Honey bees seem to always get the spotlight as pollinators, but bumble bees are important pollinators, too. I am excited to share my interview with Dana L. Church, author of The Beekeepers: How Humans Changed the World of Bumble Bees. This book is chock-full of fascinating information on bumble bees. Be sure to enter the raffle at the end of the post for a change to win a free copy of her book.
About the Book
Hi Dana! Thank you for sharing The Beekeepers: How Humans Changed the World of Bumble Bees with me. Before I begin my interview, I have to share a copy of the ARC I received:
Sometimes when I read nonfiction, I like to mark things I want to return to later. Sadly for me, I ran out of my little tabs! So many good nuggets in this book! I am teaching summer school this year and plan to share it with my class. I have not used a middle-grade-length nonfiction book before as a read aloud and am really excited about it.
Oh my gosh, this photo makes me so happy! I am thrilled to see the book bulging with tabs. (I love those tabs, by the way. Very colorful and they look like a nice size. I’ll have to find some of my own.) And I am so excited that you will be sharing my book with your class. Thank you!
Can you give us a short summary about the book?
Sure. The book is about the relationship between humans and bumble bees over time, and how we have influenced their existence on the planet. For instance, humans brought them to countries where they never existed before, and we have been breeding them on massive scales and shipping them all over the world to pollinate food crops. This has big consequences, such as spreading disease to wild bees. The book also takes a look at what bumble bees are and some pretty cool things that they are capable of. For instance, did you know that bumble bees can learn from other bees, they show evidence of emotion, and they might even be able to imagine pictures in their tiny little brains? I also show that some species of wild bumble bees are in big trouble and what some scientists are doing to help them. Some of these strategies are pretty creative, like using sniffer dogs to find bumble bee nests. Finally, I give readers ideas for little things they can do to help wild bumble bees.
When does it come out?
The book is available now! It was officially released on March 2 of this year.
Tell us who would especially enjoy this book (as it’s more than just people who enjoy insects!).
I think anyone who enjoys nature will enjoy this book, as bumble bees are a big part of the natural world. Anyone who loves animals will enjoy it too, because although it focuses on an animal that is not quite as popular as lions or sharks or wolves, I think it makes you reflect on our relationship with animals as a whole. And if you are interested in nature and animals, the book shows how scientists go about studying those things.
The book begins with a quote and story from Dr. Henry Lickers, an Elder of the Seneca Nation, Turtle Clan, Haudenosaunee. Please share a little bit about this story with us.
Listening to Dr. Lickers share his Traditional Knowledge with me was one of the highlights of writing this book. Besides making scientific research accessible to readers, I also wanted to show that there is a wealth of knowledge about our natural world that exists with the people who are originally from our land. Dr. Lickers shared his story of how he discovered bumble bees as a young boy by stumbling upon a nest in a bale of hay. He wanted to know more about them, so he approached his grandmother, who shared with him the traditional way of how their people interact with bumble bees, and how the lives of humans and bumble bees are closely interconnected.
About the Author
Please give a short summary about your writing journey. Did you enjoy writing as a child? Did you plan on writing middle grade nonfiction, or did you start out writing something else?
As a child I loved writing little stories and making little books of my own. Then, in high school English class, we had to make a children’s picture book. I was hooked! (My book was about a pig who always rolled in the mud and got dirty but his friends loved him anyway.) I wrote fiction for children here and there, but I didn’t pursue it seriously until after I finished university. I tried really hard to get my fiction published, and I came really close a few times, but in the end, I had no luck. I have a science and research background, so I tried my hand at writing a nonfiction article for a middle grade children’s magazine (Odyssey: Adventures in Science. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s in print anymore). The magazine published it! I wrote another, and it was published in Highlights for Children. I knew I was on to something, so decided to start writing middle grade nonfiction books. For whatever reason, I am just most comfortable writing at the middle grade level. Making science accessible for young readers has become my passion.
Were you always interested in insects? What made you focus on bees (and more specifically bumble bees)?
Not at all! As a kid I loved animals but I was quite scared of insects. When I was in university, I got a summer job as a research assistant for a professor. She studied bumble bees and kept some in her lab. I was tasked with looking after the bees and running experiments with them. I was terrified. I thought, Am I crazy? Why did I apply for this job? I’ll get stung every day! But I was desperate for summer employment.
It wasn’t long before I realized that bumble bees are not bloodthirsty stinging machines. They will let you watch them if you don’t breathe on them (they don’t like the blast of carbon dioxide when you exhale). Their nests are such amazing little hubs of organized activity. I saw “undertaker bees” drag dead bees out of the nest. I saw new bees hatch from their wax cocoons. These new bees were covered in soft, grey fur that would turn the distinctive black and yellow after a couple of days. I saw some worker bees sitting on wax cocoons to keep them warm, and I watched other bees fly tirelessly back and forth between nest and flowers, gathering food. I was no longer terrified. I was fascinated. I was so fascinated that I stuck around to study bumble bees for my PhD.
And you know what? I was never stung.
How did this book come to “bee”? Did you send a proposal or were you approached to write something on bees?
Originally, I had planned to write a very different book. It was about a fictional 12-year-old girl whose mom was a professor who had a bumble bee lab. The 12-year-old girl helped her mom run the lab and told the reader a whole bunch of bee facts. My editor at Scholastic, Lisa Sandell, suggested, “How about a book about the relationship between bees and humans?” I thought that was a pretty interesting idea, so I started researching and I realized Lisa’s idea was excellent. I wrote a proposal for The Beekeepers and Scholastic signed me up. It ended up being a much better book. I also discovered that I had a special opportunity, through writing this book, to let readers know that bumble bees are in trouble and that we can help them.
Although you have a first-hand experience with bumble bees, what kind of research did you still have to do?
When I first started writing The Beekeepers, my area of expertise was bumble bee behavior and cognition—learning, memory, and problem solving. Chapter Seven of The Beekeepers, which is about bumble bee “smarts,” was easy for me to write. On the other hand, I didn’t know much about other stuff like population ecology, which I had to dive into in order to see how humans have impacted bumble bees. I also knew that there is a whole industry devoted to breeding and selling bumble bee colonies, but I had no idea of the extent of it. Same with pesticides: I had a very surface understanding of their impact on bumble bees and other pollinators, but I needed to learn many more details in order to write about it. I had to do a lot more research.
Most of my research for The Beekeepers involved searching university library databases for scientific journal articles and reading those articles. But sometimes I had questions and I also wanted scientists’ perspectives, so I ended up interviewing a number of scientists, too.
What would you say most of your research entailed: reading scientific journal articles or interviewing experts?
Most of my research involved reading, reading, and reading some more. But I love reading! I did spend quite a bit of time interviewing experts, though. Fun fact: I had never interviewed anyone before I wrote The Beekeepers, so I was quite nervous at first. But I quickly learned that scientists love talking about their research and they are excited when someone shows interest in what they are studying. I met so many cool people. Now I’m not nervous at all when I interview experts and I have come to really enjoy it. You never know what interesting, funny, or fascinating nugget of information scientists will share.
What was the most fascinating tidbit you researched?
Hmm…probably research that used sniffer dogs trained to find bumble bee nests. I didn’t know that dogs can be trained to sniff out all kinds of different endangered species. Dogs are a clever way to find bumble bee nests because the nests are usually underground and very hard for people to find.
Did you go anywhere interesting as part of your research?
Unfortunately, no. But I didn’t have to go far to see bumble bees because they visit our backyard garden. We even had a bumble bee nest underneath our shed! We could tell because bumble bees kept flying in and out from one spot hidden in the grass by the base of the shed.
What ended up taking more time than you anticipated when researching/writing/revising?
Probably editing or revising. No matter how many times I read my writing, there’s always something I want to change or add. I eventually have to tell myself to STOP.
Since there were so many interesting things in this book, pick one of these topics to explain to us: sonication, bumble bees as pollinators, bee tagging, or string-pulling task.
How about bee tagging? In The Beekeepers, I feature research that required scientists to keep track of the behavior and movements of individual bees in a nest. The scientists cut out teeny-tiny squares of paper with a QR-type code on them and glued one to each bee’s back. A computer can then track each bee.
This bee tagging technique is quite different from when I tagged bumble bees in school years ago. To tell bumble bees apart, I had to glue tiny, colored, numbered, plastic discs to the back of each bee. (Yes, you can buy bee tags! Some honey bee keeping supply companies sell them.) When I was done, I could identify each bee by a color and a number: Yellow 5, Blue 7, Red 36, etc. To glue the disc to their back, I used long tweezers to hold the bee by her back legs, I placed her on a soft sponge, and then I glued the disc to her back. I did all of this under a red light because bees can’t see red very well, so if they escaped there was less chance that they would fly up and sting me. When I was done, I placed them back inside their nest, which, in our lab, was a wooden box. The tags didn’t affect the bees’ flight or movement at all. I guess it is sort of like wearing a backpack.
I enjoyed tagging bees. It is certainly a skill. I was certain that if I was relaxed while I tagged them, the bees were more relaxed, too.
I wonder what bee tagging techniques will exist down the road as technology advances?
Any suggestions for ways to use The Beekeepers in the classroom?
Teacher guides for The Beekeepers are not ready yet, but the book can certainly be used to spark conversations about how we can help protect and conserve bees, even in our own backyards, whether you live in a city or in the country. What are students’ favorite bee facts? What other wild bees besides bumble bees exist out there? How are they the same or different from bumble bees?
Are you doing school visits related to this book? Tell us more!
Yes! I would love to do school visits. Probably grades 4-7 are best, since The Beekeepers is aimed at readers aged 8-12.
I actually have my first virtual school visit coming up in less than a month. I can talk about science, bees, writing, or all of the above. And most of all, I can answer students’ questions! I love to hear what students are curious about.
How can we learn more about you?
My website is www.danachurchwriter.com, and I’m on Twitter: @DanaLChurch. I post a #BeeFactFriday on Twitter each Friday. You can drop me a note or ask questions by email, too: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for your time, Dana.
It was my pleasure! Thank you so much, Natalie. This was fun.
Dana L. Church will be giving a copy of The Beekeepers: How Humans Changed the World of Bumble Bees to a lucky reader. Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a copy. (U.S. addresses only)
The Beekeepers: How Humans Changed the World of Bumble Bees is available here: