that the plant and pollinator have evolved to fit each other’s needs. Especially regarding the relationship between native plants and their native pollinators, like so many solitary bees (like my mining bees) are in Wisconsin.

When I first saw my mining bees, both the males and females were flying around. I assumed it was time for them to be mating and that they had just recently emerged and had begun their mating process. But maybe that had already passed and the males I saw were the last of them, living out their final days, searching for what nourishment they could find and turning now and again to a female for some last-day-on-earth action. I thought I witnessed a little bit of their mating rituals, which is the only reason I say this. But perhaps their midair entanglements were more platonic than I imagined. Both male and female bees were quite tolerant of me as I hovered over them with my massive phone, crouched among the stones to observe them. You can watch a video of some of their activities that I witnessed on that initial day of discovery.

While the males died off rather quickly–I never saw them after that first day–the females lived for a couple more weeks. I’m still not sure what their special food is or if they’re a specialty pollinator (as some mining bees apparently are), but what the lady bees do in their short life is a beautiful thing, and something that I think truly speaks to the importance of bees as pollinators.

The purpose of the adult female mining bee’s life, once she emerges, is to mate, dig a nest, and lay about five or so eggs, which she lays on pollen pods that she has created from her foraging (and pollination) efforts. She then seals the eggs in individual caves. She can even waterproof each little egg cavern with a special chemical that is produced in an abdominal gland. After she has laid her eggs and sealed them, and her work is complete, she dies.

In the coming weeks of spring and summer, the eggs will then hatch, the larvae will eat the stored pollen, and pupate into adults that will lie dormant through the winter months, and emerge in the spring to do the same thing all over again. It’s such a beautiful symbiotic relationship. The bees emerge at a time when a certain plant is blooming. The bee travels from flower to flower, pollinating the plant to help it produce its own fruit, and the bee takes the flower’s nectar and pollen and saves it for its future offspring.

It was kind of sad the few days towards the latter of part of May when I would go outside in the evening and only see a few bees remaining. And then there were none. My friends and family who knew about my bees were shocked when they’d ask, “How are your bees?”and I’d reply simply, “They’re dead.” I always had to clarify. “But that’s normal.” The usual response then was, “But why? What do they do?” And I’d eagerly explain.

All of my bees may be dead, but come spring, I’ll be around to see their labor pay off and witness the new generation follow their instincts to mate, forage, and dig a nest for their offspring. It’s a simple and beautiful life cycle, and one I am excited to witness again, but this time with knowledge and preparation. 

Life Cycle of a Mining Bee

The life cycle of a mining bee. Some mining bees emerge at different times of the year. Created by G.M. Cottrill.