There are a lot of misconceptions about bees, from the belief that they sting at the slightest provocation to the perception that they are all black and yellow. Don’t Step on a Bee Day, celebrated every year on July 10, hopes to set things straight by highlighting what these insects are really like and how they are connected to us.

“Few people are aware of the critical role bees play in our everyday life,” says James Belli, president of the Illinois State Beekeepers Association.

Bees are essential for the pollination of many plants that are vital not only to our diet but to a number of other animals’ as well. Bears, birds, mice, squirrels and other creatures are dependent on the nuts and seeds that result from pollination, according to Edward Spevak, curator of invertebrates at the St. Louis Zoo.

“They are maintaining ecosystems and our agriculture. One out of every three bites of food we eat depend on pollinators, and those mainly are bees,” says Spevak.

5 Fun Facts About Bees

If you’re surprised to learn how important bees are to our lives, there is probably more you don’t know about these fascinating insects. Here are 5 facts that may surprise you.

1. There are thousands of bee species. Many people are aware of bumblebees and honeybees, but did you know there are 20,000 species of bees worldwide? In North America alone there are over 4,000 species of bees.

Honeybees, probably the species the public is most aware of, are not even native to the United States but were brought over by early settlers. Native North American bee species include bumblebees, mason bees and orchard bees.

2. Bees are colorful. When people think of bees, they tend to think of insects that are yellow and black. While these colors appear on some species, bees can actually be found in a wide range of colors. They can be amber, metallic green or deep metallic blue-black, and can have turquoise or emerald eyes.

“The beauty of other [bee] species blows people away,” says Spevak. “They are so diverse.”

3. Bees are not aggressive. One of the biggest worries people have about bees is being stung, However, according to Spevak, bees are not aggressive.

“Bees normally can care less about you," Spevak says. "It’s very difficult to actually get stung by most bees.”

Honeybees and bumblebees may become aggressive if you approach their hive or colony because they will attempt to protect it, but unless they are provoked, most bees will leave you alone.

4. Not all bees live in hives or are social. According to Spevak, 70 percent of native bees nest in the ground and most bees are solitary. The social nature of bumblebees and honeybees is actually considered odd.

“Some bees don’t mind living next to each other," says Spevak. "Like an apartment, they’ll share an entrance but have their own individual spaces."

Ground nesting bees are also not aggressive. Even running a lawn mower over their nest will tend to get little reaction.

5. You can become a hobbyist beekeeper. Beekeeping is no longer only for professionals. According to Belli, there are more hobbyist beekeepers now than ever before.

“Hobbyist beekeepers may be the salvation of bees. They introduce a great deal of diversification,” Belli says. “It’s a great hobby and very enjoyable.”

There are a number of local beekeeping clubs in every state where you can learn more about becoming a beekeeper.

The Disappearing Bee and How You Can Help

Now that you know a little more about bees, imagine how different our world and food supply would be if they disappeared completely. Sadly a number of species are disappearing and there’s no certain answer as to why. Few studies have been done on native bees, but over the last few years a concerted effort has been made to understand these species and why they’re vanishing.

Two factors believed to be contributing to the problem are loss of habitat and heavy use of pesticides. Luckily, you can help bees when it comes to these two areas.

If you use pesticides on your home garden or lawn, make sure to read labels carefully: Many will advise against spraying when flowers are in bloom and bees are active. Some pesticide concentrations in home products can also be higher than those used for agricultural purposes, as people look for quick and easy fixes, says Spevak. Take your time to review products and investigate your options before spraying anything around your garden or lawn.

To help with loss of habitat, you can plant a garden. A garden with plants that will bloom from spring to fall creates a bee habitat — and makes you a conservationist. There are programs nationwide that advise people on how to create a bee-friendly garden and even explain how you can become a citizen scientist by collecting data on your bees.

Learn more about bees and how you can help them by visiting the St. Louis Zoo website.

Read more Vetstreet articles about conservation and the work of zoos and aquariums.