The Mighty Thor: An Interview With Conservation Biologist and Author Thor Hanson

Watching beloved places replaced by urban sprawl helped transform an interest in the natural world into a passion for its protection.
— Thor Hanson
© Kathleen Ballard

© Kathleen Ballard

Emily Koopman: I recently read your book Buzz and it was fascinating. You mentioned that your son is "bee crazy" now too. In your opinion, what is the best way for people who haven't grown up in a bee-loving environment to learn, likely at a later age, to appreciate and understand their importance?
Thor Hanson: Plant or visit a bee garden!  Nothing connects us to bees more immediately than direct observation, the simple act of finding a bee on a flower and settling down to watch.  This can happen anywhere from a park to a back yard to a window box, but if you have the space to plant flowers rich with nectar and pollen, you can have the satisfaction of watching bees while at the same time doing something to help them.

Emily: What are your top five favourite facts about bees?
Thor: There are an estimated 20,000 species of bees in the world, considerably more than the number of birds and mammals put together.

Over 150 common crops rely in whole or in part on bees for pollination, including tomatoes, almonds, apples, artichokes, strawberries, pears, and paprika.

All male bees (and a lot of the females) cannot sting.

Bees can detect the tiny electromagnetic fields given off by flowers, and can sense a change in that field if the flower has been recently visited by another bee!

Bees are vegetarians.

Some bees can detect the scent of a flower from over half a mile away.

Emily: Though I have yet to get my hands on the book, I know you spent a lot of time in Uganda learning about the country's varying cultures and wildlife (I'm heading to Uganda and Rwanda to do some gorilla and chimp trekking next year), what are some things tourists can do that will aid in local conservation? And, around the world, how does tourism impact the flora and fauna of different countries?
Thor: In choosing travel options abroad, it’s worthwhile to look for tours and activities that give something back to the local community, and to whatever natural resource is being featured.  Take the time to find out where your money goes, and you will often be rewarded by a more personal, low-impact travel experience.

Emily: Is there a country you've worked in or visited that we would be surprised to learn has a sustainable environment plan in the works, or one where something could easily be made if the right resources were provided?
Thor: The Central American nation of Costa Rica maintains an admirable network of parks and protected areas, and has made environmental protection a national priority - in its own right, as well as to promote tourism.  While some popular destinations do run the risk of being ‘loved to death’ by the influx of visitors, they also have parks that are largely off-limits to people.

Emily: What do you think are the most helpful changes we can make in our everyday lives to better the environment?
Thor: 1. Be informed.  2. Vote.

Emily: For those unfamiliar, can you tell us a little bit about what it is a conservation biologist does?
Thor: Conservation biology is a field that developed organically as more and more researchers saw their study areas and species threatened by human activity.  It is dedicated to science that helps us understand and mitigate the many challenges faced by plants and animals, and the natural habitats and processes they rely upon.

Emily: How do you think conservation values and targets might change over the next 25 years?
Thor: Prognostication is always tricky, but it’s safe to say that climate change will play an increasing role in conservation activities in the years ahead.  The military describes climate change as a “threat multiplier,” which is a very apt term for conservation as well.  Any challenge facing natural systems will be amplified by the rapid environmental change associated with global warming.

Emily: You mentioned that your early interest in the world around you originally drew you to work in conservation biology, but was there a moment where you went, "This is it. This is what I have to do"? Was there a specific animal or plant that made you want to make a difference?
Thor: It was not a creature, but a process that drew me to conservation biology.  Watching beloved places replaced by urban sprawl helped transform an interest in the natural world into a passion for its protection.

Emily: I read an article about conservation online that posed the question, "What is the relationship between climate, science, and nature?" and was curious as to what your answer might be.
Thor: Climate regulates nature.  Science tells us how.

Emily: In the Pacific Northwest, what causes do you think are in direst need of our attention?
Thor: In conservation biology, there is something called the “umbrella species” concept, where the effort to save one species will benefit a large number of others that come along under the same umbrella.  In the Pacific Northwest, no creatures exemplify this idea more than our various species of salmon.  Restoring healthy salmon populations reaches from inland rivers to the coast and beyond, benefiting everything from stream invertebrates to orcas to the many communities that rely upon fishing.