Chawatat searches for one of the largest bumblebees in Asia Bombus eximius along the Kew Mae Pan Nature Trail in Doi Inthanon National Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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Behind the Science: Chawatat pursues elusive Southeast Asian bumblebees

Chawatat Thanoosing is a PhD student on a quest to find and study rare Southeast Asian bumblebees. His research could help us to understand how we can protect dwindling global bumblebee populations.

This interview is part of our series where we talk to our young scientists and researchers about what they're working on.

What are you investigating in your PhD?

I'm researching around 20 species of Southeast Asian bumblebee. In the UK, bumblebees are common but in Southeast Asia they're scarce and very little is known about them.

Southeast Asian bumblebees are usually found high up in the mountains where it's cooler but also harder for people to access. We don't know how many bumblebee species there are in Southeast Asia, what plants they pollinate or if their populations are decreasing. My research aims to answer these questions and ultimately contribute to conservation policies.

I'm looking at species from Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. Singapore doesn't seem to have any bumblebees, probably because there aren't any high mountains there.

Were you always interested in insects growing up?

I used to be scared of insects as a kid, but I think this was because I didn't know much about them. I learned a lot about insects during my undergraduate degree in Bangkok. That's how I came to realise how crucial bees are and became really interested in them. Bees are one of the most important plant-pollinating insects and are key to studying behavioural biology, evolution and biogeography.

PhD scientist Chawatat looks for bumblebees using a white net.

Chawatat collecting wild bees along the roadside in Chiang Mai, Thailand. During this expedition, Chawatat and his colleagues in Thailand managed to collect resin bees that hadn't been documented before. Photo by Jiratthi Satthaphorn.

Did anyone inspire you on your journey to becoming a bee scientist?

I loved nature as a child, and I was fortunate enough to have a brilliant high school teacher who taught me a lot about biodiversity. She made things interesting by using digital media in lessons. This was about 15 years ago when it wasn't common to do that. She used to create these really cool PowerPoint presentations with loads of images of plants and animals. Those lessons piqued my curiosity and started me on my journey to where I am now.

What is your proudest achievement so far?

During my undergraduate degree, I was chosen as one of two Thai youth representatives for the Convention on Biological Diversity COP12, hosted in South Korea in 2014. The government created an opportunity for undergraduate students to bid for the positions by writing an essay about biodiversity.

As one of 10 finalists, I had to attend an interview and discuss why I was passionate about biodiversity. It was a rigorous process because there was a small budget and only two places.

I learned a lot about various policies that affected bumblebees and biodiversity through this experience, and a lot of this knowledge has contributed to my current work.

I'm also in the Bumblebee Specialist Group (BBSG) - a group of more than 70 international scientists who are working together to understand the extinction of bumblebees. Being a member of the BBSG provides me with access to bumblebees on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which helps to further my research.

A bumble bee drinks nectar from a yellow flower.

A Bombus breviceps 'nectar robbing' a sunn hemp flower in Ban Khun Klang Village in Chiang Mai, Thailand. This species has strong mandibles that allow it to bite the base of the flower and drink the nectar without pollinating the plant. 

What's the most challenging thing about your job as a bee scientist?

Going on field trips are often a challenge. They need to be planned thoughtfully from the beginning. A few times, we've been on location and couldn't work for various reasons, such as unsuitable weather.

Once I was on a field trip in Thailand and I set up a pan trap. This is a simple trap where you fill up a bowl of water and leave it on the ground to collect insects. It gives you an idea of how rich the biodiversity is in a location.

When I returned to collect the trap, I couldn't find it. I suspected the local dogs had destroyed it.   

Name one challenge you've experienced as an ethnic minority in science.

The biggest challenge is the language barrier. The national language in Thailand is Thai, with English being taught as a second language. I received a great opportunity to study here in the UK on a scholarship, but I have a lot of friends who couldn't do the same because they weren't fluent in English.  

Chawatat holds a bee specimen from the Natural History Museum's collection.

Chawatat holds a bumblebee nest found in Java, Indonesia, from our collection. Photo by Tammana Begum.

What advice would you give to young Thai people who want to become scientists?

Take every opportunity that comes into your life.

What do you like to do during your spare time?

I love exploring art galleries and museums, particularly the British Museum. I enjoy learning about history and prominent figures in art such as Van Gough and Monet. Sometimes when I'm stressed at work, I cross the road and visit the Victoria & Albert Museum - it's a great distraction.

In Thailand, we don't have a lot of galleries and museums. We don't have a large collection of specimens from all over the world or a vast record of history. 

Fortunately, the Natural History Museum is digitising its collection so it can be accessed by scientists in Thailand and those all across the world, helping to further their research.