Project creates a buzz about Hawaii’s bees

Combining her love of music and entomology, Lisa Schonberg has swarmed around the plight of the Hawaiian yellow-faced bees with a multimedia project that’s creating a buzz about their importance and how best to help them.


Combining her love of music and entomology, Lisa Schonberg has swarmed around the plight of the Hawaiian yellow-faced bees with a multimedia project that’s creating a buzz about their importance and how best to help them.

Last summer, Schonberg and artist Aidan Koch spent a month in Hawaii creatively documenting these native and increasingly rare bees, with the genus Hylaeus, at more than 20 field sites on the Big Island, Oahu and Kauai. They were meticulous takers of field notes, jotting down the sights and sounds encountered, as well as creating an engulfing sense of place. In particular, they watched closely which plants the bees visited, noting when, where and what was seen.

While Koch made watercolor paintings and drawings of flora and fauna, Schonberg could be seen wearing headphones and walking around sites with a field recorder capturing live samples of the environment.

Their work was then compiled into “The Hylaeus Project,” a 257-page illustrated book, and a set of drum-centric music compositions — both were released in January. Schonberg shared the project during a presentation Friday at Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park, one of the field sites.

Roughly eight years ago, Schonberg, a Portland, Ore.-based musician, artist and natural historian, spent a few months working at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Afterward, Schonberg, who has a science background, took a job with The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, where she was asked to look at Hawaii’s native bees.

Only a few people have done “a thorough investigation of these bees” and the first was R.C.L. Perkins, a distinguished British entomologist, ornithologist and naturalist who explored the Hawaiian Islands, looking for all sorts of different species in the 1890s and early 1900s. Nearly 100 years passed before someone else took another look at the bees and that was Oahu-based Hylaeus expert Karl Magnacca, Schonberg said.

“In the time between Perkins and Karl looking at these bees, he had found these bees had really declined significantly in most of their range and some of the bees could not be found,” she said. “Also, some of these bees had only been seen once or twice ever. So very little in general is known about these bees, their behavior, their nesting needs and the plants they rely on. More research might help us discern why the bees are disappearing.”

With the society, Schonberg discovered “there is 60-something known species of these bees in Hawaii, including 20 that are endemic to single islands.” Upon learning their populations are diminishing, she helped co-authored petitions to the federal government to list several Hawaiian Hylaeus species as endangered, with hopes of the needed protection for their survival. Instead, the bees were put on a list of candidate species, she said.

Realizing most people don’t know Hawaii has native bees let alone know they’re disappearing, Schonberg started The Hylaeus Project “to experiment with new ways of getting the word out about these imperiled and fantastic species.” The project was partially funded by a grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council in Portland.

“Highly overlooked,” Schonberg said Hawaiian yellow-faced bees do not look like honeybees and are more like wasps. These small, black bees get their name from the yellow to white markings on their face. They’re not social, have solitary nests and there’s no parental care. Vital pollinators, they’re found almost exclusively with native Hawaiian vegetation, of which “a lot is becoming increasing rare and limited in the bees’ range.” Because of this, the habitat available to the bees is decreasing. However, there’s an introduced plant, tree heliotrope, or Tournefortia argentea, which they “love.”

“This is lucky for them because they would be even more doomed,” she said. “One of the most important things would be to conserve these trees where they are and not remove them simply because they’re not native.”

But even if these bees have the plants needed, Schonberg said there are aggressive social insects, such as long-legged ants, that out-compete them and overtake their habitats. When visiting several Hawaii Island field sites, Schonberg and Koch came across Hylaeus that were “very few and far in between,” except in Waikoloa, where the bees swarmed in a long row of naupaka and bleached coral on a beach.

Inside the park’s amphitheater Friday, the audience enjoyed several compositions, performed by Schonberg’s Secret Drum Band and based on the soundscape of field sites. For the one of Kipukapuaulu at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Schonberg tried to mimic the different bird calls, their rhythms and chaos with different tones, materials and a live sampling. There’s no clear pulse or downbeat, a challenging aspect for the band.

Music was something Schonberg admits to being initially hesitant about adding to the project, mostly because it’s always on her mind and she “operates in this fear of science and art.” Possessing a master’s degree in environmental studies from Evergreen State College in Washington, Schonberg has traveled extensively doing field ecology jobs and performing music. She said much of her work in recent years integrates her interests through creative documentation of soundscapes, insects and habitats. For instance, she spent one summer recording soundscapes on Mount Hood in Oregon.

“A lot of people ask about the connection, but for me, it was more clear because I had already been doing this type of studying for awhile, particularly that about soundscape ecology and the field of acoustic ecology. What they’re looking for in that field is how we can look toward sounds as an indicator as to what going on in a habitat area,” Schonberg said. “So with this, we’re looking at the various things that are going on with the bees’ habitat. They may not always be direct indicators of the bees’ condition, but they are descriptors of the habitats the bees create or take up in their existence.”

Another valuable aspect of the music is how it draws people in.

“People are definitely curious about it and are like, ‘What, we’re listening to bee habitats!’ With these compositions, I was able to present it to people who wouldn’t normally be interested in the native bees in Hawaii. So, it’s helping reach a broader audience,” she said.

Raising awareness is what Schonberg hopes to achieve.

“This project is a success if we can even just get people to talk about these bees, know that they exist, know they are native, and to speak for them when questions come up about removing important vegetation they visit or when landscaping decisions, pesticide use or land management decisions come up,” she said. “Also, if the comment period about the listing resurfaces, hopefully more community voice will be generated.”


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Email Carolyn Lucas- Zenk clucas-zenk@

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