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Fellowship awarded to study endangered yellow-faced bee

  • Photo courtesy of KARL MAGNACCA

    An endangered yellow-faced bee, or Hylaeus anthracinus, on ‘ilima in South Kona. This bee is the study species of Jonathan Koch’s recent fellowship grant.

A University of Hawaii at Hilo researcher was awarded a prestigious fellowship to study the diversity of Hawaii’s native bees.

Jonathan Koch, 32, is one of five doctorate applicants selected from around the world for the 2018 David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship by the Society for Conservation Biology and the Cedar Tree Foundation.

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The fellowship is considered “the nation’s premier postdoctoral program in conservation science,” according to a UH-Hilo news release.

Koch’s two-year fellowship amounts to $150,000. His project is titled, “The nalo meli ‘apa‘akuma project: Characterizing population genomic diversity of imperiled Hawaiian Hylaeus bees to inform stakeholders on in situ breeding and habitat management strategies.”

Koch said Hawaii is home to about 60 different types of bees not found anywhere else in the world. He said his project involves studying the genetic diversity of those Hawaii bee populations and determining which are most “inbred” — which indicates vulnerability.

In 2016, seven of Hawaii’s yellow-faced bee species were granted federal protection under the Endangered Species Act, a first for any bee species in the country.

“Once we know, we can determine which are less inbred than others and we can kind of give them a hand by maybe planting more flowers and making sure (in) more of their habitats they can find suitable nesting sites,” Koch said during a phone interview Tuesday. “… We want to learn about their genetic makeup to inform management and conservation strategies.”

“It’s really exciting because no one has ever done this before,” he added.

Koch is an Oahu native who completed his undergraduate studies in environmental science and geography in 2008 at UH-Hilo. He later earned a master’s in biology and a doctorate in ecology from Utah State University.

He returned to UH-Hilo in 2016 as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow in the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science program, specializing in the study of invasion genomics. He’s currently an adjunct faculty member and postdoctoral fellow in the TCBES program, studying the evolutionary mechanisms that enable invasive species to adapt to the mosaic of ecosystems found in Hawaii, according to the release.

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“UH-Hilo is situated in a living laboratory,” Koch said. “We’ve got this island that’s really dynamic. Things are constantly changing and a lot of the bees I’m studying live right on this island. So, there’s much to discover here.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.