Q&A with Joshua Arnold on climate studies, agriculture and bee hotels

Joshua Arnold Warren Wilson
APPLES TO APPLES: Warren Wilson College student Jo Chatkupt, left, listens to Warren Wilson College agroecology professor Joshua Arnold explain apple tree pruning during an Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture class. Photo by Pete Erb

Warren Wilson College’s environmental studies department will begin offering a master’s degree in applied climate studies in summer 2025. The program will draw on the college’s natural sciences and social sciences programs to prepare students for mitigating the effects of climate change. Students will attend two summertime intensives, and the rest of the coursework will be online.

“Most scientific fields are grappling with impacts and implications of climate change in a very siloed way,” says Joshua Arnold, chair of the environmental studies department. The goal for Warren Wilson College has been to “break out of that silo and start thinking about climate issues from a more interdisciplinary perspective.”

Arnold spoke with Xpress about the scope of climate studies, hopefulness and despair about the environment he sees among young people, and how students at Warren Wilson are trying to save bees through healthier habitats.

This interview has been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.

Xpress: Climate studies is an emerging field in academia and a new program for Warren Wilson College. What’s the difference between environmental studies and climate studies? It seems like there’s a lot of overlap. 

Arnold: Environmental studies is the typical degree pathway —  the bucket of social, ecological and economic studies of environmental issues. That’s where a confluence of issues has been looked at by lots of programs, lots of folks and a lot of different institutions over time. Climate studies is a natural progression of that [since] the ’80s and ’90s, when we were grappling with environmental issues and people’s awareness of our impacts on the planet were really starting to be discussed.

That narrative has changed quite a bit. We understand our impact on our ecosystems and our environment. Now we’re trying to think about that from this whole new standpoint of how climate change is going to be [addressed]. … We’re looking at it from a more global perspective. It’s going to impact everything in different ways, so now we need to shift our focus and start incorporating new paths of study and reframing the way that we’ve traditionally thought about these environmental issues.

What unique opportunities does learning about climate studies from professors based in Western North Carolina offer? 

We have a really rich environment here. Small farmers have woven together this absolutely incredible food system over decades here in Western North Carolina. [It’s] kind of a nexus of the localized food system, a very interconnected food system here. We have a really interesting opportunity to investigate climate impacts on agricultural systems in Western North Carolina in the Southern Appalachian region.

Do you find that your undergraduates studying environment and climate science are optimistic about the future? Or do you witness more despair and hopelessness? 

Both. Folks self-selected to [study these topics] and how they want to grapple with this kind of existential crisis. I think we see students that are interested in trying to work on solutions. They want to be out where the rubber meets the road, fixing things. They want to get out there and impact their world in a way that’s going to make it a better place. Fear and concern of what these impacts will bring to them, to their potential families and children over the coming decades, are a lot of what drives those folks to study environmental issues or environmental science or agriculture.  … It’s certainly one of the things that’s driven me in my work to engage with what looks like sometimes a really unsolvable and wicked problem and then push through that boundary and say, “All right, what is my little piece that I can work on?”

Your primary area of research is agroecology. What exactly do you study? 

Simply, it’s the study of agricultural systems from an ecologist’s perspective — oftentimes with the focus of changing or implementing practices that will make the system more resilient or function more effectively. But also there’s a whole other aspect to agroecology that’s socially driven as well. People are also part of that ecology, so [agroecology tries] to take a more holistic perspective on our trade system or farm labor.

My particular specialization is ecological pest management — trying to think about ways that we can build agroecosystems to where we incentivize beneficial insects to be there and reduce our pest pressures.

What drew you to the pest management angle? 

I love insects. [laughs] That’s part of it! It’s one of those fields of study that once you go into it and keep peeling off these layers [you find] these incredible interactions, really unique things, just fantastical stuff that we don’t really recognize in our day-to-day lives. … Ecological pest management was something that I found my way to, but I also ended up finding a lot of folks that were also doing that work. That seemed like a really natural pathway to go into and I started working on that to help farmers run their farms with less labor and less application of pesticides.

On the subject of insects, I noticed that you are Warren Wilson’s entomology crew adviser. [Warren Wilson students participate in various part-time “work crews” on campus, which contributes to their tuition.]  What does the entomology crew do? 

We’ve focused on a couple different things. The one thing that we’ve really been interested in is cavity-nesting bees — I don’t know if you’ve seen those bee hotels that people are [making]?

No, but I’m Googling “bee hotels” right now. Wow, these are cool!

One of the issues with bee hotels is they maybe aren’t being implemented in a way that’s really incredibly effective, and we don’t really have a lot of research on them. The idea is that you’re building an overwintering habitat for cavity-nesting bees. Cavity-nesting bees provide a lot of pollination services to crops in this area. We’ve disturbed habitat so much that a lot of their overwintering sites, like native vegetation and soils, have been disturbed. We’ve really impacted their populations. So folks have started to utilize these bee hotels as a simulated habitat for them.

But from observations what I’ve seen is that they’re actually not that great for bees, because a lot of the predators or parasitoids will go into that hotel and start attacking the resources cavity-nesting bees are putting in there — pollen and their larva.

I’m looking at all the different bee hotels you can buy online. Wow, Williams-Sonoma sells a $25 “pollination palace.” But there are some really cheap ones on Amazon. 

Especially the ones that come from Amazon, those materials [are treated] with insecticides. Essentially, people are assembling bee hotels with materials that have been treated with insecticides. That’s obviously not a good thing.

Oh, no. 

We’re starting to do some research on the ecology of cavity-nesting bee hotels … with the goal of eventually moving toward a bee hotel that’s more beneficial than what we’re seeing being sold on the market.


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About Jessica Wakeman
Jessica Wakeman is an Asheville-based reporter for Mountain Xpress. She has been published in Rolling Stone, Glamour, New York magazine's The Cut, Bustle and many other publications. She was raised in Connecticut and holds a Bachelor's degree in journalism from New York University. Follow me @jessicawakeman

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One thought on “Q&A with Joshua Arnold on climate studies, agriculture and bee hotels

  1. Dennis Stockdale

    Thanks for this most timely article. So helpful!
    Kay L Stockdale

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