Studies like this are important because many ecological functions result from interactions between species, and rapid climate change has the potential to disrupt such carefully timed ecological functions as plant pollination by insects, according to the paper. Bees are key pollinators for some 80 percent of flowering plants and 70 percent of food crops that require insects for pollination.

"Some people may read this study, and say, oh great, we don't have to worry about climate change disrupting plant-pollinator interactions," but more research is needed, said Danforth. For example, the study only examined bee species that overwinter as adults and not species that overwinter as larvae and require more lag time before they emerge as adults. Also, findings might be different in other regions, such as the dry Southwest, where seasonal rainfall plays a role in these dynamics.

Although the triggers for bee spring emergence are unknown, bees may simply be cued to emerge when temperatures rise above a threshold over a number of days, Danforth said.

But "if climate change accelerates the way it is expected to, we don't know if bees will continue to keep up," he added.

Co-authors include researchers from the American Museum of Natural History, University of Connecticut, and York University in Canada. Jason Gibbs, a Cornell postdoctoral associate, conducted and supervised a team of undergraduates entering bee data at Cornell.

The study was funded by the NSF and others.