Interview with a social insect scientist: Lori Lach


Lori Lach

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

LL:  I am a mother and a wife and a Senior Lecturer (which is in between an Assistant Professor and an Associate Professor in the North American system) in the College of Science and Engineering at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. I primarily research invasive social insects. In the past few years I’ve also been researching an emerging disease of honey bees and how it affects foraging behavior. I’ve lived in Australia for nearly 11 years and became a dual national (Australian-US) a couple years ago.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

LL: I’d been intrigued by ants during an ecology field course as an undergrad, but never really pursued it because at the time I had no idea how that would lead to a job of any kind. By the time I’d started my PhD years later I had become really interested in the consequences of biological invasions. I had the opportunity to do a summer project in Hawai’i while I was still figuring out what I would research, and while I was there I asked every scientist I met which invaders were the most overlooked and likely doing the most damage. Nine out of ten said ants, and the tenth said rats, so ants it was!


Yellow crazy ants up close. Photo: Dave Wilson

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

LL: I’ve been fascinated by yellow crazy ants (Anoplolepis gracilipes) since I first encountered them in Hawai’i at the start of my PhD. They’re just such a conundrum—seemingly so flighty, timid, and disorganized, and yet capable of taking down organisms much larger than they are. Attract a few hundred to a lure, take it away, and it is just mass pandemonium, not the ho-hum retreat of Argentine or big-headed ants. I thought I would get a chance to study them more during my post-doc in Mauritius, but they were really kept in check by Technomyrmex albipes (who would’ve guessed?). But now around Cairns they are a big conservation issue, so I’m in the right place at the right time to work on cracking their secrets.


A mass of yellow crazy ants next to a rainforest creek. Photo: Frank Teodo

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

LL: This is the hardest question. So far, I think discovery-wise it would have to be finding out the dramatic difference just a few invasive ants in flowers could make to the diversity and behavior of floral visitors, and I was able to show that in three different floral systems. When I started this work, most of the literature had been focused on consequences of the extraordinary abundance achieved by invasive ants and their interactions with ground fauna, so I felt like I was breaking new ground. I’ve had a couple people approach me at conferences and tell me they have been inspired by this work in deciding on their own research path. It is the best feeling to know that my discoveries are leading to others.

The best moment so far is right now. I’ve got some really great students working on a variety of really interesting projects, all involving different species of social insects. I also love that my knowledge of ant ecology, and yellow crazy ants in particular, is of direct use in efforts to protect the World Heritage rainforest from this invader. It’s a privilege to work with a really engaged community that supports science, and it’s exciting to have excellent collaborators with diverse sets of complementary skills.

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

LL: I had a research fellowship when I first started at James Cook University, so teaching has only recently become a substantial part of my work. I currently teach second year Ecology and a module of Field Ecology, and the occasional guest lectures in Tropical Entomology and Invertebrate Biology. Social insects figure prominently in the examples I use because they can be used to illustrate so many concepts, and really, they’re just so cool. Moreover, knowledge of social insect biology is really useful here in the tropics and can be an asset for graduates seeking employment.

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

LL: “Dark Places” by Kate Grenville. I love reading, and I’m opportunistically working my way through Miles Franklin nominated authors. I’d recommend it for the writing, which is exquisite, but not so much for the story. It was an apt title.

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

LL: “Ishmael”, by Daniel Quinn is one of several books I read while I was still considering what kind of career path I should follow. “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson, was another. These books made me take a step back and question what I wanted my priorities to be. My initial plans were to go into medicine, but I ultimately decided that I should pursue a career in which my efforts were not meant to solely benefit humankind.

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

LL: I’m so lucky—I live in between two World Heritage Areas—the Great Barrier Reef and the Wet Tropics rainforest. So snorkelling, hiking, camping, and just spending time outside with my family top the list. On my to-do list for 2017 is to get back into karate. I was once a brown belt, but will now have to work my way up from white again.

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Lori and her family.

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

LL: I make sure that I stick with my exercise routine and spend time with my family. Stargazing provides instant perspective. It’s a reminder that we’re all just specks in space and time.

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

LL: My collecting kit, because islands are usually great places to collect invasive ants. A guide book to the flora and fauna, because islands often have weird and wonderful biota. And my journal, with lots of blank pages to fill.

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

LL: I owe a lot to whomever it was at the Australian Research Council who decided to offer prestigious early career research awards that explicitly allowed for career interruptions (e.g., parenthood or “misadventure”). At the time I applied, I had worked part-time for five years following the birth of my son in 2007. Of course I still published during that time, but was unlikely to be competitive for jobs against others who had worked full-time. If I hadn’t been awarded one of those fellowships, it is highly unlikely that I would still be a scientist today. I recently learned that until 1966, a woman working in the public service in Australia was forced to resign if she married. So Australia has come a long way.

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

LL: Take advantage of every opportunity to learn skills in a variety of disciplines—ecology, chemistry, biogeography, genetics, genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics—to name a few, because they will probably all enable you to understand these fascinating creatures that little bit more.


Sociometry may be exhausting, but it’s important and rewarding

A blog post highlighting the article written by M.L. Smith, M.M. Otswald & T.D. Seeley in Insectes Sociaux

Written by Michael L. Smith

I think Walter Tschinkel (1991) said it best when he wrote: “The list [of sociometric data] is not exhaustive, though collecting the data could be exhausting.” My research into honey bee sociometry is a case study in how right he was.

But let’s start at the beginning: what is sociometry? Sociometry is the description and analysis of the physical and numerical attributes of social insect colonies over their lifetimes (Tschinkel 1991). Sociometric data, therefore, is just about anything that you could measure in a social insect colony throughout its life, such as: the size of the nest, the number of workers, the size of the workers, the size of the food stores, the number of sexuals, etc.

Unfortunately, sociometric data are often not collected, and if they are, they’re rarely reported. It’s probably because collecting these data (plus the analyzing and writing) is tedious work. But it’s rewarding, it’s important information that forms the foundation of future research.

My primary interest is reproductive investment in honey bee colonies. In particular, I wanted to know when workers begin to build the large cells of beeswax comb that they use for rearing reproductive males or “drones.” With this question in mind, I set out to conduct a sociometric study, but not just of drone comb, I’d track the whole colony’s growth and development from birth until death. Surprisingly, this had never been done. Many studies had looked at one or two colony parameters throughout a single season, but only a couple had tracked multiple parameters in concert (Lee & Winston 1985; Pratt 1999). The study that tracked the most parameters simultaneously only did so for the first year (Rangel & Seeley 2012), and so missed out on the production of sexuals that occurs in the second year. It seemed like it was time to conduct a broad sociometric study on honeybee colonies throughout their entire life cycles.

To do this, I built and set up four large observation hives, each one about 1m x 1m. These are larger than standard observation hives, and I chose them because I needed sufficient volume (ca. 40L) for the colony to grow to its full size (Seeley & Morse 1976). I then installed into each observation hive an artificial swarm, and monitored the colonies weekly until they died.

Through the glass of the observation hives, I could observe the colonies without disturbing them. I could monitor the number of inhabitants, the growth of the comb, and the contents of the comb, all traced upon a sheet of plastic placed atop the glass of the observation hive. Together with a keen undergraduate, Maddie Ostwald, we tracked honey bee colonies from birth until death while recording worker population, drone population, comb area, comb use (cells holding brood, pollen, honey, or nothing), swarming and secondary swarming events, and time of death. This began in July 2012 and continued until January 2014, and that doesn’t count the time it took to transcribe the comb areas from the plastic sheets!

What do we get at the end of it all? Well, first and foremost, I think it’s a great way to get extremely familiar with your study organism. I grew fond of my colonies, each one with its own personality. One hive was in my office, so I’d hear them buzzing along throughout the day- the perfect office mate. Second, I’m now able to frame my experimental work within the context of these observational descriptions. For example, I now know that although all four colonies built drone comb in their first year, none of them used the drone comb for rearing drones until the second year. Despite having only four colonies, we observed a diversity of life-history strategies, including one colony that attempted to reproduce by producing queen-laid drones in worker cells (the drones were two-thirds smaller than those produced by the other colonies). We also found that drones tend to stay at home when a swarm departs, presumably because they have higher reproductive success at home, but the workers will quickly cull the drones if food stores are low. These highlights, of course, are biased by my interest in drones, so please check out the paper if you’d like to know more (Smith et al. 2016). Lastly, sociometric data are a valuable resource for all social insect biologists, and we cannot conduct comparative analyses without good descriptions of the natural growth and development of many social insect colonies.

I encourage you to think of your favorite social insect species. Is there a paper out there that describes, in painstaking detail, everything that you could possibly count, measure, and describe, from colony founding to colony death? If not, then maybe this is your chance to make it happen!



Lee, P.C. & Winston, M.L., 1985. The effect of swarm size and date of issue on comb construction in newly founded colonies of honeybees (Apis mellifera L.). Canadian Journal of Zoology, 63(3), pp.524–527.

Pratt, S.C., 1999. Optimal timing of comb construction by honeybee (Apis mellifera) colonies: a dynamic programming model and experimental tests. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 46(1), pp.30–42.

Rangel, J. & Seeley, T.D., 2012. Colony fissioning in honey bees: size and significance of the swarm fraction. Insectes Sociaux, 59(4), pp.453–462.

Seeley, T.D. & Morse, R.A., 1976. The nest of the honey bee (Apis mellifera L.). Insectes Sociaux, 23(4), pp.495–512.

Smith, M.L., Ostwald, M.M. & Seeley, T.D. 2016. Honey bee sociometry: tracking honey bee colonies and their nest contents from colony founding until death. Insectes Sociaux.

Tschinkel, W.R., 1991. Insect sociometry, a field in search of data. Insectes Sociaux, 38(1), pp.77–82.