Are grasslands good homes for bees?

It turns out that what's good for the grasslands is good for the bison and good for the bees

Jason Blackeye | Unsplash.com
A rusty patched bumblebee on the prairie.

The health of America’s grasslands is linked inexorably to the health of the American bison (what we often mistakenly call buffalo), and vice versa. As is so often the case in nature, the health of one depends on the other.

This observation won’t surprise anyone coming to this page. You may not know, however, just how important the health of grasslands are to many species of bees. Which means the health of the bison is also bound to the health of these bees.

All of which is why bee-lovers like us applauded, when, on March 3, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a new plan to protect America’s native grasslands and restore wild and healthy populations of American bison. 

The Interior Department will direct $25 million in funding from the Inflation Reduction Act toward restoring bison and grassland ecosystems and fostering collaboration between federal agencies, tribes, states and landowners to do so.

So how is this good news for bees — especially the endangered rusty patched bumblebee?

Grassland prairie is one of the best bee habitats around. Prairies offer tall grasses to shelter in, wildflowers in every color, and a buffet of pollen and nectar for these hard-working pollinators to fill up on.

In the 1800s, prairie stretched as far as the eye could see. It covered a full third of our country, a sea of grass from the Dakotas to Texas. But over the intervening years, that prairie has been steadily carved into farmland, and today, tallgrass prairie covers just 4% of its original area. 

As the prairie disappeared, so did the wildflowers that flourished alongside prairie grasses, and so too did the rusty patched bumblebee. Its population has plummeted by nearly 90% since the 1990s, and in 2017, it became the first bumblebee in the continental U.S. to be added to the endangered species list. The reasons for this decline? Habitat loss, pesticide use and climate change.

Restoring native grasslands can give these bumblebees back their little home on the prairie. And that’s where bison come in.

This prairie dog doesn’t know it, but the bison behind him is helping his grassland habitat flourish.

Bison and grasslands belong together, and not just in our national imagination. Bison play an ecological role in the grassland ecosystem. Their hooves break up prairie grass and soil, helping new plants flourish and making grasslands and entire prairie ecosystems healthier.

Between 30 million and 60 million bison roamed the Great Plains before they were driven to the brink of extinction by the late 1800s by hunting and a U.S. policy of bison eradication intended to harm Indigenous tribes. A few decades later, Teddy Roosevelt helped spur early conservation efforts to save the bison, and today an estimated 15,000 bison live in the wild and another 11,000 live in managed conservation herds.

Environment America applauds Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s plan to help restore wild bison populations and replenish our wild grasslands. As the bison and grassland return, so will the other native species that call the prairie home: grassland songbirds, river otters, prairie dogs, grizzly bears, wolves — and yes, bees.

So, together, let’s give bees a home where the bison can roam. Because they both need grassland — and each other.

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Author

Steve Blackledge

Senior Director, Conservation America Campaign, Environment America

Steve directs Environment America’s efforts to protect our public lands and waters and the species that depend on them. He led our successful campaign to win full and permanent funding for our nation’s best conservation and recreation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He previously oversaw U.S. PIRG’s public health campaigns. Steve lives in Sacramento, California, with his family, where he enjoys biking and exploring Northern California.

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