A fuzzy yellow bee peeks out from a hole in the ground.

Clear Space For Bees: Why Pollinators In Your Yard Need Access To Bare Ground

By Sebastian Echeverri

When creating a garden or yard that supports pollinators, one instinct might be to fill every patch of ground with as many plants as possible. But doing so would deprive the majority of our native bees of a necessary habitat: bare ground!

Yes, we mean open patches of soil and sand, with few or no plants! Why is this such an important feature to include when building a biodiverse yard? Because that’s where most of our bees live! Around 70% of all of the native bee species in North America nest in the ground. They prefer relatively loose, undisturbed soil, and patches of bare ground without a lot of dense vegetation or coverings such as thick mulch.

Ground-nesting bees include long-horned bees (Melissodes spp.), squash bees (Peponapis spp.), mining bees (Andrena spp.), polyester bees (Colletes spp.), and many sweat bees (Halictus spp.). Many of these bees are among the earliest pollinators to emerge in spring, and are essential pollinators of early-blooming fruit tree crops, as well as spring ephemeral wildflowers and native trees and shrubs.

A bee emerging from its nest entrance, which has been dug into sandy soil. The bee has a black body covered all over in short blonde fur.
Polyester bees (Colletes spp.) are pollinators of red maple, willow, and apple trees, and they need access to bare soil to dig out their nests. They get their common name from the cellophane-like lining (made of polyester) that they add to the inner chambers where they lay their eggs. (Photo: Heather Holm).


How to make a useful patch of bare ground  

If you’d like to support ground nesting bees in your yard, it’s easy! The first step is to clear away dense vegetation from a sunny, well-drained area. If possible, select a spot on an open, south-facing slope. The sunlight helps the bees warm up and start their day, and keeps the soil from staying muddy after rains.

These bare patches don’t actually need to be completely cleared. Bugs just need to be able to get to the soil easily. Leaving some plants to prevent erosion is a good idea. Try using native flowering plants and grasses or sedges that grow in clumps or bunches. These plants are useful since they grow with a space around the plant where bees can access bare soil. 

Once you’ve built your bare ground habitat, don’t turn or till the soil in the area. Bees need the soil to remain stable; baby bees spend up to eleven months of the year underground!


An area of ground partially covered in sparse grass clumps, and partially more bare ground with pebbles. Nests of ground-nesting bees are all over, easily noticeable by the small heaps of soil around each entrance.
At first glance, this sparsely-planted patch of ground might look like it’s covered with anthills, but upon a closer look, you’ll see no ants climbing in and out. While most ground-nesting bees are solitary, each making their own nest, the right habitat can bring together many individuals, making a little bee neighborhood. (Photo: Kelly Gill / Xerces Society).


Use loose ground cover instead of traditional mulch

Avoid landscaping with plastic mulch, landscape fabric, and heavy wood chips, especially chemically treated or colored wood chips. Not surprisingly, these impenetrable layers can limit nesting sites for ground nesting bees.

If you would like some cover over open ground areas, consider using a shallow layer of pebbles as rock “mulch”. Bees can still reach small patches of soil, and some even prefer to nest among pebbles over bare ground (such as the orange-legged furrow bee Halictus rubicundus, which is widespread). 

A small sweat bee poking her head out of her nest. While the nest is dug in soil, it is surrounded by many pebbles.
Many solitary bee species can be found nesting in soil with pebbles on the surface, like this small sweat bee (Lasioglossum sp.). Larger rocks can also make for good habitat features, as long as bare soil is accessible between the stones. (Photo: Jennifer Hopwood / Xerces Society).


Another compromise is to use compost, leaf litter, and plant debris from your wildflower gardens, rather than wood mulch. Compared to wood mulch, a layer of leaf litter or other loose mulch allows ground-nesting bees easier access to their nest entrances. 


Wildlife watching at your patch of bare ground

Once you’ve put together this new habitat, keep an eye out for signs that your local pollinators are moving in! Here are some things to look out for:

  • Bees digging their nests in spring! Small heaps of soil around a tunnel opening are a good sign that a bee is busy at work. 
  • Nesting mothers bringing in food for their offspring! Ground-nesting bees will make many trips with pollen, while many ground wasps will be seen carrying back insects since they are carnivorous.
  • Tiger beetles roaming in search of food! Many are quite colorful and shiny, and often prefer flat, open areas.


A tiger beetle walking over an area of bare soil. Its entire body is a very bright metallic green, with hints of blue in the legs.
Many tiger beetles also like patches of bare ground. Larvae make and hunt from burrows in the soil, and adults are fast sprinters that like to chase prey on flat areas. (Photo: Sarah Foltz Jordan / Xerces Society).


As an extra treat, the nests of ground-nesting bees are an excellent place to practice your bug photography! Whether the bee is out foraging, or inside the nest digging, you can be sure that it will soon pass by the entrance, giving you a better opportunity to set up the shot ahead of time. You can even use these photos to contribute to conservation research! Adding photos to Project Ground-Nesting Bee helps scientists discover how bees decide where to nest based on different types of soil. Of course, you will also get to enjoy seeing these bees amidst the rest of your garden, happily pollinating flowers.

More resources and further reading



Sebastian Echeverri - Xerces Society (c. Dudley Edmondson)
The Xerces Society

Dr. Sebastian Alejandro Echeverri, PhD (he/him) is your friendly neighborhood spider scientist, wildlife photographer, and science communicator. He joined Xerces in 2024 as a communications specialist for science and digital media, and is excited to continue making bugs (and bug conservation!) more accessible, inclusive, and joyful for everyone.

Sebastian completed his PhD in 2020, studying why and how paradise jumping spiders get their audience’s attention when pulling off their fanciest dance moves. Since then, he has wrangled spiders for documentaries and live events, developed a Zoology series for the YouTube channel “Crash Course”, co-hosted the new BBC Earth Podcast, and written a spider field guide.

Born in Colombia, Sebastian grew up in New York City, and currently lives in New Jersey with his partner, their rescue greyhound Flora, and a collection of pet arachnids. He went most of his life unaware that he is autistic and has ADHD, but now finally (kind of) understands how his brain works. When not talking about wonderfully weird animals, he enjoys reading sci-fi stories, watching anime, and playing video & board games.


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