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The first native bees of spring

A male Anthophora (digger bee) poking his head into a bluish-purple periwinkle flower

We might still be waking up to frosty roofs and dustings of snow here in Seattle, but native bee season has begun!

As soon as there’s a stretch of days that hit 50°F at the height of the midday sun, some of the very first spring bees start to emerge here in Seattle: male digger bees (genus Anthophora). I tend to first notice them hanging out on leaves, trying to warm up in the sun.

A male Anthophora (digger bee) perched on green leaves, sunbathing. He has a tuft of light hair on the front of his face, and white and slightly orange-ish hairs on his thorax and abdomen. Black integument (exoskeleton) is visible through the hairs, especially on his abdomen and legs. Each of his middle legs has a long tuft of white hairs shaped like the bottom of bell-bottom pants.

They drink nectar from early-blooming flowers, like rhododendrons, periwinkles, and heathers.

A male Anthophora (digger bee) perched on a petal of a pink rhododendron flower

A male Anthophora (digger bee) on a periwinkle, with his bushy white leg hairs and the yellow facial markings visible

Side view of male Anthophora (digger bee) on a cluster of white and red heather. He is sipping nectar, and his long mouthparts are visible sticking into a flower as he sips nectar. His hairs look dense and bushy from this side angle, a combination of off-white and sparse black giving most of his body a tan coloring, with patches of brighter white or black hairs on and near the legs.

These handsome male bees are in the family Apidae, as are honey bees and bumble bees. Like bumble bees, they’re large and fuzzy. Unlike bumble bees, male Anthophora have patches of bright yellow integument (exoskeleton) on their faces. The species featured in this post, Anthophora pacifica, also have fancy mid-leg hairs that remind me of a Clydesdale’s fetlocks or a cowboy’s fringed chaps; these are thought to be used to attract females or in interacting with them during mating.

Three-quarters view of a male Anthophora (digger bee) standing on some rocks in the sun, with his white leg hairs and big eyes visible. The tarsal claws on one of his front feet (tarsi) are visible.

View of two male Anthophora (digger bees). The upper one is perched on a woody stem, with the pitted texture of its abdomen, its bushy white leg hairs, and its antennae in focus. The lower one is emerging from a hole in the dirt, showing its yellow facial markings.

A head-on closeup of a male Anthophora (digger bee) poking its face out of a hole in the dirt, with its mandible, its yellow facial markings, and the individual ommatidia (individual components) of one of his compound eyes visible. The large black compound eyes are nearly as long as his face. The yellow markings include a pair of triangles pointing inward from the compound eyes, a pair of splotches at the base of the antennae, a large upward-pointing triangle covering most of the mid-face (frons), and another large part below that (clypeus).

A side view of a male Anthophora (digger bee) partway out of a hole in the ground, with two of its legs sticking out at an angle that shows detail of its shaggy leg hairs.

A three-quarters front view of a male Anthophora (digger bee) showing the contrast between its middle leg, with long shaggy bellbottom-like white hairs, and its front leg, which has shorter hairs that are mostly black.

A male Anthophora (digger bee) on its back, showing a clear view of all its legs, its yellow facial markings, and its tongue parts (glossa).

The bee in that last photo was not in great shape when I found him, but his odd posture gives you a good view of his leg hairs and his tongue (or glossa).

The eggs that gave rise to these bees were laid last spring in underground tunnels. As larvae, they ate their personal stores of pollen and nectar gathered for them by their mothers. Anthophora pacifica then pupate and metamorphose into their adult form for the months-long wait for spring. Like most solitary bees, they spend more time underground waiting to become adults than they do after they emerge to fly and mate.

If you’re lucky, you might be able to spot a nest site. Keep your eyes open for bare patches of well-drained soil on sunny slopes. I’ve had the best luck finding them in messy dirt/rock-combo walls on south-facing hills. As bees emerge through the early spring, more and more of their vacated round nest holes (about ⅜” across) appear.

A closeup of seven holes vacated by emerging Anthophora (digger bees) in a dirt slope. Each is round, about 3/8" wide and they are separated by 1/2" to 2".

If you find a possible nest site, come back between about 10am and noon on a sunny day; you might see new bees emerging! They come out caked in dirt and matted-looking. They’re sluggish for the first first few minutes as they warm up in the sun. (This is a gift to the bee photographer, because once they’re active, they’re FAST.)

An emerging male Anthophora (digger bee) with matted dirt on his thorax and legs.

A male Anthophora (digger bee) halfway out of a hole in the ground with the matted, wet-looking hairs characteristic of a bee's initial emergence.

Most males emerge before most females, by as much as a couple of weeks. Males are typically closer to the nest hole entrances to facilitate their earlier emergence, but not always. Last year in late February, I was surprised to see a female emerging around the same time as the earliest males. (You can quickly tell she’s female by the lack of yellow patches on her face.) She looked oddly inert and still as she popped further out of the hole.

A female Anthophora (digger bee) poking halfway out of a hole in the ground, her front legs visible.

A female Anthophora (digger bee) most of the way out of the ground.

A back view of the same female Anthophora (digger bee) as the previous two pictures, now fully emerged.

Then I noticed another antenna coming from the hole! Another female was pushing her out.

A back view of the same female bee as the previous few pictures, now with another bee's head and antennae just visible under the end of her abdomen.

A side view of the same female bee as the previous few pictures, with the other be pushing her out now poking far enough out of the ground that its eyes and front legs are visible.

The female bee emerging from the ground is now halfway out, and the bee that came out before her is tilted forward, her abdomen pushed far upward by the emerging bee.

A face-on view of the emerging female bee, who has now changed direction to avoid the bee that emerged first.

A face-on view of the second bee, now emerged, with the still-stiff-looking first bee in the background

A top view of the two newly-emerged female bees, showing the dirt caked on the thorax of the second one, and also showing the thick white pollen-collecting hairs on one of her hind legs.

A three-quarters view of the second bee, with her bushy white hairs and caked dirt visible, and the first bee visible in the background.

The first be to emerge sticking her tongue (glossa) out as, having warmed up, she grooms herself

Female #1 came slowly to life, doing some grooming and sunbathing and sticking-out of her tongue (visible in the last pic above). Then she took off, revealing that at the bottom of this clown-car of a bee nest, there had been a male trying to get out.

The first female bee has flown away; this photo shows the second female bee and a new male bee (with characteristic yellow facial markings) emerging out of the same hole behind her.

A view of the 2nd (female) and 3rd (male) bees, focused on the males yellow-marked face.

A front-on view of the male as he emerges next to the female, who is seen in a side view.

The remaining female bee (the 2nd to emerge) has warmed up enough to start walking away from the male, but as visible in this three-quarters view from behind showing her thorax, abdomen, wings, and two back legs, she is is still caked in dirt.

A closeup of the male (3rd bee to emerge) as he sticks partway up out of a hole, showing his white and black leg hairs, his yellow facial markings, the tawny hair on his thorax, and his big shiny black eyes.

After all that fuss, he seemed to think better of coming all the way out, and he retreated.

The male from the previous photo has retreated back a little further into the hole, giving a view of his head from below and showing off a tuft of orange-ish hairs between his eyes and a flat row of white hairs extending downward from his black mandibles.

The male from the previous photo has retreated further into his hole, now with only his head and the tip of one from leg visible above the mossy ground.

The male from the previous photo has retreated all the way into his hole, with only one one antenna poking out and a tiny sliver of his eye visible about 1/4" into the hole.

Though many male bees don’t have a reputation for hanging out in nests, these males regularly take refuge in last year’s nest holes.

Two yellow-faced Anthophora males show their faces at the entrances to their holes in the ground, about 2" apart.

Found yellow male Anthophora faces are visible in four holes in a sandy-colored dirt slope.

Each morning, they poke their heads back out, slowly inching back into the sun to warm up. Sometimes they’re glistening with dew.

A male Anthophora pokes his head and thorax out from a little patch of dirt and moss between large gray stones in a wall.

 A three-quarters view of a male Anthophora in a little dirt hollow, showing beads of dew on a big compound eye and on the hair on his thorax.

Two male Anthophora poke awkwardly halfway out of their holes in a damp dirt slope colored in yellow, green, and reddish-brown moss. A third male Anthophora is tucked into his hole, which just the top of his hairy gray thorax, the tops of his big compound eyes, and his antennae (each with its yellow spot) visible poking up.

A closeup of one of the big compound eyes of a male Anthophora. A bead of water on the eye acts as a magnifier, making the hexagonal grid of individual ommatidia (compound eye parts) visible.

Males seem to mostly wait for females near a nest aggregation, either buzzing wildly around or sunbathing next to a hole.

A back view of a male Anthophora sitting on a slope of dirt, moss , and pebbles with his shaggy white legs out to the sides. A large hole is just above him to the right and a 3/8" round nest hole is an inch away to the bottom left.

I’ve rarely managed to see or take pictures of Anthophora mating. Males of some digger bee species are known for aggressively seeking emerging females, sometimes fighting each other in big groups or digging down to meet a female who hasn’t yet broken the surface. The behavior I’ve seen is less intense; sometimes they seem oblivious to a newly emerging female just a few feet away. A flying male will sometimes buzz a sunbather or a pair of males will have a quick aerial dogfight. Here’s one of the few photographable male tussles I’ve seen:

A blurry picture of two Anthophora males on their sides on light-colored dirt, one grabbing the other from the back.

The same two fighting male Anthophora as in the previous picture, this time seen from the back.

The females are a different story; they do some dramatic grappling with each other that would be at home in a wrestling ring–if wrestlers could also fly. But that’s a story for another blog post.

For other readers in the Seattle area, have you noticed Anthophora (or its mountain digger bee cousin, Habropoda) in your neighborhoods? Let us know, and look out for them across WA. You can find range maps on Discover Life (for expert-vetted observations) and iNaturalist (for citizen science observations.)

723 views3 comments


Thank you as I just located my first digger bee out on the Wallula HMU, Walla Walla County on 2 March 2024. Took several photos as it sat and soaked up the sun's warmth on a gopher mound at 52 degrees F.


dani dani
dani dani
Sep 02, 2023

Very informative blog for me to learn about bees and bugs.


Aug 22, 2023

I am Happy to read this information Its very difficult for me to hide this type of information.

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