Interview with a social insect scientist: Madeleine Beekman

Madeleine in the field

Madeleine in the field.

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

MB: My name is Madeleine Beekman and I study how insect colonies are organised and the ways by which they deal with conflict within their societies. I have done quite a bit of work on foraging behaviour in mass recruiting ants and honey bees as well as nest-site selection in different species of Apis. Currently I continue to work on the amazing Cape honey bee, a subspecies of honey bee in which the workers are capable of cloning themselves. Workers can now produce females instead of males, which completely changes the relatedness within the colony. This change in relatedness in turn leads to very interesting conflicts not usually seen in other honey bees. More recent is my adventure into honey bee virus land. Here the aim is to unravel how honey bee RNA viruses become more virulent and what role exactly the ectoparasite Varroa destructor plays.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

MB: While doing my MSc at the University of Amsterdam, people were trying to commercialise the use of bumble bees in glasshouse pollination, particularly of tomato crops. Tomatoes are a funny crop; the plants continuesly produce flowers which can pollinate themselves, but the pollen needs to be actively loosened. When grown outside, the wind does the trick, but not in glasshouses. For a long time every tomato plant had to be touched daily with a vibrating stick to ensure pollination. Enter honey bees….they are much more efficient and cheaper. But honey bees are also picky, so as soon as there are nice plants in flower outside, honey bees ignore the tomato crop (remember they have a very useful communication dance, so only a few workers need to find something better and soon the whole colony knows about it). Obviously glasshouse growers could have screened their glasshouse, but there are other disadvantages to honey bees. Their colonies are large, they poo a lot and they can sting. The bumblebee Bombus terrestris started to look like an interesting alternative. The problem was that bumble bees are annual insects, and tomatoes are grown almost year round. What they needed was a PhD student who was going to figure out how to prevent bumble bee queens from going into diapause, how best to survive artificial diapause, and how to obtain good quality colonies year round. That PhD student was me. I was already obsessed with insects and mites, was an amateur beekeeper and loved the challenge.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

MB: That is a tough question….I think I will settle for the blue-banded bee Amegilla cingulate. It is simply gorgeous and the males have this funny habit of forming social roosts (to be honest the blue-banded bee is not the only one in which the males hang out together at night, but they are the blue-est…).

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Roosting blue-banded bee. Photo: James Niland/flickr

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

MB: I think the most memorable occasion was when I got to work one morning and my then Honours student Alex Jordan said to me: ‘I think I found something really cool’ (or words to that effect; it has been a while). Alex had spent a field season in South Africa working on the Cape honey bee and was analysing his data. When I excitedly asked what that might be, he replied by saying he wasn’t going to tell me until he was certain. Turned out he found that workers of the Cape honey bee parasitise queen cells of other honey bee colonies on a massive scale, a discovery that changed the direction of the research on the lab on this weird bee. Because these workers produce clones, they reincarnate themselves in genetical terms.

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

MB: I teach in a first year unit called Life and Evolution, and in two third year units: Animal Behaviour and Evolution and Biodiversity. In my teaching I am foremost an evolutionary biologist. I do give examples of my own work where relevant, and obviously social insects are ideal if you want to impress first year students, but I am careful in pushing it too far.

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

MB: ‘A little life’ by Hanua Yanagihara. One of the most beautiful books I have read, so I most certainly recommened. Science-wise, the last book I read was Frans de Waal’s latest book: ‘Are we smart enough to know how smart animals are?’, also highly recommended as it makes us think about what exactly intelligence is. I look forward to reading Peter Godrey-Smith’s latest book ‘Other minds: the octopus and the evolution of intelligent life’ (see a pattern here?) and Menno Schilthuizen’s upcoming ‘Darwin comes to town: how the urban jungle drives evolution’ (so many books, so little time….).

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

MB: Boring anwer I fear, but that must be Richard Dawkin’s ‘The selfish gene’ and ‘The extended phenotype’. Not very original, I know, but they are extremely influential books.

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

MB: I would love to spend more time reading books, both science and fiction. But I also love exercising and horse riding. My main form of exercise is RPM, where you get on a stationary bike and go nowhere but end up completely exhausted after 45 minutes because there is a trainer shouting instructions such as ‘go faster’, ‘put more gears on’ or (my favourite) ‘suck it up’. I also spend (too little) time on a yoga mat.

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

MB: I exercise or get on a horse.

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

MB: Sunscreen, because I would only go to a tropical island. This is cheating I suspect, but a huge bookchest full of books. And my husband, as I’ll get lonely after a while (and we can swap books if he also takes a book chest….).

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

MB: Different people at different stages in my career, but I can easily single out two. Foremost my PhD supervisor Maus Sabelis, who sadly died too young. He taught me to believe in myself. And ever since I moved to Australia Ben Oldroyd, life partner and close colleague. Without his support I wouldn’t be where I am now.

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

MB: I think these days young researchers need to be much more strategic than I have been. Obviously doing good science is essential, but you also need to make sure people know who you are and what you do. So make sure you give brilliant talks at national and international conferences. Make yourself visible, even as a postdoc. If opportunities arise, people need to know you exist; if you hide in the lab or your office, people may not think of you even if you are be the best person. I realise this is not specific to social insect research….

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