The Bellflower Specialists

Read the first part of this post, Insect Profile: Chelostoma rapunculi.

“Bees of Öland, Sweden: An Interview with Heidi Dobson”

By Eunice Blavascunas and Alie J. Zagata

heidi donson profile

Professor Heidi Dobson is a member of the Department of Biology at Whitman College. She spends her time teaching and sharing her passion for plant and insect life with students both in the classroom and out in the field. The majority of her research focuses on the evolutionary ecology of plant-animal interactions, especially those between bees and flowers. This passion for bee-flower associations has taken her across the globe, from Walla Walla, Washington, to the island of Öland in Sweden, and has afforded her first-hand knowledge and experience of the state of insect populations worldwide.

How did you first come to develop an interest in insects?

Chelostoma rapunculi (female), Estonia. Photo: Ivar Leidus [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

I grew up in Switzerland, in a family of natural historians. I often say that I grew up in a sleeping bag because my family went camping in the wilderness most weekends and throughout the summers. Two of my older brothers were avid insect enthusiasts. Inspired by our mother’s uncle, who helped them make butterfly nets, they compiled a vast insect collection; but I was a little younger, so I would only watch from the sidelines. However, later on, wh­­en I was a university student and looking for my own path to follow, I decided that I would help the world through the lens of agriculture, with a focus on plants. At first, I was interested in exploring the biological control of insect pests, but then I discovered pollination biology, and the mesmerizing world of flowers and bees. I realized that I would never, ever tire of studying and watching them. I was captivated.

What draws you to bees?

Bees are beautiful, they are diverse, and they show amazing adaptations to the broad diversity of flowers. Many bee species are very selective in the flowers they visit and this raises some fascinating evolutionary questions about their associations with the host plants. I became particularly interested in bees’ interactions with flowers for collecting and feeding on pollen, which is a bee’s only source of protein.

Where do you primarily work with bees?

My studies center on the behavior of wild bees observed either in the field or in cages. Most of my work has been carried out in Sweden, on the island of Öland. It is a beautiful location with few people, widespread agriculture, and an abundance of undisturbed habitats. It’s a great place to work with bees. The bee species I have been working with include, among others, Chelostoma rapunculi, which can be seen all around the island, nesting in old barns and visiting bellflowers along roads and fields.

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When did you first get the sense that Chelostoma rapunculi was struggling to survive?

I started working on this particular bee around 2000. By 2007, I had begun to notice their population decreasing on Öland as people began to buy up old farms, build new homes, and establish neat and tidy properties. But over the past five years, I have seen the situation change more quickly. There used to be wonderful hedgerows and strips of wild flowers along the planted fields near the field station where I do my research, and they were filled with insect life. But when I arrived there for my summer research in 2015, there were hardly any wildflower strips left. I asked some friends why these field margins had been so drastically reduced, and so many hedgerows cut down. They thought it was for financial reasons: cultivating that extra ground would allow the farmers to make ends meet. Two years later in 2017, the situation was no less dire, with the continued destruction of bee and flower habitats.

What is contributing to this decline?

Image taken from the photo by David Wright, CC BY 3.0 via the Geograph Project.

When I first went to Öland in 1986, the island’s human population was very small, consisting mostly of people who lived and worked there year-round. At that time, farmers would cut the plants lining the dirt roads along the edges of their fields maybe twice during the summer, and the timing and extent of the cutting did not seem to disrupt the various bees. Over the years, more people have been moving to Öland, either for holiday, to retire, or to live there and then commute across the bridge to Kalmar County. In the process, they have brought with them a different, more urban, attitude towards nature. They want their environment to be controlled: they want their properties to be manicured. Consequently, they keep their lawns mowed and cut all the plants growing in front of their houses right up to the road. And the county has promoted this desire for neatness along countryside roads in its management decisions. This is especially relevant to my work, because the wildflowers that are so diligently removed include the bellflowers that I study. Land management practices over the past 10 years have changed the ditches and roadsides where bellflowers grow to such an extent that the number of Chelostoma rapunculi bees, which depend on these flowers, has plummeted. Absolutely plummeted.

There are two main regions on Öland: the southern region, where I do my research, and the northern part of the island, where most tourists visit in the summer. In the north, the administration tends to let the wildflowers flourish along the roads so that visitors can enjoy them. But public land management is problematic in the south, where there is more farming, and the county contracts out to have the roadsides cleared. There seems to be little guidance and oversight, or even concern, about how this is done. The mowers cut everything along the road, up to a width of over a meter from the road’s edge. I have seen people drive on the roads and fields in these machines and chop everything down. It is astonishing. The county claims that it does this so that automobile drivers can see little animals crossing the road, but this explanation does not justify cutting as wide an area as it currently does. By contracting out the roadside clearing, the timing of cutting has also changed. Now, just as the bellflowers reach peak bloom, they are chopped down.

Another factor contributing to the decline of Chelostoma rapunculi is the decrease of nesting habitat for the bees. As more urban-minded people buy up farmhouses, old barns are either torn down or renovated. If they are fixed up, the walls are redone and any holes are covered up—ultimately, the habitats in which these bees nest disappears.

What strategies have you used to communicate your concerns to a wider public? How can we convince audiences to pay more attention?

I have been on television and in the newspapers in Sweden to talk about the removal of roadside plants, but the issue ultimately falls into the local political realm and is beyond my reach. County governments and administrations are responsible for overseeing contractors who are hired for roadside maintenance, and there is clearly a need for mindful thinking in decision making. I have not done much outreach in Sweden, because I am usually only there for six to eight weeks in the summer. Unfortunately, it is difficult for me to have a lasting impact on Öland. I see the crisis in agricultural landscape management as one that is up to the local people and biologists to address and solve. I have, however, been increasing my outreach to the public where I live in Walla Walla by giving more public talks about bees and how to promote bee habitats, both for nesting sites and food sources. I find that in general, people are very receptive and eager to learn. Their eyes become big and they say, “Oh, I had no idea that there were so many species of bees [other than honeybees] or how these other bees live.” I think that the public is very open and hungry for information, and that our main challenge in promoting change to decrease our impact on bees is that people just do not know much about wildlife, especially insects. There is a lot of ignorance, and I feel that this lack of both understanding of and contact with nature has only increased over the past 30 years or so, as our world continues to become more urbanized.

Chelostoma rapunculi 6, Grote klokjesbij, female, Saxifraga-Pieter van Breugel
Chelostoma rapunculi. Many species will also nest in artifical nest sites, when provided. Photo: Pieter van Breugel via Saxifraga Foundation.

What can we do to try to slow this decline in bees, and insects more broadly?

In our everyday life, we used to be more surrounded by and immersed in nature, but it is not like that anymore. My sister recently visited Switzerland and commented that up in the mountains, she did not hear all the insect sounds that used to be so prominent when one sat outside. I remember as a child how taking a few steps in a meadow would cause clouds of insects to fly up, but that does not happen anymore.  As we become more urbanized, we’re converting landscapes for large-scale food production, using chemicals liberally and indiscriminately to remove this and that organism, and even small wildlands along field edges are disappearing. In the process, we are increasing the disconnect between humans and other organisms (including insects) and their habitats.

Chelostoma rapunculi 2, Grote klokjesbij, female
Chelostoma rapunculi: bees thrive where wild flowers do. Photo: Frits Bink via Saxifraga Foundation.

We need to find a way to overcome the gulf that separates humans from natural settings in order to bring people back to a mind-set where they can be curiously observant of their surroundings and of life around them. I think our real challenge is to get people to reflect on how their actions, in the various facets of their daily lives, impact other organisms and their existence. In my public presentations, I talk about gardens and gardening, and how we like to control our surroundings and have everything look neat and pretty (for us). I point out that when we do this, we often also destroy the garden as a place for insects to live. It takes curiosity and engagement with nature to develop a sense of ecology and one’s place amidst life’s diversity; we need to spend time quietly observing life around us and becoming aware of what other kinds of critters live there. We need to encourage people to be more curious, and this needs to start at a young age. We are ever so rapidly destroying our natural environment and the other forms of life that share this space, and I fear that we cannot turn the situation around fast enough. Ultimately, I feel compelled to do all that I can to better understand our wild native bees, here and now.

(*Featured image: Campanula cochleariifolia, by Jerzy Opioła [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons)

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