Interview with a social insect scientist: Maggie Couvillon

IS: Who are you and what do you do?

MC: My name is Dr. Maggie Couvillon. I started in 2017 as an Assistant Professor of Pollinator Biology and Ecology at Virginia Tech. I consider myself a broadly trained bee biologist, with experience in stingless bees, bumble bees, and of course honey bees.

In my lab, I focus on basic and applied aspects of bee foraging. At the moment, I am developing honey bees, in particular their waggle dance communications, as bioindicators to give biologically-relevant data on the ability of landscapes to feed flower-visiting insects.  Our project will hopefully generate useful recommendations on how to improve bee nutrition by pinpointing when and where human intervention is useful.

IS: How did you end up researching social insects?

MC: I actually started out in birds. My undergrad had been from a small, liberal arts university, and I simply didn’t have the vocabulary when I graduated to describe my interests. I ended as a dissatisfied graduate student of neurobiology looking at songbird vocal learning. Then, for a class assignment in 2004, I stumbled upon a paper by Ben-Shahar and Robinson that investigated the effect of an increase in gene expression on a honey bee behavior. The data were really cool, but it was the authors’ background description of honey bee division of labor that blew my mind.

I’m really lucky. Just when I was realizing that I didn’t belong in neuro, I simultaneously fell in love with honey bee behavior and was able to find an opportunity for me to swap from the birds to the bees.

IS: What is your favourite social insect and why?

MC: The honey bee will always be my first love.

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Maggie’s favourite social insect, the honey bee.       Photo: Jill Bazeley/flickr

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

MC: During my postdoc at the University of Sussex in Brighton, I had the chance to conduct some experiments involving training honey bees to forage at feeders while we examined their waggle dance communications. At this stage, I had been decoding waggle dances for a few years to learn where and when bees are foraging in the landscape, but I hadn’t yet had the chance to do a feeder experiment.

Seeing the dances of foragers for a known location – the feeder – was just amazing. I knew of course that bees could communicate a direction and a distance, but actually seeing it in real-time was super exciting.

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

MC: I’m new faculty, so at the moment, I’m teaching a seminar course where I’m trying to train new graduate students to summarize and critique (constructively) research seminars. I hope that the students get from the course some basic tips for how to be a valuable peer-reviewer. I’m also contributing to several existing courses (Bees and Beekeeping, Insect Physiology, and Urban Greenspaces), where all my guest lectures possess a strong bee theme. Over the next year, my plan is to develop a course called The Behavioural Ecology of Pollinating Insects, where we will cover some of the major themes from a usual Behavioural Ecology course, but using flower-visiting insects as model organisms.

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

MC: I just finished Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I’ve been going through a post-apocalyptic reading binge for a few years, and Station Eleven, while fulfilling the niche of a story set in a dystopian future, takes a different focus on how civilization goes about preserving or rebuilding not just sustenance, but culture. The book is set in a near future where 99.9% of the world’s population is decimated by a pandemic called the Georgia flu. People remain in small, scattered settlements. One of the main characters, Kirsten, is a member of 20 or so actors and musicians that travel in horse-drawn wagons from settlement to settlement to perform Shakespeare, taking as a motto “Survival is insufficient”. It’s a neat idea for a book – what is important enough to you that you’d want to recreate it if it were taken away, even if that took 20 years.

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

MC: I’d say the combination of Niko Tinbergen’s “The Study of Instinct” and his 1963 paper “On aims and methods of Ethology” were both pretty influential to me, partly because they came at just the right time when I was leaving neurobiology for honey bee behavioral ecology. I was entranced by the idea that there are four different ways to study the same behavior (i.e., how does it work, how did it develop, what is it for, and how did it evolve). My early training heavily focused on the physiological aspects of behavior (or the “how does it work”), which felt unsatisfying to me. And so it was really exciting to learn that there are other approaches.

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

MC: I enjoy reading, swimming, cycling, cooking (and therefore eating), and traveling. The best times are the experiences that bring it all together. We have a 10 month old baby, so the cycling holidays that my husband and I enjoy are on hold, but we can’t wait until he’s old enough that he can join us cycling between beautiful places with delicious food.

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

MC: I mostly feel extremely grateful that I’m able to have the career that I do. There are times that I feel overwhelmed, that I’m not doing enough, and that I’m not nearly smart enough to pull off this career, but with a little one at home that I want to spend time with after work and on weekends, there is simply a limit to how much work I can do and how much worrying I can handle. So life and career keep each other in check, whether I like it or not!

Probably one recent challenging time was when we moved to Switzerland for 2 years and I found out just how abysmal I am at learning new languages. And without German AND French AND English, I was virtually unemployable in Bern. I had months of struggling with “who am I” if I am not a bee researcher. Eventually I found ways to stay active in science as an advisor to EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) on bee health across EU-member states. I also worked on analyzing human health data, looking at the non-compliance in HIV treatment in sub-Saharan Africa. Both of these felt like jobs, not careers, which was tough at first, but it allowed me to enjoy other things for a few years. And then, in 2016, I thought I’d try myself on the job market for one final season, and lo, I got my present position.

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

MC: Well of course top pick would be my family, especially as my husband has a Swiss army knife! But otherwise, I’d say my kindle to keep my brain active, some bubble wrap because it has been shown that keeping one’s hands busy reduces stress and the perception of wait time, and some sunscreen because I burn and freckle easily.

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

MC: I’d say it was my advisor Professor Francis Ratnieks. When I started in his lab, fresh from leaving a bird neurobiology program, I had no experience with honey bee research in any incarnation – from experimental design, to field work, to analysis, and writing. Francis is a very clear thinker and an exceptional scientist, able to turn small observations of “something interesting” into research projects. He also is good at bringing together a great team of people to work in his lab. This team always provided me with equal parts scientific inspiration, hilarity, and some excellent pranks.

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

MC: It’s just as important to know what you don’t find interesting as it is to know what you do. And be open to different opportunities in different places.

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