The Hylaeus Project
Native Hawaiian Bees are Bringing Art and Science Together
Lisa Schonberg is a musician/teacher/artist/creative entomologist. You know the type, right?
We met up with her to talk about this awesome project she started with Aidan Koch (another artist/nature lover) called The Hylaeus Project.
How did you find out about these Hawaiian bees when you live in Portland?
I worked for the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland. My last and most favorite project for them was a status review of the Hylaeus bees of Hawaii. Xerces was paying attention to them because they are the only bees that are native to Hawaii, and like many other native Hawaiian species, have been in sharp decline for a good while. Xerces was interested in petitioning the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list some species of Hawaiian Hylaeus as endangered. They asked me to look at what was known about the 60 known species and make a recommendation for the best candidates for listing. I ended up co-authoring petitions to list seven species with entomologist Karl Magnacca, who is the reigning expert on this taxa. Although I’d previously done fieldwork in Hawaii (for the U.S. Geological Survey), this work was all from a desk in SE Portland. When I left the job at Xerces, I realized that I was one of the few people who had ever paid attention to these important and threatened pollinators. Before Karl, the only other thorough survey was done by the British naturalist R.C.L. Perkins in the 1890s. So I decided to document these bees in a creative way and get the word out. I knew so much of them, I almost had to.
Would putting these bees on the endangered species list do to the Hawaiian tourism industry what listing the spotted owl did to the Pacific Northwest logging industry?
I do not think that it would. There are such vast developments of resorts on the islands where the Hylaeus habitat is long, long gone, and those people can go on touristing as they would. In places where the Hylaeus are still hanging on near possible development or expansion, I could see there possibly being limits placed on where they could expand. But it could be to the benefit of the resort or other development interest to conserve those areas and even gear tourist activities toward “eco-tourist” sorts of things like biology talks and bird, bee and plant walks in the conserved habitats, and create jobs out of those activities. Hell, they could even take it one step further in places where the habitat is long gone and initiate native plant restoration projects and bee reintroductions and probably market that to tourists as well.
What brought Aidan Koch and you together for this project?
I’ve always admired Aidan’s work and aesthetic, so she immediately came to mind for this project. I loved the drawings from her Field Studies book in particular, and I loved the things that she’d happened to take note of and draw in her travels. I was excited to see what she’d notice and document on our trip. I also knew she had good rhythm. While we were in Hawaii, Aidan and I ended up forming a new side-project band called Lava Rock—an improve duo, with myself on drum kit and Aidan on vocal loops and oscillator.
Bringing art and science together seems tricky since art is so open to interpretation and science is so factual. Did you have any trouble mixing the two with this project?
Socially effective art and science are really similar—I’m realizing this more and more. You decide you want to illustrate or bring attention to something, and you dig in really deep and become intimate with an idea, and then you hone that idea and present it to the public. Science is factual, yes, but only because it is built on previous work and accepted theories and is peer-reviewed, etc. Some sciences, like physics, seem so abstract and creative in the same ways a lot of art is. So, yeah, I didn’t have much trouble mixing the two. I have thought about the fact that my book and the drawings are more straightforward representations of what we found, whereas the music might come off as more abstractly connected. But I see a really obvious connection there between crucial habitat, sound, and interpretation through music.
When you’re out in the field recording sounds, what are you looking for?
I generally start recording with headphones on and see what happens. Sometimes I have to give it some time before noticing things—like the way the wind sounds when it moves through different plants. Sometimes there isn’t anything super interesting or notable—which is something! The absence of machinery, of engines, of squawking invasive myna birds, that is all something. When that is all absent, quieter things—like the crescendo of wind moving through thin grasses—are more noticeable. Other times I end up catching an awkwardly amplified conversation from nearby beachgoers. Some sounds are no-brainers to record—the immense chorus of coqui frogs every night on the Hilo side of the Big Island, or the sound of bombs being dropped into the ocean a mile off the shore of Kauai. Once I got over the initial shock of those bombs, I recorded the hell out of them.