Open Your Mind: A Q&A with Faculty of Environmental Studies Professor Sheila Colla

Appearing at regular intervals in YFile, Open Your Mind is a series of articles offering insight into the different ways York University professors, researchers and graduate students champion fresh ways of thinking in their research and teaching practice. Their approach, grounded in a desire to seek the unexpected, is charting a new course for future generations.

Today, the spotlight is on Sheila Colla, a professor and researcher in the Faculty of Environmental Studies.

Colla’s research is focused on assessing the status of native species of pollinators, with a focus on bees. Her work has led to changes in federal and provincial policy with respect to the conservation and protection of pollinator species.

Sheila Colla
Sheila Colla

Q. Please describe your field of current research

A. I am a conservation biologist. My work focuses on assessing the status of species in the wild and understanding threats to their populations. I mostly focus on pollinators and insect-pollinated plants found in Ontario.

Q. What inspired you to pursue this line of research? Who or what sparked your interest in this line of inquiry?

A. I was doing an honours thesis during my undergraduate degree in zoology at the University of Toronto and while doing that research noticed that southern Ontario was missing a bumble bee species, which had been quite common not too long ago. I approached my future PhD supervisor with the idea (Laurence Packer, YorkU biology professor) and he encouraged me to undertake research to try to figure out why it had declined so rapidly.

Q. How would you describe the significance of your research in lay terms?

A. I was among the first to quantitatively document the decline of native bee species in Canada. This has led to federal and provincial policy to protect these important pollinator species.

Q. How are you approaching this field in a different, unexpected or unusual way?

A. Conservation biology is a relatively new field but thus far really has focused on the conservation of vertebrates such as birds and large mammals. Invertebrates, such as insects, make up the vast majority of global biodiversity, but they have largely been neglected. By focusing on insects, my work is somewhat unusual.

Q. How does your approach to the subject benefit the field?

A. I try to select research questions which are of upmost importance to conserving the species. Resources are limited, so conservation management plans must be based on science in order to be effective and efficient. I design my research to help policy makers and land managers to make the best decisions to conserve our native pollinators.

Sheila Colla doing field work
Sheila Colla doing field work

Q. What findings have surprised and excited you? (I.e. tell us about the most interesting finding, person and/or place you encountered while pursuing this line of inquiry.)

A. Given all of the media attention about bees and pesticides, it’s been pretty surprising that for the species I’m looking at, pesticides don’t seem to be a significant threat. In fact, based on the observed patterns of decline, climate change and disease spillover from managed bees (like honey bees) to wild bees are more likely to be causing decline among wild pollinators.

Q. Every researcher encounters roadblocks and challenges during the process of inquiry, can you highlight some of those challenges and how you overcame them?

A. Entomology is one of those fields that really lacks diversity. There are many more men than females in upper positions, though this seems to be slowly changing. This is true for many scientific fields. I still struggle with this but have a great supportive network of colleagues through the Liber Ero Fellowship Program which helps me through these challenges.

Q. Are there interdisciplinary aspects to your research? If so, what are they?

A. Although my research is based on pure ecology, it feeds directly into federal and provincial policy. I also work to help run a continent-wide citizen science project ( which requires me to think about communicating science to lay people and promoting environmental education to the public.

honey bees pollinating a yellow beavertail cactus flower
Honey bees pollinating a yellow beavertail cactus flower

Q. Did you ever consider other fields of research?

A. Although I am a trained natural scientist, it is becoming more and more obvious that having more data does not always lead to change. So, I am moving more into collaborations with social scientists to help understand perceptions and attitudes people have of species at risk and the compromises we need to make to effectively conserve them.

Q. Are you teaching any courses this year? If so, what are they? Do you bring your research experience into your teaching practice?

A. I’m currently teaching two resource management courses in the Faculty of Environmental Studies. I communicate areas where environmental management decisions are based on scientific evidence and where they could have been better informed by the science. I also encourage students to be active participants during federal and provincial comment periods for environmental decisions. It’s important to constantly be informing politicians of relevant information and helping them make evidence-based decisions.

Q. What advice would you give to students embarking on a research project for the first time?

A. I would certainly suggest getting into a lab or research project as early as possible, even as a volunteer or for course credit. This will help you figure out what kinds of questions and methods you are more drawn too. Also, check out high impact papers in your field and see what papers jump out at you. Those might help you figure out what direction you may want to pursue.

Tell us a bit about yourself:

Q. How long have you been a researcher?

A. I began working on bumble bees as an undergraduate researcher in 2003.

Q. What books, recordings or films have influenced your life?

A. The Forgotten Pollinators by Buchmann and Nabhan. They really outlined how we take the services insects provide for us and for ecosystems for granted.

Q. What do you do for fun?

A. These days, exploring the world with my two year old. He’s a blast.