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From the Spring 2020 Edition of Discovery

Bees are the Best!

Conservation Biologist Joseph S. Wilson (BS’05, PhD’10, Biology) Teams with Storyteller/Illustrator Jonny VanOrman to Create Whimsical Story of Bee Diversity and Broadening One’s Horizons

Conservation Biologist Joseph Wilson

Conservation Biologist Joseph Wilson (BS’05, PhD’10, Biology) poses with 'Bees are the Best!' book.

Photo courtesy Lindsey Wilson

Conservation biologist Joseph S. Wilson is on a mission. The USU alum, and now a Utah State faculty member, wants to encourage efforts to protect bees, but he realizes a lot of people know little about them.

“Most people have a bee sting story or they know some bees produce honey,” says Wilson, associate professor in the Department of Biology at USU Tooele. “Most are familiar with at least honey bees and bumble bees.”

But those are just a few of the more than 4,000 bee species living in North America.

“As an academic, I’ve taught college classes on bees and written scholarly papers, but I’d like to reach more people,” Wilson says.

Among those people are children.

“If we want to conserve bees, teaching our rising generation may be the best strategy,” says Wilson, himself a dad of young children.

And what better way than through a storybook?

Wilson teamed with illustrator Jonny VanOrman to create Bees are the Best!, a colorful picture book geared to preschoolers through fourth graders.

“Jonny is an artist and illustrator, as well as a storyteller, and he helped me convey important concepts about bee diversity in a welcoming, accessible format,” Wilson says.

The story, he says, revolves around a young honey bee, appropriately named “Honey,” who ventures into the world and discovers not everyone is like her.

“Along with our young readers, Honey learns about bee diversity and why her life, though wonderful, isn’t necessarily the only way to live,” Wilson says. “She discovers unexpected benefits of a community with members of varied talents.”

Readers may recognize VanOrman’s style from his previously published works, including illustrations of characters in Nickelodeon’s Sanjay and Craig series and Amazon Originals’ Costume Quest.

“Jonny and I experimented with characters that are fun and inviting, yet still somewhat scientifically accurate,” Wilson says.

He says an added section at the end of the story provides facts and actual photos of the varied bees in the story, paired with their illustrated characters.

A Bee Book for “Big Kids,” Too

Bees are the Best!, available from, isn’t Wilson’s first foray into publishing or public outreach. In 2016, the Orem, Utah native, who earned bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from Utah State in 2005 and 2010, respectively, published The Bees in Your Backyard with fellow Aggie Olivia Messinger Carril ’00, MS’06. The North American field guide introduces adults, both novices and experts, to diverse bee species and offers tips on bee conservation.

“Like kids, most adults think of honeybees, when they think of bees,” Wilson says. “But honeybees are actually an anomaly.”

The Bees in Your Backyard features more than 900 images, most of them taken by the authors, to aid novices and experts alike in identifying the winged pollinators.

Cover of Bees in Your Backyard

USU Biology alums Joseph Wilson (BS’05, PhD’10) and Olivia Messinger Carril (BS’00, MS’06), published “The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees” in 2015.

Within the book, Wilson and Carril offer tips on how to attract bees to your own backyard.

(Hint: One of the most bee friendly plants is the annual sunflower.)

In addition to books, Wilson delivered the TEDxUSU talk, “Save the Bees! Wait, Was that a Bee?,” now posted on YouTube, in Fall 2016, and he’s also given public talks at venues throughout the state of Utah.

Wilson also offers outreach through his website,, which provides such information as how to build a bee hotel and a bumble bee house.

“With our complicated jargon, we scientists sometimes ‘talk over’ people,” he says. “My goal is to make science communication more understandable.”

Bee Conservation Research

And why is Wilson concerned with making sure people understand the importance of bee diversity?

“Because bees play a pivotal role in our ecosystems,” he says.

And Utahns, in particular, he says, might be surprised to learn the state’s critical role for the nation’s bee populations.

Utah’s nickname, “The Beehive State,” refers to the state’s legacy of pioneer thrift, cooperation and industry. But Wilson adds the moniker is apt for another reason: One out of every four bee species in the United States is found in Utah, and the arid, western state is home to more bee species than most states in the nation. About half of those species dwell within the original boundaries of the newly reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

A view from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

A view from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. USU conservation biologist Joseph Wilson says one out of every four bee species in the U.S. is found in Utah and the arid, western state is home to more bee species than most states in the nation. About half of those species dwell within the original boundaries of the newly reduced Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Photo courtesy Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Managment

“The monument is a hotspot of bee diversity,” says Wilson says who, with Carril, USDA entomologist Terry Griswold and USU emeritus professor James Haefner, identified 660 species identified in the protected region. They reported their findings in the November 7, 2018 issue of PeerJ.

In a follow-up paper published Dec. 4, 2018, in the same journal, Wilson, Carril and New York-based free-lance journalist Matt Kelly, examined data on the 660 species to focus on what the newly reduced monument boundaries mean for the pollinators left out of protected areas.

A year earlier, President Donald Trump announced, in Salt Lake City, his intention to sharply reduce Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments. What does this mean for pollinators inhabiting those areas?

“That’s exactly the question that should be asked, that’s not being asked,” says Wilson, lead author of the latter paper. “So that’s what my co-authors and I, using data from the first paper, have examined.”

The good news is 87 percent of the 660 species identified by the USU scientists are found in the newly reduced boundaries of GSENM.

“But that leaves about 84 species no longer inhabiting protected land,” Wilson says. “This includes some new, undescribed species, as well as ‘morphospecies,’ which are unique individuals that don’t match known species.”

Further, he says, some species known only in the Mojave Desert are among the pollinators found in the now unprotected area.

USU alumna Olivia Messinger Carril

USU alumna Olivia Messinger Carril (BS’00, MS’06, Biology), photographed at New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, collaborates with fellow Aggie Joe Wilson on research and co-authored the North American field guide, “The Bees in Your Backyard.”

Photo courtesy Morgan Timms, Taos News

“This is significant because these are ‘edge’ populations,” Wilson says. “That is, in the face of climate change, they could be the first to go extinct as the region gets hotter and drier, or the area could provide a refuge for populations of the same species now inhabiting the Mojave desert.”

A broader concern, he says, is the lack of consideration of pollinators in the monument’s new management plans.

“Will the reduction in monument size affect the pollinators?” Wilson asks. “We don’t know. But if development is allowed in the unprotected areas, say, mining, road development, more recreational development than, yes, pollinator habitat could be lost.”

He notes President Clinton specifically mentioned pollinators, when he led the creation of the national monument in 1996.

“Bees need to be a part of the management decisions,” Wilson says.

By Mary-Ann Muffoletto

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