The Buzz on Bees Episode 4: Interview with Jan Smit

by Julie Tennis on July 18, 2013

While traveling in Holland last month I had the good fortune to visit fellow bee enthusiast, Jan Smit.  Jan, a co-author on the Netherland’s definitive guide to native bees, De Nederlandse Bijen, refers to himself as a hobbyist.  After spending some time talking with him about his work with bees and touring his collection, I would have to disagree.  Jan is clearly a professional-level bee researcher.

Sitting in his living room on an overcast afternoon, I asked Jan how he got his start working with bees:

I was in college to become a teacher when I heard of the Dutch Natural History Society.  I became a member and you could take a course to become a beekeeper.  I started with two boxes of bees but then we moved to a community where beekeeping was forbidden – there were greenhouses growing cucumbers and they didn’t want honeybees in there.  So I had them miles away and I didn’t like that so I stopped.  And now-a-days I’m not so fond of honeybees.

In the beginning of the 1980’s the Dutch Natural History Society wanted a course on insects and got someone to give the course over 10 evenings – The World of Insects.  We also went into the field.  I liked insects and started with walking beetles.  In 1984 I went to a camp for people who teach, to take natural history courses.  The guy who did hydrobiology got ill and didn’t come.  I knew the concepts and was asked to teach the course after the first two weeks.  (I taught nature and environmental education during the school year.)  The following year I wasn’t planning to go, but two weeks before camp I was invited to teach hydrobiology again because there were so many students.

That year there was a man (Jan Wartena) giving a course on the relationship between plants and insects.  The following year he said he wanted to stop teaching in the camp.  They looked to me and asked me to teach it.  The next year I worked with the man to teach the course.  We utilized people’s gardens and other places for the extensive field portions.  The man gave the first course and then left and I taught the second and third courses.    When teaching this relationship between plants and insects, you quickly come to bees.  That’s how I got started with bees. I did that course during ten years.

Jan’s interest in bees continued to grow.  By 1986 he was really serious about studying bees, going out in the field and conducting surveys and collecting bees.  He said:

“You have some bees, then how do you find out what species you have?  There were no keys.  Someone gave me the tip: there’s an old monk (Virgilius Lefeber) in the south of Holland, in Maastricht, and he works on bees and wasps.  So I wrote him that I have some bees that I cannot identify and there appeared to be a few very simple keys in Dutch and he sent me them – just copy them and send me them back, he wrote.  I was astonished.  People just send you their material and you can copy it and send it back!  Then we were on vacation in the south of Holland and I made an appointment with him and went with him into the field.  And he became one of my best bee friends.  He unfortunately died a couple of years ago, he was 74.  But he taught me how to search for bees and wasps in the field, all kinds of tricks, and we have been very often in the field together.  He was my teacher.  At least, my teacher in Holland. 

By the end of the 1990’s Jan was traveling abroad to collect and study bees from other parts of Europe and the world.  He invited me to view his collection.  We ascended a spiral staircase (typical of Dutch homes) and walked to the end of the hall.  Jan opened a door to a brightly lit room with a slight chemical aroma.  He said, This is my working room and this is the literature that I have on bees and wasps.  I looked around.  Two windows overlooked the backyard garden.  Below the windows was a desk with several microscopes and a computer.  The wall behind the desk had a bookcase full of books and periodicals.  The rest of the room was filled with specimen drawers.

Jan headed between two tall cabinets of specimens and continued, There’s about 65 thousand specimens, I have more than 2200 species.  There are many species that you cannot identify in the field and then you have to take them home and look at them under the microscope.  This is my favorite group, and you see this is a very common species in Holland.  They are Nomadas.  (There were many drawers of Nomadas.)

Jan is a member of the Dutch Entomological Society.  In 1995, they formed a hymenoptera section.  There are about 75 members in this section, and about 30-40 of them actively study bees.  Twenty-seven of those worked on De Nederlandse Bijen.  Jan handed me a copy of the book to leaf through.  It was very comprehensive and beautifully illustrated.  If it was in English, I would buy myself a copy simply for the enjoyment of reading about the bees and for the amazing photographs.  The group began working on this volume in 2003, and sent it off to press last December (2012).  Jan said it took that long because the writing has to happen on free time, after work.  And in the summer we were out collecting.

The sun came out and I was anxious to see some live bees.

Jan and his wife have landscaped their yard to meet the needs of wildlife while also providing a beautiful sanctuary for themselves.  High vegetated fences give them privacy from their neighbors.  Flowers that are rich in pollen and nectar provide food for bees and other pollinators.  A small pond provides water.  And a variety of nesting areas provide habitat for the next generation as well a place for adult bees to hide from the weather.

After several unsuccessful attempts to capture images of bees on the flowers, I gravitated to a pole with two active nest boxes.  These boxes were filled with wooden tubes of all different diameters.  Several were already capped, filled with eggs from spring bees or last year’s summer bees getting ready to make their appearance.  Several small metallic black insects were on the boxes; Jan informed me they were wasps.  Jan told me I’d arrived in the Netherlands between seasons.  The spring bees had come and gone, and the summer bees were not out yet.  He didn’t think I would get to see many bees, but in the short time we spent in his garden I got to see several:  Bombus practorum, Bombus lapidarius, Bombus pascuorum, a Lasioglossum, a Chelostoma (the first one Jan had seen in his garden), a Hylaeus, and an Osmia rufa.

When I left the United States to visit the Netherlands, I didn’t expect there to be many bees.  The country has been lived in and on for hundreds of years, there are no places left untouched by the hand of man, and there are about 17 million people living in an area about twice the size of New Jersey.  Yet Holland seemed abundant with native bees.  I asked Jan how so many species of bees have managed to survive.  He replied:

Many of them have not survived.  There are 358 species of bees, one of them is the honeybee, but we have a number of species that have vanished, that are gone.  But there are also new ones because of the change in the climate.  It is warmer so more southern species have been coming north. 

In fact the farmers did a lot of good work from the 1800’s to about 1950 because they had meadows full of flowers.  Today all the flowers are gone – they’ve destroyed them with herbicides.  In the early days there were hardly any herbicides.  Holland is very developed but there were many small patches of land that were undeveloped.  But in the 1950’s and 1960’s they changed lands to make it more comfortable for the farmer to make his acreage larger and in that new system many of the wild small parcels are gone and that’s been very bad for bees.  Many bee species are in decline, the ones who depend on these kinds of land.  The ones who live along the sea are okay.

It is clear that use of chemicals, such as herbicides and pesticides, and habitat destruction are world-wide problems for bees.  I’m grateful that there are people like Jan Smit who are helping the rest of us understand what is at stake if we don’t change our ways.

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