Interview with a social insect scientist: Joan Herbers

herbers2009IS: Who are you and what do you do?

JH: I am Joan Herbers, a Professor at Ohio State University. For about 30 years, I studied social organization within ant colonies, focusing on conflict resolution. About 8 years ago I closed my ant lab and developed a second career on gender issues in science. Now I study humans instead of ants! The shift has been fun and invigorating, and last year I published a book “Part time on the Tenure Track“.

 IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

JH: As a grad student in the 70s, I took a course on optimization theory. At that time, the only biological paper that used linear programming was E.O. Wilson’s work on caste ratios. I read that paper and was hooked on the problem of optimizing work forces within social groups.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

JH: Hands-down, my favourite is Temnothorax longispinosus. Not only is it cute and incredibly interesting, but studying its social ecology earned me tenure.

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

JH: After starting my first academic job (at the University of Vermont), I spent the first summer (1980) at the Huyck Preserve in New York, collecting ants, watching their behaviour etc. During the first week, I cracked open a stick and watched little black ants run around in my collecting pan. There were 2 queens! I thought “wow, that’s not supposed to happen”. Shortly thereafter I cracked open another stick and saw 3 queens running around the pan. After finding about 5 polygynous colonies, I realized that this was a real phenomenon and completely unexplored from an evolutionary perspective. So I started working on why colonies of T. longispinosus were polygynous, a problem that consumed me for more than a decade.

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

JH: I teach courses in evolution, ecology, and women’s studies. There is no doubt that working on social insects has provided me with a broader perspective on biological problems because they inherently present levels-of-selection thinking. And, being female-dominated societies, they provide lots of fodder for my women’s studies courses!

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

JH: Ron Rash’s novel “One Foot in Eden”. Rash writes stories about the people of Appalachia and I find his use of language and sense of place incredibly moving. Highly recommended also are his short stories.

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

JH: “Caste and Ecology in the Social Insects by Oster and Wilson was deeply influential. Wilson sent me preprints of the book to help with my dissertation writing, which was extremely kind. I have had all my students read that book to find ideas for thesis topics, because it remains a gold mine.

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

JH: I am an avid amateur violinist, and play string quartets on weekends. I also plunk around on the piano and am addicted to New York Times crossword puzzles.

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

JH: I am an optimist, and have had occasion in the past years to reflect deeply on how many good breaks I have had in life. I grew up in a loving family, have been married happily for 32 years, and have two wonderful children. We have enough money and live in a great city. The hand I have been dealt may not be a royal flush, but it surely is a winner.

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

JH: A deck of cards, because I know about 50 ways to play solitaire; my violin, which brings me great joy; and a copy of “Anna Karenina, perhaps the wisest and most compassionate novel ever written.

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

JH: In grad school I had a pretty serious case of the imposter syndrome. My department chair, Neena Schwartz, decided to meet weekly with the women grad students to discuss various issues about being a women in science. Learning from her that my insecurities were normal and gaining exposure to a powerful woman scientist helped me more than any other single experience.

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

JH: Study math and chemistry; they will keep doors open and give you tools to ask any questions about social insects that you can think of.

How rapid is rapid antennation in trap-jaw ants?

A video and blog post highlighting the article by O’Fallon, Suarez and Smith in Insectes Sociaux

Written by Adrian Smith and Andy Suarez

Our new study describing rapid antennation behavior in Odonotmachus trap-jaw ants relied on high-speed videography. To the human eye, this behavior is an unintelligible blurry burst of action. Video is the only means of making any sense out of it. So, when we thought about how to publically communicate this piece of science, making a video seemed the most appropriate medium.

Hopefully, the video above gives you a sense of what the main goal of this research was: to describe how rapid, rapid antennation is in four species of ants. We thought this question was worthy of asking for a few reasons. First and foremost we thought: how cool would it be if we recorded a bunch of slow-motion videos of ants punching each other with their antennae? Then we also came up with some more scientifically-oriented reasons.

Research from Sainath Suryanarayanan and colleagues on wasp antennal drumming behavior showed that antennal drumming evokes physiological responses only when it’s performed at a particular rate. Rapid antennal striking behavior, similar to rapid antennal drumming, is common in many Ponerine ants. Previous research on one of our study species Odontomachus brunneus by Scott Powell and Walter Tschinkel showed that dominance behavior in the form of rapid antennation between workers is responsible for creating a division of labor between nest workers and foragers. However, to our knowledge, no one had quantified the frequency of rapid antennation behavior for any ant species. So, we thought doing a small comparative study of the rates of rapid antennation in trap-jaw ants would be particularly informative. If we found that four species of ants all performed rapid antennation at the same rate, this might be evidence of selection for an evolutionarily conserved direct link between frequency and physiological response like what is seen in wasps. We also thought that it would be interesting to see if antennal rates differed when they are delivered to nestmates rather than non-nestmates.

We didn’t end up finding evidence for conserved rapid antennation rates in these species. Average rates of rapid antennation per species ranged from 19.5 to 41.5 strikes per second. Next, for O. brunneus we found that rapid antennation behavior is quantitatively similar when the interactions involve nestmates or non-nestmates. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we ended up answering our first research question: yes, it’s pretty cool to be able to make a lot of slow motion videos of ants fighting.

Note from blog editor: if you want to see more amazing videos about ants and science, check out Adrian Smith’s YouTube channel here.