This musician is fighting to save Hawaii's endangered bees

Lisa Schonberg, a musician from Staten Island with an obsession for protecting the little guy, is fighting to save an endangered Hawaiian species
This musician is fighting to save Hawaii's endangered bees

Photos by Marco Garcia

Isolated islands are crucibles of evolution. Removed from the outside world, with fewer rival species to contend with, a single species may have a thousand generations to adapt to local environmental challenges—developing, say, long beaks to dip into flowers or sturdy ones to crack seeds—resulting in an evolutionary spray of new forms found nowhere else on the planet. 

Hawaii is such a place, or it had been for five million years. The arrival of people has challenged that. Due to the knock-on effects of human activity, many of the 10,000 or so species native to the islands are in danger of disappearing forever. Among these are seven species of yellow-faced bees, which until quite recently seemed destined to vanish without anyone noticing. 

The tiny Hylaeus bee, black and solitary, darts rather than bumbles, its distinctive yellow spots hard to make out against the tropical sun. They don’t make honey, they don’t have hives, and, since they lack scopa—the hair used to collect pollen—they don’t carry plant powder on their
bodies like most bees. They eat it and regurgitate it when they get back to their nests, which they build in cavities both above and below ground. 

The first Hylaeus are believed to have arrived in Hawaii millions of years ago, likely from Japan. Now, over 63 species of the genus exist—some indigenous to single islands. They don’t live anywhere else on Earth, and they’ve evolved to suit the Hawaiian flowers they pollinate—significantly different from the body types of more recently introduced pollinators, such as the honeybee.

Until a few years ago, few people had even heard of these imperiled insects. Then, Lisa Schonberg came along.

Schonberg, a 39-year-old native of Staten Island, New York, is a self-proclaimed music geek who led a ’90s-hits cover band while in high school. She had ambitions to study music at SUNY Binghamton in upstate New York, until class trips to a nature preserve turned her head. “I would say that my eyes were on leaves and sidewalks even before that,” she says, “scanning for every little ladybug as a kid.”

A tropical ecology class in Costa Rica sealed the deal; she returned to the country twice to volunteer and complete her master’s degree in environmental studies from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Her thesis was on the variety of ant species in Monteverde, a mountainous patch of Costa Rican rainforest. “I’ve always been attracted to looking out for the tiny creatures rather than the charismatic megafauna, which get the bulk of the attention.” Looking out for the little guy led her to Hawaii.

In 2006, Schonberg secured an internship at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, studying the impact of invasive ant species. It was here that she first heard of the Hylaeus. “It struck me how little attention had been given to this group, which was so magnificent, so important to Hawaiian ecology,” she says. Her determination to pay more attention to the bees was complicated by the fact that, for a long time, she couldn’t find any of them.

When the bees were first documented in the early 20th century, the British naturalist R.C.L. Perkins said the Hylaeus were among “the most ubiquitous of any Hawaiian insect,” living in all areas of the Islands. However, 10 species of the bees haven’t been seen in over 80 years, and those that remain have vanished from many of the areas they traditionally inhabited. 

Sadly, the Hylaeus are not alone. Climate change and habitat degradation have devastated bee populations globally. Some 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species (such as bees and butterflies) are facing extinction, according to a recent U.N.-sponsored report. The ramifications of this demise extend far beyond the insects themselves.

“Native Hylaeus are pollinators of many of the community-dominant trees and shrubs, like ōlapa, ‘ilima, naupaka, pūkiawe, naio and māmane,” says Karl Magnacca, an O‘ahu-based entomologist. “So if we lost them, we would probably see a big decrease in reproduction by the dominant native plants, which means even more spread of invasive vegetation.”  

The Hawaiian islands have a long history of environmental encroachment. Polynesians arrived around 1,500 years ago, followed by Europeans (James Cook landed in 1788), bringing with them a slew of non-native species. While some of these have been relatively benign (the honeybee), others have wrought havoc—rats, for instance, and the bird-eating mongoose foolishly brought in to control them. As for bees, the rooting of pigs destroys both sources of pollen and their nests; ants and yellow jackets prey on them. Add in the results of human development and you have a problem.

In 2007, soon after learning of the Hylaeus, Schonberg took a job at Xerces Society in Portland, Oregon. The organization, which lobbies for insect protection, is named after the Xerces blue butterfly, the first known insect to go extinct in the United States (it disappeared from the San Francisco area in the early 1940s). She worked gathering data about the Hawaiian bees so that Xerces could petition for their protection. The work put her in contact with people like Sheldon Plentovich, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the entomologists Jason Graham and Karl Magnacca.

After two years of research, Schonberg and her Xerces colleagues filed endangered species petitions for the bees in 2009. Fish and Wildlife took two years to respond, and the answer wasn’t good. While the service acknowledged the need for federal protection, they declined to give it to the bees. Simply put, they weren’t a high priority.

The key ingredient for any environmental conservation effort is public awareness—something that these tiny insects sorely lacked. Consigned to bureaucratic purgatory, the bees were running out of time. So Schonberg, who makes music in addition to working as a conservationist, decided to get creative. Teaming up with illustrator Aidan Koch, she returned to the islands to work on The Hylaeus Project, a book of her writings, Koch’s illustrations and interviews with local experts. “People are interested in art and music,” she says. “It’s a unique way to express concern about these bees.” 

Traveling first to the Ko‘olau Range above Honolulu, the pair set out to observe the Hylaeus in their habitat, climbing high above the city, the Punchbowl Crater, Pearl Harbor and the pristine waters beyond. As the elevation increased, the flora began to revert back to native species, yet they saw no bees.

It wasn’t until later, on an undeveloped stretch of nearby Ka‘iwi Beach, that they saw their first Hylaeus—a female anthracinus (one of the seven species Schonberg petitioned the government to protect)—buzzing atop naupaka blossoms. It was a fitting introduction, since these flowers, with half of their white petals missing, are the stuff of local legend. As the story goes, the disparate social status of two lovers—Princess Naupaka and the commoner Kaui—forced them to separate, heartbroken; these incomplete flowers are said to have bloomed ever since. 

For Schonberg, the Hylaeus bees had a poignancy of their own. “They are so hard to find and so rare, their mere presence feels like a miracle of sorts,” she says. “To get to see insects that have been there for millennia still hanging on—even if by a thin thread—while so much has changed around them, is inspiring and beautiful to see.” 

Schonberg and Koch continued to island-hop. They backpacked along the Kalalau Trail on the mountainous Nā Pali Coast of Kaua‘i, then scoured the beach at Hanakāpi‘ai, where there were no birds, no bees, but scores of feral cats. In Kōke’e State Park on Kaua‘i, they waited patiently amongst carnivorous plants in the Alaka‘i swamp. No Hylaeus. Back on the Big Island, they descended into the Kīlauea Iki crater in Volcanoes National Park, where they found bees on ‘ōhi’a trees—some of the first plants to colonize lava flows. 

It wasn’t until they arrived at the Hilton Waikoloa Resort in Kona that they hit pay dirt—in a swath of land dotted with lava fields was a vast patch of naupaka vibrating with the bees. Schonberg was initially surprised by the location—only a half-mile from the resort—but the more she studied the bees, the fewer assumptions she made. In Hawaii, nothing is simple, and everything is connected. Despite their apparent scarcity, the Hylaeus play a vital role in Hawaii’s natural, cultural and economic wellbeing. (That particular Hilton’s logo happens to be the naupaka, though perhaps it should be the bee that allows these flowers to bloom.)

As the field research portion of The Hylaeus Project drew to a close, Schonberg and Koch gathered their notes and returned to the mainland, where she worked on her book and transformed her field recordings into a series of musical compositions. The resulting recordings, performed by her percussion ensemble, the Secret Drum Band—a group of five percussionists and two noise musicians—feature layers of ambient sound, intended to evoke the lush landscapes they celebrate.

Of course, Schonberg isn’t the first person to combine art and science—figures such as Alexander von Humboldt and James Audubon have done much to help us visualize the natural world. She might, though, be the first to pit her artistic talents against the bureaucracy of the endangered species list. 

The Hylaeus Project was published in 2014, and Schonberg presented her work—both the art and the hard science behind it—at ecological conferences, including the Hawaii Conservation Conference in Honolulu. The book also sparked general discussion about the interdependence of bees, indigenous flowers and the tourism created by the islands’ biodiversity. “It generated way more public awareness,” says Schonberg. “People are inspired, and they’re encouraged to find out more.”

Members of the scientific community took note, as well, sharing among their peers the data Schonberg had compiled. Last October, after seven years of lobbying by the Xerces Society, seven species of Hylaeus were placed on the endangered species list. Since then, the rusty patch bumble bee, which has declined 90 percent  on the U.S. mainland, has also gained endangered status.  

Not everyone on the islands, however, applauded the group’s efforts. Since a listing goes hand in hand with environmental protection, the mandate has a ripple effect on preserving habitat, which is sometimes viewed as an imposition. “There’s so much effort in this country to not get things listed,” says Schonberg, “because people know that when something gets listed, that affects what they can do with their land.”

The Endangered Species Act has long been criticized in these terms, and is currently under intense scrutiny. In January, Texas Rep. Pete Olson introduced a bill that would require government agencies to consider the economic costs of listing a species as threatened. If passed, the bill could spell
an end to protection for countless species. 

As Schonberg sees it, “the manatee, the bald eagle—they would be gone if it were not for that act.” Regarding Hylaeus, she says that the listing protects not only the bees, but also the plants they pollinate—and, ultimately, the animals that depend on them for survival (ourselves included). “There is fascinating beauty and detail in the evolution of pollinator-plant relationships,” she says. “There is knowledge and wisdom from observing them that we have yet to learn.” 


Sound arguments
Using music to raise environmental awareness

Though Hylaeus bees are barely audible, the environments they inhabit are rich with noise. The waves, the rustling palms, the rain—all these ambient sounds come together to create a natural orchestra. The field of soundscape ecology studies an organism’s “sonic niche,” and how they relate to both different lifeforms and their environment. Schonberg’s Secret Drum Band builds these disparate sounds into pulsing, raucous jams. Their new album, Dynamics (out Aug. 4), has three songs from The Hylaeus Project
secretdrumband.com