For a long time in my life I never really gave much thought to bees, other than to avoid being stung. Like most people, I learned in elementary school that they are pollinators, responsible for the reproduction of flowering plants. The takeaway was – no bees, no flowers. Beyond that, my education did nothing to teach me the true value and wonder of bees.

I’d always thought that a bee was just a bee. Yet there are more than 20,000 different species of bees in the world, with 4,000 of them living in the United States. They range in size from the smallest Perdita minima of the desert southwest, measuring less than .08 inches long, to the aptly named Wallace’s giant bee, which can grow to 1.5 inches long. Bees live on every continent in the world, except Antarctica, and they occupy a wide range of habitats – forests, deserts, mountains, grasslands, wetlands, and even on the tundra of Alaska. While we tend to think of bees as living with colonies in hives, some live in trees or underground, and some are solitary.

The most important thing to know about bees, though, is that they are a keystone species. It might be hard to imagine that such small animals have such a vital role on Earth. But together, trillions of bees have an enormous impact. Yes, without bees many plant species would cease to exist, and many ecosystems would collapse. Not only that, but bees are essential crop pollinators. In fact, one in three bites of food we eat is dependent on bees. So next time you sit down for a meal, thank a bee.

Of course, like so many species, bee populations are in decline. At home there are many things we can all do to support bees, including planting pollinator gardens with plants native to your area, eliminating the use of pesticides, making a bee bath, or opening a bee hotel. All of these are simple, yet important way to help protect the bees near you. For more information, visit the Bee Conservancy!