2018 Highlights from Our Community

Hello, social insect community!

2018 was productive for the social insect community, especially for Insectes Sociaux. As the new Social Media Editors, we have been enjoying collaborating with many social insect scientists on blog posts. Thank you for your contributions not only to making our journal great but also our blog, whether that’s through reading or writing! As 2018 came to an end and we were reflecting on the year, we reached out to past blog contributors to see what they’ve been up to. Here are some 2018 highlights from social insect scientists:

Kaitlin BaudierPostdoctoral Research Associate, School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University

You can find Dr. Baudier at kmbaudier.weebly.com and @AntGirl_KB. She also has a YouTube channel.

tropic course

IS: What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned about your study species in 2018?

KB: On the army ant front (pun intended) I learned a lot about bivouacs in 2018. It turns out that bivouacs of the most well-studied army ant (Eciton burchellii) do not strictly thermoregulate as was previously thought. At high elevations, we found that bivouacs selected different thermoregulatory strategies dependent on brood developmental stage. When ambient temperatures were low and bivouacs were filled with predominantly larvae, bivouacs would allow energy-conserving cooling. However, bivouacs rich in pupae were always kept warm regardless of ambient temperature. We report on this energy-saving strategy for coping with high elevation cold temperatures in our recent paper in Ecography. This was an interesting turn in our bivouac elevation project which we first published in Insectes Sociaux back in 2016.

2018 also marked my first work on the topic of nest defense in the stingless bee Tetragonisca angustula. This species is famous for having two types of nest entrance guards: hovering and standing guards. In our paper currently in revision at Behavioral Ecology, we report that task allocation between these two guarding jobs is age-dependent, with younger bees hovering guarding and older bees standing guarding. This was an unexpected and exciting finding in our study which had initially set out to collect task allocation data for a bio-inspired design project aimed at improving defensive swarm algorithms in unmanned aerial vehicles (Strickland et al. In Press). We also found that roaming Ectatomma tuberculatum ants use sit-and-wait predation to make a meal of these guard bees. Life for a guard bee can be rough.

stoop closeup

IS: What was your favorite conference and/or fieldwork experience?

KT: IUSSI 2018 in Brazil really blew the top off of my idea of what a great conference could be. Not only did I get a chance to speak with a multitude of established social insect biologists from around the world, but it was an excellent opportunity for me to meet a lot of amazingly dedicated students and to learn about their respective projects. I walked away from Brazil 2018 with more than a few new collaborators. As for fieldwork, I have been having an extremely positive experience working with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama this past year. From my fieldwork in and around BCI and Gamboa to my returning to co-instruct the ASU Tropical Biology course at STRI in the summer, I have enjoyed getting to know the insects, the people, and the environment in Panama. As 2019 begins, I am already packing my field equipment for another trip back. Some days I can’t help but think that it doesn’t get any better than this.

 

Rachael BonoanPost-Doctoral Researcher, Tufts University and Washington State University

You can find Dr. Bonoan at www.rachaelebonoan.com and @RachaelEBee.

IS: What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned about your study species this year?

RB: This year, I started a post-doc studying the natural history of an ant-caterpillar relationship in a Pacific Northwest prairie. When it’s a caterpillar, the Puget blue butterfly, is protected by ants. In return for protection, the caterpillar secretes a sugary snack for the ants. As mentioned in my Interview with a social insect scientist, part of my job is to figure out which ants live on the prairie with my Puget blue caterpillars.

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With the help of two Tufts University undergraduates, Hanna Brush and Max McCarthy, we have identified ten species of ants on our field site! (Many thanks also go out to Stefan Cover at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology and Chad Tillberg at Linfield College for help identifying and pinning specimens.)

So far, there are two dominant ant species on our prairie: Formica obscuripes (the Western thatch ant) and Tapinoma sessile (the odorous house ant). We have seen both tending Puget blue caterpillars, this bodes well for the baby butterflies!

The most exciting species we identified, however, is Ployergus mexicanus, also known as the raider ant or the pirate ant. The raider ant has sickle-shaped mandibles (mouthparts) specialized for kidnapping young from other ant colonies. The ultimate moocher, this ant species cannot feed itself or take care of its own young.

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After mating, a female raider ant infiltrates the colony of another ant species, typically a Formica species. The female raider ant subdues Formica workers with a specialized pheromone and promptly overtakes their queen. With the Formica queen out of the way, the raider ant queen is ready to begin her reign—she lays eggs that the Formica workers raise. With the help of their sickle-shaped mandibles, raider ant workers spend their days raiding other Formica colonies and kidnapping their young. This ensures that there will always be enough Formica workers to raise more raider ant workers.

IS: What was your favorite conference and/or fieldwork experience?

RB: This year, I attended two great conferences: Entomology in Vancouver, B.C. and Social Insects in the North East Regions (SINNERS) in Philadelphia, PA. While I enjoyed both conferences, SINNERS was held at the coolest conference venue: the Natural Academy of Sciences of Drexel University (a museum!). During the meeting, the museum had a fantastic exhibit: Xtreme Bugs! This exhibit celebrated “extreme insects” with giant, animatronic models of the amazing beats. My favorites were, of course, the leafcutter ants and the honey bee!

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Excellent venue aside, SINNERS is one of my favorite conferences. This relatively small conference (~50 speakers this year) gives you the opportunity to get to know social insect scientists! Since it’s a regional conference, SINNERS also a great meeting to find nearby social insect friends and collaborators. I met James Waters at SINNERS 2015, and we have continued to stay in touch! James and his students have visited my honey bees at Tufts (they even lent us a wireless temperature sensor for my research), and I have given a couple guest lectures in James’s classes at Providence College!

 

Tomer CzaczkesACElab Group Leader, University of Regensburg

You can find Dr. Czaczkes at animal-economics.com and @tomerczaczkes.

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IS: What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned about your study species this year?

TC: We started trying to train Drosophila to associate odours with food qualities. Man, those things are thick as glue! It gave me a real appreciation for our study species, Lasius niger – we found that these ants can learn an odour / food quality association reliably after just one exposure. I admit that perhaps the flies could learn that quickly if one used precisely the right method. Perhaps. So maybe rather than being thick, they are fiddly and delicate. Really makes me appreciate how robust and easy to work with our ants are.

 

The Insectes Sociaux editors have also been curious about our social media followers. To learn more about the kinds of scientists in our Twitter community, we recently put out a series of polls. Overall, we’ve learned that most of our followers study behavior and bees, and wish they had more time for fieldwork. Here are the results!

 

“We know all social insects are great, but what is your favorite?”

41% Bees

40% Ants

12% Wasps

7% Termites

 

“What do you predominantly study?”

51% Behavior

18% Ecology

6% Morphology

25% Combination of all of the above

 

“What component of your work do you wish you had more time for?”

49% Fieldwork

35% Publishing/writing

8% Teaching

8% Outreach / science communication

 

What have you been up to recently with your science? Do you have a comment or suggestion for our blog, social media presence, or journal? We would love to hear from you! Follow us and send us a message through Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Happy new year! We hope you have fulfilling scientific endeavors in 2019.

Madison Sankovitz & Bernie WittwerSocial Media Editors, Insectes Sociaux

 

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