Artist-scientist discusses endangered, native bees Tuesday

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There are nearly 20,000 species of bees in the world, but only about 60 are native to Hawaii.

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There are nearly 20,000 species of bees in the world, but only about 60 are native to Hawaii.

Hawaiian yellow-faced bees aren’t honeybees or bumblebees, and they don’t look at all like the fuzzy black-and-yellow insect of storybooks. They are small, more like wasps, with distinct markings on their faces.

For millennia, the Hawaiian Hylaeus bees flitted among the mountain ranges of Oahu and the lava deserts of the Big Island — they lived on every island, building their nests in rocky crevices and co-evolving as a key pollinator for many of Hawaii’s native flowers and trees.

Then, like so many other endemic species, they began to disappear, pushed out of their habitat by introduced ants and wasps and fellow bees.

In October of last year, seven Hylaeus species became the first bees to earn protected status under the Endangered Species Act.

Before that listing, “There was hardly anyone looking at them,” said Lisa Schonberg, who originally co-petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to get the bees listed. Schonberg and entomologist Karl Magnacca wrote their petitions in 2008, while both were working at the Portland-based Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

It took three years after that for the bees to be put on a waiting list for consideration under the ESA.

“The process was so dragged out and so long that I had actually lost hope they would get (listed),” Schonberg said.

Schonberg had first learned of the bees more than a decade ago while interning at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. She later worked on a research project at Xerces, and was struck by how little people, even people in Hawaii, seemed to know about the bees.

She decided to try to change that. A scientist who is also an artist, Schonberg set out to create a multimedia project that would highlight the plight of the bees.

In 2013, after receiving a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland, she and fellow artist Aidan Koch visited Hawaii to document Hylaeus in its natural habitat. They then created the Hylaeus Project: a book of Koch’s drawings and paintings illustrating the field notes both women had taken on the trip. Schonberg, a drummer, made audio recordings while on the islands, which she later used to make music compositions.

“I’m kind of in between the art and science world,” she said. “I just want to see how much I can use art to elevate messages about the environment.”

The fact that it was taking so long to get the insects listed served as inspiration, she said: “That was even more motivation to the project: ‘Oh, I should really get the word out and talk about these bees as much as possible, especially in Hawaii.’”

“I’ve just been really appreciative of the support I’ve gotten,” she said. “I hope it’s (the project) has made a difference.”

Schonberg will discuss the Hylaeus Project on Tuesday as part of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’s After Dark in the Park program. She’s updated the original book to include the bees’ new status, and said she’s looking forward to reconnecting with people she met during the first trip.

“Since I’ve been to (Hawaii), there’s been a few scientists who’ve done research on the bees, and done some wonderful work,” Schonberg said. Oahu-based researchers Jason Graham and Sheldon Plentovich are working on efforts to create new nesting sites for the bees.

After receiving their endangered species listing, the seven Hylaeus species went global: they were written up in National Geographic and The Guardian, and covered by CNN and CBS (one article illustrated with a photo of a bumblebee, underscoring the need for more awareness).

“Now they’ve gotten such a boost,” Schonberg said. “It’s really exciting for this very, very, very small thing to get all of this attention.”

“All of the native flora and fauna in Hawaii are so special,” she said.

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The Hylaeus Project and Newly Endangered Bees of Hawaii will be presented at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park Kilauea Visitor Center Auditorium.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.