Why bees are climate heroes

Bees are busy fighting climate change

Sunflower bee hovers over flowering plants in grasslands of South Dakota

Bees have a reputation for doing five things really well: pollinating flowers, making honey, buzzing, and stinging. Oh, and flying: They are pretty great at that too. And while it is true that many of the world’s 20,000 or more species of bee do all these things and much more, they rarely receive the credit they deserve for their integral role in fighting climate change. You might even say that bees are unsung climate heroes, especially when it comes to their role in preserving the health of threatened ecosystems and grasslands like the Northern Great Plains. The multitude of bees and other pollinators that help keep grasslands healthy are essential partners in maintaining a stable climate. Here’s how:

Superpower: Creating seeds for diversity

While bees are often celebrated for their vital contributions to producing the food we eat, it is easy to forget that they are also instrumental in seed production for the thousands of species of flowering plants growing within forests, prairies, wetlands, and more. Let’s take a moment to consider their role in grassland ecosystems. Scientists estimate that bees have been around for an estimated 130 million years, appearing, at least evolutionarily speaking, not so long after the first flowers bloomed. Once these two famous partners teamed up, they embarked on a shared journey of rapid speciation together resulting in the approximately 20,000 species of bees and astounding 400,000 species of flowering plants that have been identified so far.

Beacons for bees

Sam Droege, a renowned Wildlife Biologist at the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab reminds us that bees like any true hero will go wherever they are called to – the flowers, plants, and grasslands acting as a homing beacon beckoning them forth, as their very own “bat signal.” 

“Our 4000 species of bees in the U.S. are picky. They will travel impressive distances to feed on specific species of flowering plants," says Droege. "If you plant them, they will come. We’ve seen that even if the climate changes where the plants can grow, the bees will follow.”

He emphasizes the importance of individual action, stating, “By planting native blooming plants in your yard, you become a guardian for native bees, creating vital 'flower stepping stones' for their survival.”

A grassland is one type of ecosystem where bees play multiple important roles. These often-overlooked habitats are composed not just of grasses but of a broad community of wildflower species and flowering shrubs. Without the help of these fastidious creatures, flowering plants would no longer be able to reproduce at the same rate, eventually dying out, and we’d lose these species-rich and diverse ecosystems. This would be a big problem for our planet because unlike the grasses that grow in your local park, or shallow-rooted crops like corn and wheat, native grasslands plants often have very deep roots that reach 15 feet or more into the soil. While a forest stores the bulk of its carbon above ground in a tree’s trunks and branches, most grassland carbon is safely held below ground within these roots. Unlike forests, which lose most of their carbon once their trunks have burned, the carbon within a healthy grassland remains beyond the reach of fire, providing a second line of defense against a changing climate.

A secret superpower: Improving soil health

A bee’s impact below the soil line doesn’t end with carbon sequestration. More than 90% of the world’s bee species are solitary (think hardworking single mothers), and many of these nest within the soil. In more arid regions of the world, including those which harbor temperate grasslands, solitary bee species nest in large, communal aggregations. These gatherings may include hundreds or even thousands of individual bees, whose nests may go many feet into the soil, providing aeration and opportunities for water sequestration. However, the most important way that bees impact soil is through, you guessed it, the plants that they help produce.

Plant roots are often vast in comparison to the structures that you see above ground. These root systems not only feed the plant, but hold the soil together, This allows the soil to provide food and shelter for small insects and species that till the soil and breakdown organic matter—a necessary process for returning vital nutrients to the earth. In addition, the composition of soil is more than just a collection of uniformly sized granules. Healthy soil contains areas of blocky matter, fine granules, mixes of clay, and various minerals to name a few components. A healthy plant community is vital to retaining this soil variability and nutrient richness, which many species depend on. Where they are found, bees play a significant role in ensuring these soils remain healthy.

Bees play major role in seed production of flowering plants

Bees also contribute to healthy soil for grasslands roots

You can be a superhero too: What each of us can do to help bees

WWF works on behalf of grasslands, native bees, and other pollinators by partnering with the sustainable ranching community, Native Nations, and other grasslands champions. We actively support policies that reduce pesticides and incentivize efforts to keep grasslands intact a restore those which have been disturbed or plowed up in the past.

There is also a lot that you too can do to care for bees and other insect climate heroes in your own community: since they are pretty much all around us!

  • First, whether you live in an apartment with a small balcony or a home with a small backyard, planting wildflowers that are native to your region and avoiding the use of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides will provide a safe environment for bees to feed and flourish.
  • Second, working with your local city commission to stop the spraying for mosquitoes (instead focusing on reducing standing water around our homes, which is the real culprit) and to create native bee habitat will help them out immensely.
  • Finally, supporting product brands which have made commitments to helping pollinators and reducing agricultural impacts on grasslands is another important step that we can all take to support these true climate heroes.

A sweat bee visits a prairie spiderwort flower