Bayer’s Beneficial Arthropod Toxicology and Risk Assessment Scientist, Dan Schmehl
Passion for Pollinator Health
It takes only a few minutes with Dan Schmehl, Bayer’s Beneficial Arthropod Toxicology and Risk Assessment Scientist, to know that when he commits himself to something, he’s really committed. When it comes to finding new ways to improve pollinator health, his enthusiasm is contagious. Yet, what’s surprising about his passion for working with bees is how close it came to never happening.
How a Fear of Bees Led to Bayer
Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Dan is the youngest of three children and comes from a family that wasn’t particularly into farming. But if you dig a little deeper, the signs of a career in agriculture were there. His grandfather, who recently celebrated his 99th birthday, was a farmer and is still living on his farm today, and Dan has two cousins who are involved in farming and horticulture. At 16 years old, Dan began working at a landscape nursery where he developed an appreciation for plant biology. After graduating from Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA, he enrolled at Pennsylvania State University where he earned a doctorate in entomology.
While Dan’s career in entomology may seem obvious today, it wasn’t initially in the cards. “Growing up, I had an extreme fear of insects, especially bees,” says Dan. “Working in the landscaping business made it impossible to avoid stinging insects, and since I didn’t want to be the target of jokes by my fellow workers, I got stubborn and decided I had to master my fear.” Dan not only lost his fear of bees and other insects, but the closer he studied them, the more fascinated he became with their biology and behavior.
Dan’s enrollment at Penn State was perfectly timed with the emergence of an issue known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which came into prominence in 2007.
“You might say I was a child of CCD,” he says. The major focus of his research involved evaluating the impact of pesticide and nutritional stress on honey bees. Initially, most media reports, and some in academia, were suggesting that neonicotinoid insecticides were linked to CCD. “Let’s just say that I wasn’t the biggest fan of Bayer in grad school,” he laughs. “But since much of my work was confined to laboratory toxicity tests, I had no real appreciation for considering exposure when determining risk.” At that time, his plan after graduating was to teach.
However, all of that was about to change.
It was during his postgraduate work with Dr. Jamie Ellis at the University of Florida that Dan began expanding his interests to include the multiple factors affecting bee health. It also exposed him to the crop protection industry for the first time. While in Florida, Dan began assisting Bayer on a research project involving a neonicotinoid residue survey in urban and suburban environments. “I was struck by the fact that Bayer had no rights to the data we generated and that they were just looking for answers,” he notes.
“When I saw that Bayer was bringing more ‘bee experts’ into the organization, I understood that they were creating an opportunity to really do something to improve and promote bee health.”
Dan joined Bayer in January 2015 and continues to build on his strong resume (teacher, mentor, more than a dozen refereed scientific papers published or in preparation and numerous research seminars and presentations) to make bee health a reality. He is one of Bayer’s leading scientists working on Healthy Hives 2020, an initiative that is focused on conducting targeted research to bring tangible benefits to beekeepers within the next few years. Among his many other activities, Dan helps design and monitor Bayer’s pollinator field and lab trials.
Commitment In and Outside of Work
It’s hard to find a “down time” for Dan, who seems to move rapidly from one project to another. “Maybe it’s a combination of my father’s engineering background and my own stubbornness, but I’ve always wanted to know how things work,” he says. “I think that’s what makes Bayer’s pollinator efforts so time-consuming and yet so rewarding. When I’m meeting with the extended bee team, it’s refreshing to see that we’re not interested in doing things like putting Bayer’s name on a building for the purpose of gaining accolades, but in building the foundation for sustainable bee health.”
Dan’s surprising career journey – as someone not initially interested in agriculture or in working in the industry and who overcame a fear of insects to become a hands-on and well-published entomologist – is impressive. Equally impressive is the time he carves away from work with his wife and two small children (one- and four-year-olds).
“When we talk about agricultural sustainability, we’re talking about supporting our families and the next generation,” he notes. “Spending time with my family is a constant reminder of the importance of what we do at work.” Now that’s real commitment.