Pollinators, the unsung heroes of nature, are vital to the health of our ecosystems as well as to the diversity of our food sources. The California Nature Art Museum in Solvang and UC Santa Barbara’s Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Ecological Restoration is teaching people all about the birds and the bees.

But not in the way you think. 

“The Birds and the Bees and More: Pollinators” exhibition debuts on March 2 and will run until Sept. 2. Four artists whose work celebrates and recognizes the buzzing world of pollinators will be featured. Toronto artist Ava Roth contributes artworks made from natural honeycomb, fusing its patterns and shapes with other creative materials. Susan McDonnell from Minnesota paints more unrecognized pollinators such as bats and butterflies in a glowy, radiant fashion. Documentary photographer Elizabeth Weber focuses on the endangered monarch butterfly and raises awareness about the decline of their population, as well as the importance of encouraging homeowners to add native plant species to their gardens. Cynthia James sheds light on the harm that pollinators experience from pesticides and its damaging effects on flora. Her paintings depict flowers that emanate emotions from despair to anger. 

The Cheadle Center at UCSB is dedicated to the conservation of bees and other insects, along with preserving local wildlife habitats in the area. In this collaboration, “The Birds and the Bees and More: Pollinators” exhibition will showcase bee specimens imaged by UCSB student interns at the Cheadle Center. Images of rare, native pollinators such as bees, bats, butterflies and birds from the UCSB Natural History Collections will also be available for viewing. Native bee specimens from the Cheadle Center will be on display, each of which can be inspected by visitors through a magnifying glass. Accompanying each specimen will be a magnified image of the bee for convenient observation. 

The Cheadle Center is the head of Big-Bee, a national project involving 13 institutions that aims to create over a million 3D images of bee specimens in order to better study bees and how they might react to climate change. Each bee specimen image showcased in the exhibition is part of this national project. Matthew Rosen, a UCSB student intern at the Cheadle Center and aspiring biologist and naturalist, photographed the Anthophora curta species for the Big-Bee project.

“To photograph the bees we used a technique called focal stacking, where a robot moves the camera millimeters at a time and takes hundreds of pictures which are then combined using special software,” Rosen explained. “This creates one very high-resolution image with the entirety of the bee in focus, rather than just a part of it.”

Sheccid Rivas Trasvina, a recent UCSB graduate, photographed the Triepeolus sp. and Melissodes tepidus timberlakei bee species, both of which will also be featured in the exhibit.

“I loved being able to look at the finished pictures of the bees and see how much detail we normally can’t when using our eyes and how many variations there are between individuals of the same species,” Rivas recalls. “I am excited to have my work be part of this exhibit because I think there is a lot to exchange between the arts and the sciences.”

Bee specimens courtesy of the UCSB Cheadle Center, including those of species found on campus, will be on display as part of the exhibition. LAURYN CUMMINS / UCSB

Katja Seltmann, entomologist and director of the Cheadle Center, is the lead of the Big-Bee project, and her work concentrates on the ecology and conservation of bee biodiversity. Her efforts involve gathering bee image and trait datasets to be accessible through a designated “Bee Library.” Imaging bees to create a large data set would allow researchers to investigate traits such as hairiness and whether they indicate more or less resilience to climate change.

“Bees are declining in numbers and species. My lab and the Cheadle Center are working to help these and other insects by studying their declines from a biodiversity and trait perspective,” Seltmann said. “If we know why our wild bees are declining then we can do something to help.”

Richard Merrill, a UCSB alum who completed his doctorate degree researching the biodynamics of ecosystems, will be present for a lecture at the California Nature Art Museum on March 10, 2024. Merrill’s work at UCSB involved crafting landscapes that would nurture and offer shelter to pollinators and insects alike. His talk will cover pollination ecology and the importance of the California landscape to the attraction of pollinators.

Offering many insights on pollinators and facilitating the intersection of arts and sciences, “The Birds and the Bees and More: Pollinators” exhibition celebrates the work of pollinators and the researchers and artists that advocate for them.

A version of this article appeared on pg. 8 of the Feb. 29, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.