Interview with a social insect scientist: Boris Baer

Curtin University Centre for Integrative Bee Research director Dr Boris Baer is concerned about bee biosecurity in Albany and Denmark. Picture: UWA

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

BB: I am a researcher at the Centre for Integrative Bee Research (CIBER) at the University of Western Australia using honey bees and leaf cutting ants as my preferred research pets. I was trained as a classical behavioural ecologist but now try to use tools from systems biology such as proteomics to understand how life history traits related to reproduction or immunity are determined through the complex interactions of protein and metabolite networks.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

BB: I always had a crush for insects, but regarded that more as a hobby while doing research on “real animals”. In my case that was a small monkey that I chased through South American rainforests as part of my Honours thesis. As I had spectacularly little success with the monkeys, I became increasingly drawn to social insects, especially after I saw the amazing diversity of orchid- and stingless bees, and my first encounters with fully grown colonies of army- and leaf-cutter ants.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

P1000826BB: I don’t have a specific species that I would call my preferred pet. The most amazing thing for me is not so much that these insects are social, but the amazing variation we see between species. Having said this, bees just give me a tiny little extra kick.

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

BB: I conducted the field research of my Honours thesis on a field station in French Guiana, located a two-day trip by car, boat and foot away from the next human settlement in the jungle. To observe our study animals in their habitat, we installed ropes and wooden platforms into some of these giant rainforest trees. Climbing up there into the canopy for the first time a good 30+ meters gave me the ultimate kick. Hanging on a small rope 30 meters above ground was the scariest thing in my life and turned me into an endorphin junky. However, sitting up there and seeing this carpet of green, completely unspoiled rainforest to the horizon was a key event that lead me to continue a career in science.

IS: If teaching is part of your work, what courses do you teach? Has your work on social insects helped to shape your teaching?

BB: I am teaching in Biology and Agriculture. Using social insects for my research makes teaching so much easier, because it is easy to get students interested in a topic.

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

BB: The Beekeeper’s Pupil by Sara George, which might read a bit nerdy, because it is a book about honeybees. The book is based on a true story, that took place in the 17th century and describes the research that revealed the first insights into the life history of honey bees and their sex life. The most fascinating bit of the book is that the main character of the book doing the research is blind. He therefore needed to train a man servant to do the practical work and describes his observations to him. It is therefore not only a book about bees, but also about science and how to progress it.

IS: Did any one book have a major influence in shaping your career? What was the book and how did it affect you?

BB: I was still a boy when I got the book Man Meets Dog by Konrad Lorenz. I was instantly fascinated by animal behaviour and as it was the high days of Ethology, I decided to become an ethologist. This had interesting side effects as I turned our dog into a scientific experiment and my parents had to protect the poor creature every now and then from being overused as a laboratory animal.

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

BB: I like to go sailing, which is a wonderful opportunity to get unplugged from work. The boats used can easily tip over in high winds so I need to concentrate on the wind and water, so it is also a perfect way to escape daily life.

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

BB: A tent, a magnifying glass and my wife. The tent is obvious; the magnifying glass is good to have a look around and apparently also gets a fire going. Based on my life experience so far, I see the presence of my wife as the best warrant to keep me alive.

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

BB: This must be clear by now from my answers above: First go sailing and if that does not help go and have a whinge* chat with my wife.

*IS note: in Australian English, ‘whinge’ means to whine or complain.

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

BB: My grandmother. She was fascinated by the natural sciences and her flat was something between a science library and a museum. She had a large collection of books on geology, astronomy or biology but her shelves also displayed all sorts of things such as rocks and bones, including a telescope that we used during summer nights to look at Mars. If she would have been born in modern times, there is no doubt that she would have become a scientist, but as a girls born 1901 into a family of bankers, there was no way for her to pursue such a career. I guess her way deal with this was to get her grandchildren fascinated in science. It worked.

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

BB: There is still so much we don’t know about these animals and we have so breathtakingly new methods and technologies available now to study and understand them, so if you have the slightest interest, then go for it! Unfortunately, we also live in a time where scientists need to constantly justify their existence and performance. My advice is to not let paper numbers, impact factors and key performance indicators dictate your career. Play that game but use the remaining academic freedom you have left to explore where your interests are and don’t be afraid to pursue the impossible.

Genes, environment, and caste in an ant

Highlighting the article by Leniaud et al in the November 2015 issue of Insectes Sociaux

Written by Michael Breed, Editor-in-Chief, Insectes Sociaux

In this issue Leniaud et al. (2015) consider the impacts of genes and environment on caste in the silver ant, Cataglyphis bombycina. The topic of genes, environment and caste continues to be a fascinating and complex arena in the study of eusocial insects, and Leniaud et al. present a fascinating contribution to this discussion.

Caste is a fundamental concept in the study of eusocial insects. Differences between the reproductive and the worker caste often extend to morphological specializations that preclude each caste from performing the other’s work. Queens can lack the tools needed for successful foraging but have numerous ovarioles and metabolic capacity to produce large numbers of eggs. Workers of the same species then have reduced or vestigial ovaries, are missing the physical structures needed for mating, and have the morphological tools to allow them to fill the defensive and foraging needs peculiar to their species.

How are such different individuals derived in the course of development? Genes and environment, which are the two major drivers of phenotype, should explain the differences, but what is the relative role of each in caste determination? Thousands of studies of caste determination over the last century have yielded the consensus that caste is largely determined by environment. The precept is that all eggs of the appropriate sex, when laid, are totipotent. This means they have equal potential to yield reproductive or worker adults. When there is more than one worker phenotype then totipotency extends to those differences as well.

But in the last two decades we have come to appreciate that individual response thresholds to tasks can drive worker behavioral choices. These thresholds often reflect genetic differences among workers; this knowledge has brought genetics back into play in conversations about caste and task performance in eusocial insects.

Leniaud et al. take on a much different, but equally exciting, aspect of the overall question of gene/environment interactions in caste in eusocial insects. In Cataglyphis bombycina there are two distinct worker castes. One of these fits the norm for most ants—workers which are, within the caste, morphologically uniform but variable in size. This size variance is associated with task performance.

The other worker caste in Cataglyphis bombycina, though, is unusual. Soldiers are relatively invariant in size and stand as a morphologically distinct group from the workers. This contrasts with many ants in which “soldiers” are workers from the large end of the size spectrum. Soldier distinctiveness as a caste is also known in some types of termites and a few other ant species.

Leniaud et al (2015) found that environment likely is the preponderant influence on caste determination in Cataglyphis bombycina. This fits well with the consensus model of totipotency. In a few colonies, though, they found evidence for a genetic influence on soldier determination based on patrilineal effects. These results are highly important because they suggest that if we backtrack in our thinking about gene X environment interactions in caste determination we may find other examples in which genetic influences, while smaller than environmental influences, are nonetheless present and important in the development of workers during caste differentiation. The results in this paper are well worth considering in the continuing search for the mechanisms of caste differentiation.

Leniaud L, Pearcy M, Taheri A, Aron S (2015) Testing the genetic determination of the soldier caste in the silver ant. Ins. Soc. 62:517-524