Interview with a social insect scientist: Katja Kwaku

You can read Katja’s recent research article about leaf transfer behaviour in Atta cephalotes here.

IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Katja Kwaku and I am a Master’s student in the Biology department of Tufts University. I’m an ecologist; I’ve worked on a variety of projects, but I’m generally interested in behavioral ecology and global change biology.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

I’ve been fascinated by animals and their behavior since I was little, but I only really became interested in social insects and leafcutter ants in particular in 2019 when I worked as an educator at the Montshire Museum of Science in Vermont. The Montshire has a colony of honey bees and a colony of leafcutter ants. The leafcutter ants constituted one of the museum’s most popular exhibits and visitors of all ages always asked great questions. Sometimes, I didn’t know the answer to a question, and moments like these inspired me to delve into the primary literature and start researching leafcutter ants.

Social insect researcher Katja Kwaku.

IS: What is your favorite social insect, and why?

Clearly, I am biased, but I have to go with leafcutter ants. There are so many strong interspecific interactions at play! Leafcutter ants have a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with the fungus they cultivate in their underground nests, they rely on bacteria in many ways to mediate this ant-fungus interaction, and they are voracious herbivores of many tree species. Also, they’re just so adorable when they’re carrying leaf fragments.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

I’m relatively new to research, but I would say the best moment so far was witnessing leafcutter ants transfer leaf fragments to one another for the first time. My classmates and I had spent several months reading articles about leaf transfer and had finally travelled from Boston to Costa Rica to do a project about it, so it was such a relief seeing leaf transfer with my own eyes and knowing that the entire basis of our project wouldn’t fall through. It was also really exciting to see leafcutter ants transfer fragments directly to one another on tree trunks because leaf transfer in that context, to my knowledge, has not been explicitly documented before.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

Yes! I am currently a teaching assistant and have served as an educator at various science museums in the past. I love highlighting the connections between my research and the material I’m teaching, even if they’re not directly related, because it shows how everything in science is connected and relays why I’m excited to teach the material and why I think it’s important.

Leafcutter ants on their foraging trail. Photo: Katja Kwaku

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

Some important research questions involve understanding how insects use specific cues to drive foraging decisions and communication. Understanding the mechanisms behind fundamental behaviors will give insight into how to best conserve insect species and associated ecosystem services such as pollination and decomposition.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

One topic of debate relevant to social insect research is whether or not global insect decline or the “insect apocalypse” is actually happening. There is evidence of insect population declines in many areas, but there are so few insect monitoring programs around the world that we run into the issue of having insufficient data to make a generalized conclusive statement about it.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

The last book I read was Silent Sparks: The Wonderous World of Fireflies by Tufts professor Sara Lewis. I would recommend it because it’s scientific in content but written like a novel, so it’s an interesting and easy read!

Katja Kwaku and her co-author Elena Gonick observing leafcutter ants in Costa Rica.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies, or sports?

I love dancing and doing yoga. I also enjoy making videos with my family and friends.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

Things often don’t go as planned in ecology, so I like to laugh about all the unexpected field work mishaps; they make great stories for later. I also like to reach out to and talk with friends and get exercise when things get tough.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

I’m the cautious type, so my immediate instinct would be to bring first aid supplies! Otherwise, I would bring a hammock to relax in, binoculars to better enjoy the landscape and wildlife, and a notebook to document my experiences.

Leafcutter ant on an artificial foraging trail. Photo: Katja Kwaku

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

Dr. Colin Orians has been an excellent mentor and professor during my time as a Master’s student. He was always happy to spend lots of time with me discussing science, but ultimately encouraged me to make my own research decisions and let me think for myself.

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

Be patient, since insects don’t always cooperate with experiments right away. Also, if possible, try to send time outdoors observing wildlife outside of dedicated research hours. Your observations will remind you of insects’ magnificence and might inspire your next research question!

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

This is such a hard question since every place is different and has its own positives. One of my favorite places is Long Point, Ontario, where I helped study the endangered Fowler’s toad population. The auditory experience of several frog species chorusing in addition to the sounds of birds and insects at night was enchanting.

Can desert ants take the heat?

by Sean O’Donnell

Based on research for the paper “O’Donnell, S., S. Bulova, V. Caponera, K. Oxman, & I. Giladi. In press. Species differ in worker body size effects on critical thermal limits in seed-harvesting desert ants (Messor ebeninus and M. arenarius). Insectes Sociaux.”

A key puzzle in understanding animal biodiversity is how species with similar ecological needs, sometimes even closely related species, can coexist in a habitat. Why doesn’t competition for shared resources lead to some of the competing species going extinct? If we can understand how species manage to partition their environments, we may gain insights into how high species diversity is maintained. 

In the deserts of the Mediterranean and Middle East, seed-harvesting ants of the genus Messor provide a great study case of this conundrum. Several Messor species often co-occur and all harvest the seeds of desert plants for food. Within nests, Messor ant workers differ widely in body size, and species can further differ in average worker body sizes. Body size affects seed choice, but Messor species still overlap widely on the types of seeds they harvest. Do other factors help reduce interspecific competition?

Deserts are challenging to animal life in many ways, including their famously extreme temperatures. Many deserts, including the Negev, swing from being exceptionally hot to very cold. Small-bodied animals like ants, unable to thermoregulate when working outside their nests, are especially vulnerable to local temperature extremes. 

My lab’s earlier work on army ants (Baudier et al. 2015, 2018) showed that worker body size differences within and among species were associated with the ants’ abilities to withstand temperature extremes. Smaller workers are generally more vulnerable to extremely high temperatures. We hypothesized that Messor species differences in thermal sensitivity, perhaps associated with body size variation, could affect their ability to function in extreme desert temperatures. Differences in thermal biology could influence the species’ relative abilities to harvest seeds under different temperature conditions. A first step in exploring this possibility was to test whether worker ant thermal physiology was related to body size with and between species. We chose two Messor species that co-occur in the northern Negev desert in Israel as research subjects: M. ebeninus and M. arenarius. Messor ebeninus workers range smaller, and M. arenarius workers range larger, but there is some species overlap in worker body sizes.

Ein Avdat National Park provides a stunning setting for the Ben Gurion University Desert Research Center

We collected workers from several nests of each species. Then we brought them to Itamar Giladi’s lab at the Desert Research Center of Ben Gurion University for physiological analysis. We placed single workers in vials in either a digitally-controlled heating or cooling device. By slowly ramping the temperatures up or down and watching for cessation of the ants’ behavioral responses, we determined the maximum or minimum critical temperature for each worker. After the thermal physiology trials, we measured each worker’s head width as an indicator of body size variation. We asked whether worker body size was associated with critical thermal maxima and minima both within and between the species.

The research crew hiking in Ein Avdat Park (left to right: PhD student Karmi Oxman, co-PI Itamar Giladi, research associate Susan Bulova, PhD student Virginia Caponera)

We found that body size was related to maximum thermal tolerance in complex ways. In the larger species, M. arenarius, workers of all sizes were similarly tolerant of high-temperature extremes. In contrast, body size was strongly related to maximum tolerated temperature in M. ebeninus: smaller workers were more thermally sensitive and could not function at temperatures as high as their larger nestmates; larger M. ebeninus overlapped in size with smaller M. arenarius and were similarly thermally tolerant. Worker size showed no relationships with low-temperature tolerance in either species.

Messor ebeninus ant workers returning to their nest from foraging

These results suggest extreme high desert temperatures could differentially affect these two Messor species and their abilities to forage for seeds. We expect smaller M. ebeninus workers to be restricted to foraging at cooler temperatures. Whether the smaller workers only, or the entire foraging force, drop out at higher temperatures remains to be tested (Baudier & O’Donnell 2017). But our results do suggest that temperature effects differ between ant species that share the same habitat and food resource. Species differences in thermal physiology may promote species coexistence.

PI Sean O’Donnell collecting workers from a nest of the ant Messor arenarius
PhD students Karmi Oxman (l) and Virginia Caponera running thermal tolerance trials on Messor ant workers in Itamar Giladi’s lab

References

Baudier KM, D’Amelio CL, Malhotra R, O’Connor MP, O’Donnell S. 2018. Extreme insolation: climatic variation shapes the evolution of thermal tolerance at different scales. American Naturalist 192: 347-359.

Baudier KM, Mudd AE, Erickson SC, O’Donnell S. 2015. Microhabitat and body size effects on heat tolerance: implications for responses to climate change (army ants: Formicidae, Ecitoninae). Journal of Animal Ecology 84: 1322-1330.

Baudier KM, O’Donnell S. 2017. Weak links: How colonies counter the social costs of individual variation in thermal physiology. Current Opinion in Insect Science 22: 85-91.

All images taken by the author.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Robin Southon

You can read Robin’s recent research article about female reproductive skew in Polistes wasps here.

Who are you, and what do you do?

Robin Southon, I did my PhD at the University of Bristol and was most recently a postdoc at University College London in the Sumner Lab. I’m an ethologist at heart, and a little bit fanatical about wasps. My current research focuses on the social evolution of wasps and their potential use in integrated pest management.

How did you develop an interest in your research?

Quite by luck. I was finishing a job in the US and about to return back to the UK but saw an urgent ad for an internship in Panama on Polistes paper wasps – a slight detour. The study site was an abandoned cold war era US military communications station. A surreal setting with nature slowly reclaiming dilapidated concrete structures, but a haven for wasps with hundreds of nests dotted between different rooms. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Polistes, watching a nest is like a soap opera, from the fall of a dominant queen and the ensuing chaos as sisters battle for power. I was hooked and had too many questions, so ended up doing a PhD to try and answer at least some of them.

What is your favorite social insect, and why?

A wasp I’ve not worked with yet and only seen museum specimens of, Polistes gigas. The males are remarkably larger than females and possess enormous mandibles for fighting. Males likely defend a territory around a nest from rivals. It’s rather unique morphology and behaviour in comparison to the leks and aggregations observed in males of other wasps. A hopeful future study.

What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

The crux of my PhD was whether newly emerged males in the wasp Polistes lanio would help on their natal nests. Male helping behaviour in the Hymenoptera hadn’t received much attention in the literature, so it was a risk to base an entire thesis on. Arriving in Trinidad and locating my first nest with males, I fed one and he chewed up the food and shared it out to his siblings, which was a big relief. Looking back, I was also very lucky to have fed a young male first, as it turned out older males stop feeding nestmates. Repetition is key even in preliminary experiments.

Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

In the past I’ve volunteered for two great organisations: Soapbox Science which promotes women in science and highlights STEM as a career path; Pint of Science in which researchers present a talk about their subject at a local pub or cafe to the general public, quite hectic but fun.

What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

There’s an increasing number of publications that demonstrate the effectiveness of ants and social wasps as biocontrol agents. At the moment, discovering methods that promote existing natural populations to target pest species seems an achievable goal. But to unlock the full potential of these agents, in comparison to the domestication of the honeybee, we are a few thousand years behind. We are missing basic questions to advance this goal, such as knowledge on how to successfully maintain and breed such species in captivity.

Another cold war relic home to wasps – Trinidad

What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

There has been a clawback on what we should describe as eusocial or a superorganism, and the same applies for terms such as primitively eusocial. In structure, how much difference is there between a Polistes paper wasp colony and a group of cooperatively breeding meerkats? Testing the limits of subordinate to reproductive transitions/successions within tropical totipotent species may be insightful, given that reproduction is not as strictly dictated by seasonality and mate availability in such environments.

What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

Forest and Jungle by PT Barnum from 1900; found in an antiques shop. I would not recommend as it’s both very archaic in its scientific and cultural view of the natural world. A window into the past and thankful reminder of changes made.

Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies, or sports?

I’m a typical naturalist: travelling, hiking, and filling up my home freezer with more insect samples that I promise myself to one day pin.

How do you keep going when things get tough?

Misery loves company – grabbing a coffee with equally frustrated colleagues and listening to and hashing out ideas together has always helped.

If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why? A machete and fire striker for survival, eppendorf tubes with RNAlater/ethanol for when my boss complains about where I’ve disappeared to.

Polybia nest – Trinidad

Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

The ‘spark’ happened back in my childhood thanks to my grandfather. He lived out in the countryside and was a bit of an amateur zookeeper: horses, fish, owls, peacocks, attack geese, etc. When I visited, I would sit inside enclosures thinking about why animals behaved in certain ways and the interactions between them. Some things haven’t changed.

What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

For undergraduates, reach out to labs that align with your interests. Research assistantships provide opportunities to get valuable experience, which can give you a head start in future postgrad studies. Also, a bee-suit is not necessarily a wasp-suit, Vespula are incredibly good at finding vulnerabilities.

What is your favorite place science has taken you?

Trinidad – astounding nature, excellent food, and an abundance of wasps. I met many people with the attitude of “if it doesn’t bother me, I don’t bother it” when it comes to wasps, and you can find all sorts of different species around the eaves of houses. I don’t know if it truly was an old motto or someone trying to amuse me, but I was once told having wasps around your house is a sign of good fortune, the symbolism being between wasps bringing back forage and people bringing back money to the home.

If you had unlimited funds to conduct whatever research you wanted, where would you go and what would you investigate?

My fantasy answer would be to use a large artificial self-contained biosphere to study the impact of environment on sociality. Actual tests of inclusive fitness are complex, but this would allow genetic and demographic data for each subsequent generation to be sampled for the entire population, whilst manipulating the climate, predation risk, and resource availability. I would hope funding also covers a control-biosphere…

Interview with a social insect scientist: Omar Urquizo

You can read Omar’s recent research article about reproductive and brood-rearing strategies in tree hoppers here.

IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

OU: My name is Omar N. Urquizo. I do research at the Chemical Ecology Laboratory of Universidad San Francisco Xavier in Chuquisaca, Bolivia in the field of the evolution of social insects in contexts of behavioral ecology and their interactions with plants, other insects, or arthropods.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

OU: I felt much curiosity about arthropods in 2013 when I participated in a conference where two investigators presented their work on morphological diversity in bees and treehopper behaviouOU: So, I wanted to investigate and learn more about insect–plant interactions, and I decided to request admission as a student of the Chemical Ecology Laboratory. There, I started supporting research on treehopper vibrational communication in a mating context. I was really surprised because we could listen to signals (substrate-borne signals) that usually are not easy to perceive, thanks to bioacoustic tools. So, I learned about the phenomena of this group; one of them, brood parasitism, was reported in my first study. In treehoppers, there are different social levels during which we can observe awesome behaviours. I believe that we must get to know what we have around us, from the smallest and mimetic individual to the biggest and remarkable individual.

IS: What is your favorite social insect, and why?

OU: My favourite social insects are treehoppers, because within the Membracidae family the species display different strange forms and colours in their pronotum, being cryptic or aposematic depending on the species. But also, this group has peculiar behaviours during vibrational communication during mating, maternal care, and feeding search, which depend on the level of social organization of each species.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

OU: I think that the best moment in my research was data collection because I learned several things about the natural history of Alchisme grossa; however, there are several biggest moments, like when we finally saw genetic results that allow us to open a discussion about intraspecific brood parasitism in treehoppers.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

OU: I do not teach nor do outreach formally; however, I always share my knowledge with other students and researchers. I think that science communication is very important for displaying our work at different levels, be it a school, university, or simply individuals who enjoy and are surprised to know new things about nature. I am eager to incorporate my research into an educational video in an entertaining way.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

OU: I think that an important question is: What are the mechanisms that lead to different levels of social organization, from community levels, through evolutionary or/and ecological contexts, to individual levels, such as physiological processes? I think that if we can understand all social interactions, we can make the best decisions when we face different problems with conservation, pest control, or natural resources.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

OU: I feel that the research that has generated more intense debate is the evolutionary processes leading to social behaviours. In this area, it is not uncommon to discover new findings that change a way of thinking and strengthens or renews a postulate.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

OU: In science,I am reading Evolutionary Analysis by F. Scott F, but the last book I read was Communities’ Ecology by F. Jaksic. But also, I was reading Moby Dick by Herman Melville, as recreational reading. I recommend these books because the former contain concepts and research explained in very practical ways, and the last book because it is an interesting study of character within an adventure of pirates and whales.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies, or sports?

OU: My favourite activities outside of science are photography and music. I think they are both ways to capture and express beauty and to demonstrate and communicate your feelings in an artistic way. I also love skating.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

OU: I am a religious person, and my faith and family are my principal support in difficult times; they provide me moments of calm and peace. But also, when things get tough, I tend to remain calm and maintain clarity to act or make the best decision. I also like to go out to the city to attract good vibes.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

OU: I would take my family (is the most important to me), but if I only have to carry objects, I would carry a radio to communicate with them, a guitar, and a camera.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

OU: Carlos Pinto, who has been an extraordinary mentor to me. He has taught me that science can be made anywhere – that you just need to believe you can do it.

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

OU: All research is valid, but it is best to work on a problem that really motivates you. And, of course, to put body and soul into your endeavours. In ecological research, observe each trait or behaviour mindfully with utmost patience. The insect world is small, but that makes it more fascinating, since we can analyse many processes. For example, studying large group behaviors is easier with insects than with big animals.

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

OU: Outside Bolivia,I have only travelled to Santiago, Chile through science. There, I met very interesting researchers in many fields of science. Within Bolivia, several study trips have taken me to spectacular places.

IS: If you had unlimited funds to conduct whatever research you wanted, where would you go and what would you investigate?

OU: If I had unlimited funds, I would create a strong research university department in Sucre, Bolivia working in different areas of ecology. Within it, I would like to work in molecular ecology and evolution with native bees to describe interactions between species and other social behaviours.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Juliane Lopes

You can read Juliane’s recent research article on the influence of post-flight on queens’ survival and productivity in leaf-cutter ants here.

IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

JL: I’m Juliane Lopes, a biologist. I am a researcher and professor at the Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora, Brazil. I’m part of the Post-Graduation Program in Biodiversity and Nature Conservation at the same university.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

JL: I started to study ants in 1997 in my master’s degree, but even before that, I was always interested in insect behavior.

IS: What is your favorite social insect, and why?

JL: The ants. Their complex organization level is amazing. I always find them doing stuff that I would never think they could. Recently, I found a paper that described ants basking in the sunlight.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

JL: Every research moment is memorable. Each student that reaches their objective of the final thesis is a victory and gives me great satisfaction. I’m not able to choose one of them.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

JL: Yes, the divulgation of science is very important and I, along with my team, always work in this direction. We always make expositions of laboratory colonies in schools and science fairs. This contact is very pleasant, and every time at least one person has a curiosity about ants. When you answer new questions that arise in their minds, they are always surprised about the cooperation and communication in the ant colonies. We also have an Instagram profile, @mirmecolab.ufjf (follow us!!), in which we publish at least two posts weekly. Sometimes the posts are about ants, other times about biology in general or opportunities for biology students.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

JL: Understanding the mechanisms that drive their organization is THE question for me. I think that their systems can be cleverly used as models to improve our society. Integrating and collaborating with researchers of other disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, and art, will broaden the applications of studies about social insects.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

JL: I think that a relevant theme is the evolutionary paths of sociality in these insects; there are always new discoveries on this topic.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

JL: I haven’t been able to finish a book for some time, as there are always too many articles to read or corrections to make, reunions to attend, classes to prepare, and dogs to care for, among many other things. For now, I am trying to finish two books, Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche, and Game Theory and Animal Behaviour edited by Lee Dugatkin and Hudson Kern Reeve.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies, or sports?

JL: I love to play music and care for my dogs, plants, sons, daughter, and parents.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

JL: I go to the countryside and take a breath of fresh air.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

JL: Antiallergic, because I’m allergic to insects, especially wasps, bees, and ants (!!!), some colored markers to paint ants to help me to observe them, and a ukulele.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

JL: Certainly my advisor Dr. Luiz Carlos Forti, who taught me how to care about ants, about their ecological function, how to apply basic behavior research to improve control methods, and how to advise my own students.

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

JL: Know that a lot of people will question the importance of what you are doing. Having a fast and complete response to this question is essential to putting value in our research. Also, have the patience to mark ants, repeat the same experiment several times, and know that insects can have a bad mood and won’t always do what you want them to do.

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

JL: Toulouse in France where I spent my postdoc, and Trinidad-Tobago for a talk in a symposium. I had never expected I would go there. Such a beautiful place.

IS: If you had unlimited funds to conduct whatever research you wanted, where would you go and what would you investigate?

JL: I would go to space and investigate how a colony might adapt to changes in gravity and atmosphere.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Jenny Jandt

You can read Jenny’s recent research article on differences in yellowjacket colony-level aggression over time and across contexts here.

That’s a big one! Jenny showing a PERFECT Vespula nest excavation. She later discovered that the bottom half was just paper – presumably to be repurposed into lower layers of brood comb. This colony is referred to as V3 in the Jandt et al. 2020 Insectes Sociaux paper.

IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

JJ: My name is Jenny Jandt. I’m a Senior Lecturer (equivalent to an Assistant Professor in the US) at the University of Otago, New Zealand. I study behavioural ecology and evolutionary biology of social insect colonies.

Waiting for directions. When Jenny is searching for wasp nests, sometimes she finds nectar feeders full of sugar water (for birds) that are being dominated by wasps. Jenny waits until a wasp is full of sugar and watches as she flies away. Jenny uses the trajectory of the wasp’s flight to track the nest.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

JJ: I fell in love with social insects in 2000 when I did a summer study abroad in Costa Rica. I discovered how I could be in a most beautiful place in the world and my study organisms would come to me! I didn’t have to keep them locked up in a lab (which I would do later anyway) or spend all of my time searching for footprints or poo (both of which I studied in some way with social insects eventually too).

While working with many colonies of bumble bees for my Ph.D. and many more colonies of paper wasp for my postdoc, I thought a lot about the differences among colonies. Why did some colonies grow so fast? Why did some colonies refuse to cooperate in the experiment I set up for them? Were some colonies actually more likely to sting or attack me?

When I started my lab in NZ, I focused on developing research to investigate factors that influence colony differences in bumble bees, wasps, and ants. I’m still fascinated by the individuals, but now I’m focused on understanding how those individual differences interact to create a robust colony phenotype. And I get to study them in another most beautiful place in the world.

Everyone’s a critic. Occasionally, the workers like to double-check the camera settings.

IS: What is your favorite social insect, and why?

JJ: My favorite is probably the German yellowjacket. I think the yellow and black color patterns are striking and beautiful, and I love photographing them on flowers and leaves. They have a ferocity when defending their nest, and I respect that. They were also the first social insect I worked with. As a Master’s student, I studied their foraging behavior, but also helped design a box where I could watch them interact with each other inside the nest. There’s so much more to them than just their sting.

I also fell in love with Halictid bees at some point. I love their brilliant colors, I love that they land on my skin and try to drink sweat, and I love that they pretend they have a powerful sting. It’s also pretty fun to consider that these bright green bees that carry bellies of yellow pollen are obviously Green Bay Packer fans too.

I never imagined I would include an ant on this list, but I can’t leave out the bullet ant. I’ve never been stung by these brilliant beasts, but I did have an opportunity to study their foraging behavior in Costa Rica one summer. I got some video of these visual predators standing next to a trail of leaf-cutting ants and picking foragers off one by one. I even saw one ant catch a bee in mid-air! Luckily, the ant was so excited and shocked by her success that she forgot how to get home and walked back and forth often enough for me to capture an exceptional photo of her with her prize. I found a way to publish that photo with the study we were doing on their foraging behavior.

A Vespula queen visits a Grevillea flower. Neither are native to NZ, but both are pretty.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

JJ: I remember the day that I realized a hypothesis I was testing for my Master’s work, that yellowjackets leave footprints at a food site to attract conspecifics, was not going to be supported. I remember telling other students in the lab, who all recommended that if I wanted to convince my advisor (who held a firm view that the hypothesis was true), I needed to have strong evidence. So I designed the project in a way that made it absolutely clear that yellowjackets do not leave footprints at the food site. I brought him the evidence, and I was so nervous. Who was I to challenge my advisor? But he listened to my explanation and said “ok.” I felt fireworks going off in my head! My first publication was a null result, reported in the title “Vespula germanica foragers do not scent-mark carbohydrate food sites.”

I’ve had the opportunity to work on some really neat projects over the years (sometimes based on really cool hypotheses that were even supported!), but that one was memorable because I was young, very new to the field, I challenged an expert in the field, and I presented the evidence in a convincing way. I earned the confidence that I built that day, and I’ve carried that win with me ever since.

Ancistrocerus gazelle visits a daisy. Neither are native to NZ, but the wasp is a solitary Eumenid, suggesting the soil properties and floral rewards of Jenny’s garden are adequate to support the European tube wasp and her nest!

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

JJ: I teach behavioral ecology and insect neuroecology. I’m very fortunate to work at a university where I can teach on topics that overlap with my research interests. Whenever possible, I bring examples of my research to my lectures – I love sharing photos and videos of my bees and wasps. Insect neuroecology is slightly out of my area of expertise, so I’ve been reading a lot of current literature for the class, and then incorporating lecture content into some of my research proposals.

I love bringing my bees (especially when they have number tags) and ants to school groups or outreach events. Most people have never seen a bumble bee colony, and in NZ, very few people have seen ants! I find ways to bring wasps too, with posters and videos, pinned specimens, and nest paper/comb. I love explaining how each strip of color represents a single individual’s foraging trip for pulp. Sometimes we write on the paper too.

I use social media for outreach, as well. I’ve begun experimenting with my “yarden” to provide natural pesticide-free space for birds and invertebrates, and of course, to attract bees and wasps. I try to record and share observations of visitors to the yard on Facebook, Twitter, and iNaturalist.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

JJ: There is some really neat research being conducted on colony interactions and social interactions affecting individual development/phenotype. I think combining these fields to investigate how changes to individual gene expression can influence colony-level phenotype would be an awesome area for future research.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

JJ: One area that I’m involved with concerns “saving the bees.” What do we mean when we say we want to save the bees? Scientists and media have done an exceptional job of convincing the general public that bees need to be saved. However, there are some groups that argue honey bees should not be a focus of these efforts because they are domesticated and managed. Instead, native or solitary bees deserve the most attention, as they can be more susceptible to pesticides and reduction in floral rewards. This group also includes folks that would like to change the narrative to saving insect diversity in general. On the other side of the debate, honey bees are the primary group of bees that require attention.

I don’t study or manage honey bee colonies. I build my yard to promote bumble bees (also not native to NZ, but they’re a good indicator species of soil health), native solitary bees, and natural predators (wasps, beetles, etc.). If honey bees come from someone else’s managed hive to my yard for a sip of nectar or a bit of pollen, that’s fine. If I find more non-Apis bees foraging in my yard, though, that’s a big win. I encourage folks to plant more flowers and keep pesticides out of the soil, as those two things can help honey bees and everything else.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

JJ: Eek! I read a lot. Here are a few of the recents from each category:

Popular Science: I just finished Justin Schmidt’s “The Sting of the Wild.” I would definitely recommend this book. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to meet Justin, you can hear his voice as he tells these incredible stories of the lengths he went through to collect venom, and the number and variety of attempts he made to tape up his bee suit to minimize stings. It is entertaining, informative, and full of stinging insect diversity.

Science Fiction/Fantasy: I love books with dragons, and am currently reading the Anne McAffrey series: “Dragonriders of Pern.” I just started the second book. It’s complex, but brilliant. I also have to give a shout out to the Robin Hobb series “The Rain Wild Chronicles.” One of the dragons is a main character, so at times you get to see the world from her perspective. 

Comic Books/Graphic Novels: There are a couple of very cool Harley Quinn origin series that have come out (“Harleen” and “Joker/Harley”). They’re printed under “DC/Black Label”. I also finally finished “The Walking Dead: Compendium 1”. I immediately ordered Compendium 2. If you’re a fan of the show, the comic series is equally as awesome, but the storyline diverges just enough to make it worthwhile to read.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies, or sports?

JJ: I love my garden (maybe that’s already obvious). I’ve never been a birder, but now I can recognize the calls of 4-5 species of birds that visit my yard. I love taking photos of bees, wasps, and other insects on flowers or crawling around the dirt.

I’m also a huge comic book nerd. Marvel does an exceptional job of showing 3-dimensional characters with a diversity of backgrounds while trying to get the science right in their universe (aside from, of course, Ant-Man insisting all of his ants, and now BEES, are male. Don’t worry – I’ve written Marvel a letter on the topic. I’m still waiting on the response). They also have a number of young women scientists with their own titles; a few examples include: The Unstoppable Wasp (Nadia, I named my cat after her) is the daughter of the late Hank Pym, the adopted daughter of Janet van Dyne (the original Wasp), and a genius. She started “G.I.R.L: Girls in Research Labs”, and she invited a diverse team of other young women geniuses to work in the lab with her to help save the world. And of course, she shrinks down to the size of a wasp and kicks a**. At the end of each issue of Unstoppable Wasp, they include an interview with a woman in S.T.E.M., and it’s so neat to read their stories. Shuri is another great series (hopefully you’ve heard of her from the Black Panther films). Her character is given some really powerful (physically and mentally) story arcs, but overall, she’s brilliant, and it’s amazing to watch her save the world too.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

JJ: Some days I don’t. On those days, if I can, I just have to stop everything and give myself space to just take a break. If I can’t stop, I try to wrap up everything that needs to be done that day as quickly as possible, then I stop checking emails and I go home and tune out the world.

I regularly reach out to mentors, my mom, and my friends, especially when things get tough. There are few things better than when my mentors reassure me that I’m not alone in how I feel, and we find ways to power through. My mom and friends are good listeners, and good for a laugh, because sometimes powering through isn’t the answer, you just need a distraction.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

  1. Water filter – I know there are ways to filter water naturally, but I’d probably get really sick or dehydrated before I figured them out.
  2. My phone – to take photographs and notes (no need for WiFi, I would just need a lot of storage). I would make sure a bunch of books and comics were pre-loaded on there too. Of course, the phone itself would need to be solar-powered, because I’m not wasting option 3 on a charger. Nor am I wasting two options on a pen and paper.
  3. My bee/wasp suit. It has a ton of pockets (for carrying my phone and water filter), it’ll protect from UV, and will be useful when digging into wild honey bee and wasp colonies for some protein and honey. 

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

JJ: Just like insects and books, it’s hard to pick just one person. My parents supported me as I took a non-traditional career path, which resulted in me being in grad school for what felt like forever and then moving to the other side of the world. My grad school and postdoc advisors shared their enthusiasm about science but challenged me to figure things out on my own. They are still there if and when I need advice, guidance, or just someone to run ideas by.

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

JJ: There is a reason you want to be a social insect researcher, and it’s probably that you think social insects are the coolest things you’ve ever heard of/witnessed/researched. Hold on to that enthusiasm and interest. It will keep you going during the tough times when you can’t remember why you pursued a career in research, and it will bring people joy to see you smile about the thing you love.

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

JJ: Here, to New Zealand. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a lot of places for research and conferences, but I call New Zealand my home, and this place is incredible. I’m so lucky to have this life.

IS: If you had unlimited funds to conduct whatever research you wanted, where would you go and what would you investigate?

JJ: I would love to investigate colony aggression in tropical Polistine (swarm founding) wasps. I’ve heard some terrifying stories of being chased by a swarm of angry wasps in the tropics, and I think it would be neat to quantify those experiences.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Alessandro Cini

You can read Alessandro’s recent research article on behavioral and neurogenomic responses of host workers to social parasite invasion in a social insect here.

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IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

AC: I am a Research Fellow at the University College London in the research group led by Seirian Sumner, which is part of the stimulating environment of CBER (Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research). I am an ethologist, and I am particularly interested in understanding the diversity and evolution of two cornerstones of insect societies: communication and social behaviour.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

AC: I guess two ingredients were (and still are) crucial: stimulating readings and inspiring colleagues! The former inspired my curiosity, and the latter showed me how to satisfy it. Most of these colleagues are now close friends and continue having a great influence on my scientific adventure.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

AC: Probably when I first listened in real-time to the amplification of substrate-borne vibrations on a paper-wasp nest. In addition to chemical and visual stimuli, wasps also communicate through the vibrations they produce on the nest thanks to specific oscillatory behaviours. It is possible to amplify these vibrations and make them audible. One can thus perceive what is usually forbidden to our senses, and basically ‘feel’ the vibrational landscape of a colony. This somehow allows us to get close to the umwelt (meaning here the world as perceived by a living organism) of animals that are separated from us by hundreds of millions of years of evolution. Even more exciting was to be able to play back the vibrations of a specific behaviour made by adult wasps and see that the larvae responded to the signal; being able to (sort of) talk with another non-human animal is the dream of every ethologist, I believe! A sort of Ring of Solomon in the Konrad Lorenz perspective!

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

AC: I have been teaching an international course on social insects for several years, and I frequently participate in science communication events. I like using my research to convey the idea that the world around us, as well as the scientific process that allows us to better understand it, are much more complex than usually reported in textbooks and science communication media. In the era of social networks, ideas and knowledge are often conveyed through simple marketing-style messages. I believe we need to take our time to learn and explain the complexity and intricacy of the natural world. After all, such complexity is its charm.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

AC: I am surely biased by my own interests! I would say that one of the most important questions is to understand the extent of phenotypic plasticity for many crucial traits of insect societies, from life-history traits to behavioural aspects. The more we study, the more we understand that many traits are hugely plastic: understanding the causes and consequences of such plasticity is interesting per se, but also important in the era of rapid changes we are living in, the Anthropocene. On the other side, we are also experiencing a very technological era, and we should take advantage of this when studying social insects. In this regard, I think that automated recognition of behavioural patterns will be essential in the near future for obtaining massive amounts of one of the most difficult and time-consuming phenotypes to observe in social insects: behaviour! I hope in a few years we will be talking regularly about another ‘omics’: ethomics!

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

AC: In my own domain (communication and social behaviour of social wasps), a very debated topic during the last 15 years or so has been the use of facial marks as communication signals in paper wasps! Many Polistes wasp species have colour marks on their head, which influence the social behaviour of conspecifics. The role, significance, and evolution of these facial marks have been strongly debated, and I believe we are still far from having a complete picture (despite the abundance of very good research!). It is one of those cases where what appears as a very simple textbook example indeed reveals fascinating and intricate complexity at a closer look!

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

AC: I enjoyed reading The Vulgar Wasp: The Story of a Ruthless Invader and Ingenious Predator by Phil Lester very much. A captivating account on the common wasp, Vespula vulgaris, which provides an insightful perspective on one of the most incredible biological invasions of recent times.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

AC: In the first place, the essential substrate was surely provided by my family, who, since childhood, stimulated my curiosity and, later on, supported my passion for science. Among the numerous catalysts that acted on this substrate, I would probably name Stephen Jay Gould, whose essays deeply influenced me. Thanks to a smart high-school science teacher, I discovered his work very early. I especially loved his writing style and its ability to begin a story by looking at the smallest details to reach the big picture, and drag you back to the details again (that you now see under a completely different perspective)!

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

AC: Maybe it’s a bit of a cliché, but I would suggest focusing, as the main goal of one’s efforts, on what is interesting to understand and discover, instead of yielding to what pays off more in term of publications and career! I am still hoping for an increased slow-science attitude and for less publish or perish imperatives!

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IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

AC: Science has taken me to wonderful places, such as the humid tropical forests of Malaysia, where the tiny and elegant hover-wasps nest in huge aggregations of thousands of colonies, as well as the colourful blooming fields of uninhabited Mediterranean islands. I admit, however, that a particularly meaningful place for me is represented by the highlands of the Sibillini Mountains in Central Italy, which I discovered thanks to the Social Insect Research Group in Florence, especially thanks to my former Ph.D. supervisor Rita Cervo. This wonderful landscape, unfortunately hit several times by dramatic earthquakes, is incredibly rich in endemic fauna and flora. For several years, every spring, we have climbed the slopes of these mountains to study an obligate social parasite (Polistes sulcifer) that overwinters at high altitude under the rocks! On the first sunny days of spring, it is fascinating to see these wasps leaving their winter refuges and flying down to the lowlands, where a few weeks later, they will usurp host colonies, thanks to both violent fights and sophisticated deception strategies.

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IS: If you had unlimited funds to conduct whatever research you wanted, where would you go and what would you investigate?

AC: Maybe influenced by the current restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my mind immediately thinks about travelling! With unlimited funds, I would start wandering across the distribution ranges of several social insect species (especially the most “primitive” ones) to describe and compare the geographic variation in communication strategies and social behaviour. This would not be just an amusing job; it would be a necessary step to observe the diversity of behavioural traits and start digging into the evolution of phenotypic diversity.

Of Bugs and Kids, during quarantine

By Thomas Chouvenc

As recently mentioned in a previous Insectes Sociaux blog post, the quarantine has affected the usual way of life for everyone, including us, the nerdy academic social bug people. Personally, with the lab being essentially closed, I had to come up with a contingency plan to keep the 25 million termites reared in my lab from being neglected, which would have led to their inevitable demise. The thought of a potential massive loss of irreplaceable live biological material tends to keep me awake at night. Also, like many of you, graduate students’ projects are essentially stalled, and even my fieldwork is on a hiatus, as most of my sites are on city parks, which are closed for an unforeseeable future.

With the initial delusional thought of taking the opportunity of this lockdown to write grants and to finish some longstanding manuscripts, I quickly came to the brutal realization that, while stuck at home with a 4yr-old kid, my academic productivity would effectively come to a halt.  Full-time parenting is not compatible with much else according to academic chatters on twitter, and I had to deal with this imposed situation and make a necessary readjustment of priorities. My daily routine now consists of homeschooling activities, but as I am lucky to have a decent size Florida backyard, I was eventually able to connect lessons and bugs in an educational setup.

I, therefore, started using the backyard as more than just a playground: this is a place of wonders and miraculous bugs. A backyard with a diversity of plants, birds, and insects can immediately become a fertile ground for observations and life lessons – pollination, decomposers, food chains, invasive species, photosynthesis, microbes, bugs, and more bugs. The list of topics is wide and, with some imagination, approachable for the young mind. As my daughter tagged along with me to look at ants, mealybugs, termites, ladybugs, planthoppers, mole crickets, butterflies, and many more, it also had the indirect effect of keeping my sanity in this weird new normal. I also took on the opportunity to start taking photographs of bugs for an image book of “name that bug” she would eventually share with her class when things are back to normal.

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However, taking pictures of insects is an art, and regularly checking on the bug twitter-verse with some amazing insect photographers makes you feel small and humble (and makes you reflect on how miserable you are). This sparked a motivation to use this downtime as an opportunity to actually learn insect photography and hopefully improve my skills. On top of taking pictures of flying termites and other random backyard bugs, I took on the challenge to attempt documenting an obscure ant species and eventually went down the rabbit hole. What was I thinking? For this, let’s go back in time and explain how I got to this situation.

In 2017, when a tiny yellow ant species showed up in my Florida backyard, I initially thought that this was the commonly found Wasmannia auropunctata (the little fire ant), because of its size and color. I did not investigate much further, because after all, I was more of a termite guy. But my spouse eventually shared with me her annoyance when they started showing up in the kitchen, in @#$%! large numbers. After a quick ID session, we realized we had a new ant record in the continental US: Plagiolepis alluaudi, The Alluaud’s little yellow ant. It is native from Madagascar but has spread in various places around the tropics.

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Less than 2mm in length, extremely polygynous, and presumably exhibiting unicoloniality, it rapidly became dominant in the neighborhood, and this newly found invader spiked my curiosity about invasive ants in general. After all, with about 250 species of ants in Florida, approximately 1/5 of them are invasive species (Deyrup 2016), and Plagiolepis alluaudi was now added to the list. I looked into what else was around and found common tramp ant species that already had reached the status of global invaders: Paratrechina longicornis, Pheidole megacephala, Pheidole navigans, Brachymyrmex obscurior, Camponotus sexguttatus, Monomorium floricola, Tapinoma melanocephalum, Technomyrmex difficilis… I came to the sad conclusion that almost all ant species in my urban backyard were invasive tramp ant species.

However, most of these ant species have been well documented because of their long history of invasion and their wide distribution in the Southeastern US and because of their potential economic and ecological impact. In comparison, this newly found little yellow ant has only been found in a few localities within Broward Co. (FL), and the literature on Plagiolepis alluaudi is mostly non-existent, except for the documentation of its wide distribution across the tropics. More problematic: its size. It is difficult to manipulate, contain, and experiment with; ask my graduate student who inherited the project to document the biology of this species. Everything about this ant species make it challenging to study.

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One of the many frustrations from this tiny ant species, beyond its annoying presence in my kitchen and its difficulty to study, was my inability to properly document it with quality visuals. I attempted to document it on a twitter account dedicated to it (@ant_yellow)  but, this “side project” was rapidly placed on the backburner and neglected, as I had to rethink my priorities while being in a tenure track position: Termites first. Then, COVID-19 arrived. Spending time in the backyard meant that I would get to see them everywhere, all the time. It, therefore, gave me some time and motivation to (finally) look closer at Plagiolepis alluaudi. In the evening, I spent time on YouTube for advice on how to shoot bugs in macro, what options on my gear I needed to use, light requirements, etc.

I realized that shooting videos at 24fps in macro for this small ant would not work. These ants were too fast in the field of focus. I had to get closer, use tubes on my macro lens to get some focus at this magnification so they would not be the size of a pixel, and also had to switch to 180fps. This meant: I needed a lot of light. Let me rephrase. I needed a huge amount of light. I just happen to live in very sunny Florida, so it meant I had to learn to take videos using sunlight while avoiding the shadow of my own camera. Not easy when you are less than 2cm away from your subject, and I had to learn the hard way. Then, I spend some time learning the basics of movie editing and asked a couple of musician friends to help with the soundtrack. I was eventually able to put together an educational video aimed at the South Florida community to help raise awareness about this new invasive ant species. But in all reality, I just wanted to show this ant to the rest of the world. I came around to actually appreciate it.

Enjoy, keeping in mind that this is my first attempt to really do a macro video:

Embedded video; see on YouTube for full HD.

Let’s be honest. Without the quarantine, I know that I probably would never have the chance to take the time to learn some basics of macrophotography (Bugshot Florida 2020 just got cancelled 😦 ). I know I still have so much more to learn and improve my skills, but at least I finally got started to work on them. These dramatic times in our life are not easy for anyone, but I am fortunate to have a backyard full of wonders to go explore every day, which makes the quarantine easier on us all. And with this unexpected opportunity, I was finally able to take the time to look closer at this new invasive ant species.

 

Thomas Chouvenc is an assistant professor at the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Ft Lauderdale Research and Education Center, Florida. He studies termite biology, evolution, ecology, symbiosis, and control. Twitter: @ChouvencL

 

Chouvenc, T., Scheffrahn, R.H. and Warner, J., 2018. Establishment of Alluaud’s little yellow ant, Plagiolepis alluaudi Emery (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Formicinae): first continental New World record. Florida Entomologist101(1), pp.138-140.

Deyrup, M., 2016. Ants of Florida: identification and natural history. CRC Press.

Wetterer, J.K., 2014. Worldwide spread of Alluaud’s little yellow ant, Plagiolepis alluaudi (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Myrmecological News19, pp.53-59.

 

An alternate version of this story was published in Entomology Today.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Johanna Romero

You can read Johanna’s recent research article on crop-gizzard content and variations among Afrotropical Apicotermitinae here.

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IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

JR: I am a curious and enthusiastic learning person. I am finishing a Ph.D. in Belgium, studying the diversity and feeding-ecology of soil-feeding termites in Africa and South America. My current research includes several axes, such as the anatomy of the digestive tube, feeding niches, and phylogenetic relationships. I also have experience in other topics, but I love the fieldwork and the ecology of insects.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

JR: I have always been passionate about social insects. When I was an undergraduate at biology and ecology school, entomology and insect ecology courses had a huge impact on me. For most of my self-directed projects, I tried to use ants as model species. I did a project about ants as bioindicators in fragmented tropical forests. For my master’s thesis, I studied the collective behavior of ants on nest digging. Then, for my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to continue studying social insects, so I started my research on soil-feeding termites. It was challenging because of my “ant background”, but I was able to dive into it. My current research model is Apicotermitinae, a highly diverse and successful subfamily, far from being well studied.

IS: What is your favorite social insect, and why?

JR: In short, the carpenter ants, a special one that I observed in the Ecuadorian jungle. This species appears to be laughing when you observe it under a stereomicroscope. I also think of Pseudomyrmex triplarinus that lives in symbiosis with trees of the genus Triplaris. This ant protects the tree against predation by other insects and animals. This type of interaction is an interesting study subject.

IS: What is the best moment/discovery in your research so far? What made it so memorable?

JR: I think each project generates plenty of delightful memories. In my last project, my most interesting discovery was the great diversity of sclerotized structures in the foregut of Apicotermitinae termites. More specifically, the gizzard contained in some cases a predominant percentage of fine clay, among other minerals, but the function of these sclerotized structures remains unclear to this date.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

JR: I was involved in practical work for undergraduate students. It is there where I incorporated the techniques I learned during my doctoral research. I also communicate my research to the public through scientific photography contests and research image expositions organized during the university open house.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

JR: The notion of importance is quite relative. In general, the current most investigated questions in social insects are the caste differentiation and modes of reproduction. These have many adherents in the social insects’ domain. The approaches used in this research field have been evolving alongside the improvement of molecular techniques.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

JR: Surely, the definition of limits between sociality and eusociality. Another great debate focuses on insect systematics and the use of different techniques in genomics and morphology.

IS: What is the last book you read? Would you recommend it? Why or why not?

JR: I usually read two books at the same time, just like the Netflix series for other people. The Last Kingdom is a historical fiction book set in England during medieval times. Real historical figures are depicted as brave Danish warriors trying to take over the English kingdoms. A single fictional protagonist, Uhtred, is introduced. He is English but grew up like a Danish.

Ecuadorian customs (Las costumbres de los ecuatorianos, original title) is a socio-historical book. It is a review of literature based on texts written by foreign naturalist explorers and their opinions of the native population during the colonial era. I would recommend both books if their themes interest the reader.

IS: Outside of science, what are your favorite activities, hobbies, or sports?

JR: I love outdoor walks, which sadly are not possible now (due to COVID-19 confinement measures). So, instead, I try to keep myself active by doing cardio training or yoga. However, my great hobbies are drawing, wood carving, and embroidery. As you can see (photos below), insects and nature are the focus of my pieces. I am not excellent, but it is what I love to do to relax.

IS: How do you keep going when things get tough?

JR: I try to keep my motivation as high as possible. I remember what my dreams are and how much I want to achieve them. If there is a conflict situation on a specific topic, I take a break and try to keep my distance with a short walk in full consciousness. Afterwards, I am ready to face it or ask for help, if necessary. Sometimes, to keep going, I think about how ant workers work hard over and over again. It may take time, but it is difficult for them to leave the trail of pheromones.

IS: If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why?

JR: My set of chisels, a camping pot, and my embroidery set. I can survive with that.

IS: Who do you think has had the most considerable influence on your science career?

JR: The books of Marie Curie’s life and E.O Wilson’s research were my main influences to keep going in science. During my master’s thesis, Jean Louis Deneubourg taught me a passion for practicing science. His focus, motivation, and trust were very formative.

IS: What advice would you give to someone hoping to be a social insect researcher in the future?

JR: In general, science is a long-term commitment. Insect social research is no different. So, you have to learn, postulate, test, enjoy, and keep doing.

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

JR: Science has brought me not only to places, but also new cultures. Among all the places I have been, my favorite is Africa. To do my Ph.D. fieldwork, I spent a few months in Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. I really loved these countries. Sharing with people from villages or cities allowed me to understand more about what is essential in human beings. There are many contrasts, and yet people do not lose their joy. “Europeans have watches, but we have time.”

Science in the time of COVID-19

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Scientists around the world are being affected in unforeseen ways by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether they’re working from home, being forced to pause or terminate research projects, or losing their job altogether, researchers are meeting novel challenges and given no choice other than to adapt. For some, stay-at-home orders offer time to learn new skills and work on data analysis and writing projects that otherwise would have been on the back burner for the foreseeable future. For others, their experiments are taking a toll in irreversible ways. Whatever your experience, we know that everyone in our community of social insect scientists is facing challenges and doing their best to cope during this time. We asked some researchers to share their experiences in hopes of providing comfort to those of you experiencing similar things and to continue the conversation amongst our community.

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Are you working right now, and if so, where?

“I am working from my home near Tufts University, just north of Boston, MA. With the current situation, I am unable to travel to my field site in Washington. Thankfully, two WSU field technicians, Jason and June, are local to the prairie we work on. Between analysing data and writing from home, I virtually meet with Jason and June to go over protocols for data collection, entry, etc. As long as Jason and June can social distance while in the field (which is pretty easy on the 180-acre prairie) and healthy, my data is getting collected! While I am grateful for this, my makeshift home office using my husband’s childhood desk is not as enjoyable as fieldwork.” –Dr. Rachael E. Bonoan, Postdoctoral Researcher, Tufts University & Washington State University

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Rachael’s makeshift home office

“Ha! Work. Yes. I’m attempting to work from home.” –Dr. Tommy Czaczkes, Animal Comparative Economics Group leader, University of Regensberg

How has the COVID-19 outbreak impacted your scientific research/teaching?

“I am lucky to have a lab with large numbers of reared termite colonies. I was able in the past 7 years to create from mating pairs more than 500 colonies, many of them are held in large containers. I think we have more than 25 million termites under our roof, which comes with many opportunities, but also responsibility and limitation. Space is the major limitation, or so I thought. I now fully realize that our main limitation is: time. I need the time (and the time from technicians) to maintain these colonies. Normally, we have 1 technician full time to keep these colonies feed, moist, and contained.  Now, we currently have a single person coming once a week, just to check and minimal maintenance. Mostly to keep them from escaping (Coptotermes is good at that!), making sure that colonies are not starving, and that humidity levels are where they should be. I expect the loss of a few colonies by the end of this pandemic. We will try to minimize this loss, as colonies will probably be on life support until they can get back to their initial expected logistical growth. However, it is not just the lab access limitation. I have many field projects, all in city and state parks. All of them are closed, which means, I have no access to these sites to collect the data. ” -Dr. Thomas Chouvenc, Urban Entomology Assistant Professor, University of Florida IFAS Ft Lauderdale Research and Education Center

“At present, I am not teaching any courses because I have a Research Professorship. My current work consists of data analysis and writing of manuscripts, books, and general articles. At least in the short run, my work has benefited from the absence of commuting and travelling for committee work. At the same time, I am having no difficulty interacting with my students and post-docs, virtually. I also have more time for reading and I am able to read books that I would normally consider a luxury. Yes, we have had to discontinue two major experiments and were forced to release the wasps back into nature. I am confident though that we will resume those experiments next year.” -Dr. Raghavendra Gadagkar, DST Year of Science Chair Professor, Indian Institute of Science Centre for Ecological Studies

“I am in the unique position that I am an emeritus scientist who has no ongoing students, teaching, administrative duties, or laboratory access that is restricted by the virus.  My laboratory contains only my personal research operation.  Thus, no physical distancing problem and no new social isolation.  In my case, COVID-19 has not negatively affected my work.  Oh, I could quibble that getting some supplies and materials, and that contacting colleagues has been hampered, but so far toilet paper has not been a problem! I always like to look at the brighter side of any situation.  There is a brighter side to the COVID-19 experience.  I personally have benefited from this opportunity via receiving faster reviews and, in turn, had the time to complete the revisions more quickly.” -Dr. Justin Schmidt, Southwestern Biological Institute & Department of Entomology, University of Arizona

“Our university does not allow official travel and has closed our field stations, so I have abandoned the 2020 field seasons for two projects, one monitoring the spread of a non-native ant in Texas and the other on a locally social parasitic ant. I will still be able to publish, but with less data than I’d like. We have also ceased most general collecting for the UT collection. I was teaching a small, 15 student class this semester, but the transition to online teaching has taken more time than I had anticipated, especially as we redesigned student projects and re-did many of the lectures. Fortunately, I co-teach this class with my wife, so we are both able to do this together from home. I have also cancelled two photography workshops, two outreach events, and an invited seminar at another university.” -Dr. Alex Wild, Curator, University of Texas Insect Collection

“While my data is still being collected, I am not able to be in the field myself. [WSU field technicians] Jason and June are doing a fantastic job but as a field biologist, this is tough for me. Especially since I love my prairie field site, bursting with wildflowers, and the WSU folks I spend time with when I am there. I have worked with Jason and June to ensure we have enough supplies to avoid sharing clipboards, butterfly nets, etc. and to pare down experiments to allow for social distancing and if necessary, an abrupt break in data collection.” -Rachael

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Rachael with field team

“Luckily for me, I don’t have to do any structured teaching. But my research has completely ground to a halt. As my group works almost exclusively on foraging, our work is very seasonal. Spring and early summer are the very best time to collect data – the ants are so motivated! Indeed, for sensitive experiments, I am reluctant to collect data any later than September. We had just started a 6-month collaboration with a visiting Ph.D. student, who had to cancel everything. I’m worried that, even if everything opens, we can’t just start at the drop of a hat. Indeed, if the shut-down goes on until June, we might lose the whole season. Oh yes, and for the first time, I had to withdraw a paper from review. We were asked to perform a minor control – three weeks of work or less – but then COVID-19 hit. Happily, the first author has a post-doc (or had – he returned home with COVID-19), but this is quite a blow for him too.” -Tommy

How do you cope with social distancing? Are you alone at home or do you live with others?

“As an extroverted social insect scientist and field biologist, social distancing and staying home has been mentally and emotionally difficult. It has also been physically difficult—it took working from home for only one week to realize how comfortable my desk as school is! Thankfully, I do have my husband with me to remind me to take a break to stretch or go for a walk around the block. To cope, I am trying to keep as much of a “normal” routine during the workweek as possible. I work out in our basement like I would normally do before going to work, I make tea and watch some of the Today Show (big Al Roker fan), and then I “go” to work. If the weather is nice, I take an afternoon break to go for a walk. At Tufts, I work in an open office space with about ten other post-docs/grad students. One of the students set up an “office” Discord channel (online chat), which has been nice for keeping in touch and asking questions about stats, writing, etc. like we would if we were in our shared space.” -Rachael

“Ah, it’s not so bad! I have a wife and two lovely kids (6 and 3), so I am far from alone. Indeed, now that all my friends (most of which are far from where I live) are getting involved in video chats, I’ve had a lot more social contact! I’ve had lovely chats with friends I have not spoken to in years – in one case over a decade!” -Tommy

“My wife and I live by ourselves in our home and we are fortunate to be able to get all that we need delivered to our doorstep.” -Raghavendra

“I am home with my partner and our two young children. I have enjoyed the close time with our children; earlier this week our 3-year-old wrote his name for the first time, and our 6-year-old has been raising caterpillars. It’s been really nice, to be honest. However, I devote more time to childcare and home-schooling than any other activity, by a large margin, and given social distancing and school closures we do not have external childcare. So my actual work time is reduced by half, at least.” -Alex

What platform do you and your colleagues use to stay in touch (e.g. Skype, Zoom, etc.)?

“Oh, let’s face it, they’re all pretty much the same… (3-year-old comes in: “Robin hit me!” “oh dear, do you want to do a puzzle in the office?”… etc,  etc… ok, I’m back). The ad-hoc nature of houseparty has been quite fun.” -Tommy

If you are working from home, are you working on the same things as usual?

“Experiments have stopped, travel has stopped, but reading and writing have become intensified, more diverse, and more pleasurable.” -Raghavendra

“I can keep up with some of the administrative tasks of the UT collection from home, as well as the odd journal reviews and collaborations. But in general, I am unable to perform many of my regular curatorial responsibilities as those involve physical work in the collection itself. I am still doing some work on our database, but so much of my much-reduced work time is given over to online teaching that I probably have no more than 3-4 hours per week of curation-related work. I write more for our department’s blog than normal.” -Alex

Have the restrictions due to COVID-19 had any positive side effects for your research, for example, time to learn a new skill?

“Yes, actually! I have finally taken the time to learn to do data management, data visualisation, and statistical workflow reporting in R. I have been putting this off since the start of my Ph.D., so it’s about time! My next paper will have shiny ggplot2 figures, and an HTML file giving the entire code and output of my analysis. I’ve still not caught up to my (ex) Ph.D. students, but I’m making progress. It has been a lot more fun than I thought it would be.” -Tommy

What activities or hobbies are you currently doing to fill your time?

“To fill my time, I have been doing a lot of cooking and baking. One of my favourite de-stressing activities is watching The Great British Baking Show while cooking dinner or baking dessert. While I have yet to try anything as technical as they have on that show, I have been practicing baking bread! This weekend, I am going to attempt Portuguese sweet bread, a hometown Easter treat. I am also using this time to do virtual outreach. My husband and I recently wrote a kid’s story, “Dress Like a Scientist Day,” and have been working with an illustrator. Now that we have illustrations, I am creating a website so kids can read the illustrated story and learn about the diverse “uniforms” in science as a free eBook!” -Rachael

“During this time at home, I was hoping to catch up with data analysis and writing, but being a dad of a 4yr-old, it is now established that I will get nothing accomplished.  I am therefore converting my time as a backyard entomologist to show my daughter the wonders of our yard: termite swarms, invasive ants (15 of them in my yard alone, welcome to south Florida), wasps, bees, mole crickets, flies, mosquitoes, planthoppers… A lot of fun, and learning about why bugs are cool.” -Thomas

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Thomas Chouvenc’s office these days. He’s taking advantage of this lockdown to get better at photography and video editing.

“I spend an hour every day engaged in what people might consider ‘silly art’, just to keep my creativity flowing!” -Raghavendra

Do you have any tips for readers on how best to cope with the restrictions the COVID-19 outbreak has imposed on your scientific work or private life?

“I need structure to be productive. If you can relate, I suggest keeping as much of a routine as possible and using a planner to block out your day. I swear by my Passion Planner, which has each day broken down into half-hour blocks, and space to plan both work and personal goals. You can try the Passion Planner for free with their downloadable PDFs. My favourite pens for writing in my Passion Planner are FriXion erasable pens—they allow for color-coding and keeping things neat when your schedule shifts around (as it does). A game-changer for me with video meetings is to add all recurring meetings (which seem to keep multiplying), with their meeting links, to my email calendar. This way, I get a reminder (with the link!) 15 minutes before the meeting starts and I am not searching through my email for what feels like forever. For each video meeting, I try to get up and go to another room as possible. This way, I get a bit of a change of scenery and I am not sitting at my desk all day. Outside of work, make sure to stay connected with friends and family as much as possible, whether it be through text, phone, video, online gaming, etc. Like a colony of social insects, the only way we are going to get through this is by working together.” –Rachael

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“Don’t expect too much – especially if you have children. I have heard from colleagues, especially in the US, that there is often an atmosphere of “we’re getting on and being productive, so you should be too.” This sounds pretty toxic. We also see a lot of social media about people putting together online seminars, organising e-journal clubs, and so on. This is great! But this should not be considered ‘normal’. Normal – especially with kids at home – is having a pleasant day. Everything else is bonus.” -Tommy

“Most of us in academia usually have so much backlog and are always putting off some of the most pleasurable reading and writing, owing to demands on our time, that temporary lockdowns can have very positive effects, as long as our basic needs are taken care of.” -Raghavendra

“Everyone should recognize the nature of this crisis and not set goals for themselves beyond maintaining basic mental and physical health. We also need to be aware that this crisis is just beginning. The downstream economic effects have the potential to be far more destructive to our fields than a few weeks of sheltering in place.” -Alex

Anything else you would like to share about how COVID-19 has affected your work and life as a scientist?

“Mostly, it has emphasised again how lucky we are, as scientists. I don’t have a business that will go bankrupt. I will continue to be paid. The German Science Foundation is even offering 3-month no-questions-asked grant and salary extensions for many of the researchers it funds. I can even, in principle, be productive from home. Honestly, I couldn’t ask for more.” -Tommy

“I realise of course that I might have had a very different perspective if I were a young Assistant Professor with two young children! But I see that even people in that situation I know are coping very well. Generally, I think scientists are far too busy doing more and more of the same thing, affording no time for continued broad education in the humanities, culture, and philosophy. This is an opportunity for course-correction.” -Raghavendra

“I am seeing the value in our department’s epidemiologists, now more than ever.” -Alex