Interview with a social insect scientist: Johanna Romero

You can read Johanna’s recent research article on crop-gizzard content and variations among Afrotropical Apicotermitinae here.


IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

JR: I am a curious and enthusiastic learning person. I am finishing a Ph.D. in Belgium, studying the diversity and feeding-ecology of soil-feeding termites in Africa and South America. My current research includes several axes, such as the anatomy of the digestive tube, feeding niches, and phylogenetic relationships. I also have experience in other topics, but I love the fieldwork and the ecology of insects.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

JR: I have always been passionate about social insects. When I was an undergraduate at biology and ecology school, entomology and insect ecology courses had a huge impact on me. For most of my self-directed projects, I tried to use ants as model species. I did a project about ants as bioindicators in fragmented tropical forests. For my master’s thesis, I studied the collective behavior of ants on nest digging. Then, for my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to continue studying social insects, so I started my research on soil-feeding termites. It was challenging because of my “ant background”, but I was able to dive into it. My current research model is Apicotermitinae, a highly diverse and successful subfamily, far from being well studied.

IS: What is your favorite social insect, and why?

JR: In short, the carpenter ants, a special one that I observed in the Ecuadorian jungle. This species appears to be laughing when you observe it under a stereomicroscope. I also think of Pseudomyrmex triplarinus that lives in symbiosis with trees of the genus Triplaris. This ant protects the tree against predation by other insects and animals. This type of interaction is an interesting study subject.

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

JR: I think each project generates plenty of delightful memories. In my last project, my most interesting discovery was the great diversity of sclerotized structures in the foregut of Apicotermitinae termites. More specifically, the gizzard contained in some cases a predominant percentage of fine clay, among other minerals, but the function of these sclerotized structures remains unclear to this date.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

JR: I was involved in practical work for undergraduate students. It is there where I incorporated the techniques I learned during my doctoral research. I also communicate my research to the public through scientific photography contests and research image expositions organized during the university open house.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

JR: The notion of importance is quite relative. In general, the current most investigated questions in social insects are the caste differentiation and modes of reproduction. These have many adherents in the social insects’ domain. The approaches used in this research field have been evolving alongside the improvement of molecular techniques.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

JR: Surely, the definition of limits between sociality and eusociality. Another great debate focuses on insect systematics and the use of different techniques in genomics and morphology.

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

JR: I usually read two books at the same time, just like the Netflix series for other people. The Last Kingdom is a historical fiction book set in England during medieval times. Real historical figures are depicted as brave Danish warriors trying to take over the English kingdoms. A single fictional protagonist, Uhtred, is introduced. He is English but grew up like a Danish.

Ecuadorian customs (Las costumbres de los ecuatorianos, original title) is a socio-historical book. It is a review of literature based on texts written by foreign naturalist explorers and their opinions of the native population during the colonial era. I would recommend both books if their themes interest the reader.

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

JR: I love outdoor walks, which sadly are not possible now (due to COVID-19 confinement measures). So, instead, I try to keep myself active by doing cardio training or yoga. However, my great hobbies are drawing, wood carving, and embroidery. As you can see (photos below), insects and nature are the focus of my pieces. I am not excellent, but it is what I love to do to relax.

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

JR: I try to keep my motivation as high as possible. I remember what my dreams are and how much I want to achieve them. If there is a conflict situation on a specific topic, I take a break and try to keep my distance with a short walk in full consciousness. Afterwards, I am ready to face it or ask for help, if necessary. Sometimes, to keep going, I think about how ant workers work hard over and over again. It may take time, but it is difficult for them to leave the trail of pheromones.

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

JR: My set of chisels, a camping pot, and my embroidery set. I can survive with that.

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

JR: The books of Marie Curie’s life and E.O Wilson’s research were my main influences to keep going in science. During my master’s thesis, Jean Louis Deneubourg taught me a passion for practicing science. His focus, motivation, and trust were very formative.

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

JR: In general, science is a long-term commitment. Insect social research is no different. So, you have to learn, postulate, test, enjoy, and keep doing.

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

JR: Science has brought me not only to places, but also new cultures. Among all the places I have been, my favorite is Africa. To do my Ph.D. fieldwork, I spent a few months in Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. I really loved these countries. Sharing with people from villages or cities allowed me to understand more about what is essential in human beings. There are many contrasts, and yet people do not lose their joy. “Europeans have watches, but we have time.”

Science in the time of COVID-19


Scientists around the world are being affected in unforeseen ways by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether they’re working from home, being forced to pause or terminate research projects, or losing their job altogether, researchers are meeting novel challenges and given no choice other than to adapt. For some, stay-at-home orders offer time to learn new skills and work on data analysis and writing projects that otherwise would have been on the back burner for the foreseeable future. For others, their experiments are taking a toll in irreversible ways. Whatever your experience, we know that everyone in our community of social insect scientists is facing challenges and doing their best to cope during this time. We asked some researchers to share their experiences in hopes of providing comfort to those of you experiencing similar things and to continue the conversation amongst our community.


Are you working right now, and if so, where?

“I am working from my home near Tufts University, just north of Boston, MA. With the current situation, I am unable to travel to my field site in Washington. Thankfully, two WSU field technicians, Jason and June, are local to the prairie we work on. Between analysing data and writing from home, I virtually meet with Jason and June to go over protocols for data collection, entry, etc. As long as Jason and June can social distance while in the field (which is pretty easy on the 180-acre prairie) and healthy, my data is getting collected! While I am grateful for this, my makeshift home office using my husband’s childhood desk is not as enjoyable as fieldwork.” –Dr. Rachael E. Bonoan, Postdoctoral Researcher, Tufts University & Washington State University


Rachael’s makeshift home office

“Ha! Work. Yes. I’m attempting to work from home.” –Dr. Tommy Czaczkes, Animal Comparative Economics Group leader, University of Regensberg

How has the COVID-19 outbreak impacted your scientific research/teaching?

“I am lucky to have a lab with large numbers of reared termite colonies. I was able in the past 7 years to create from mating pairs more than 500 colonies, many of them are held in large containers. I think we have more than 25 million termites under our roof, which comes with many opportunities, but also responsibility and limitation. Space is the major limitation, or so I thought. I now fully realize that our main limitation is: time. I need the time (and the time from technicians) to maintain these colonies. Normally, we have 1 technician full time to keep these colonies feed, moist, and contained.  Now, we currently have a single person coming once a week, just to check and minimal maintenance. Mostly to keep them from escaping (Coptotermes is good at that!), making sure that colonies are not starving, and that humidity levels are where they should be. I expect the loss of a few colonies by the end of this pandemic. We will try to minimize this loss, as colonies will probably be on life support until they can get back to their initial expected logistical growth. However, it is not just the lab access limitation. I have many field projects, all in city and state parks. All of them are closed, which means, I have no access to these sites to collect the data. ” -Dr. Thomas Chouvenc, Urban Entomology Assistant Professor, University of Florida IFAS Ft Lauderdale Research and Education Center

“At present, I am not teaching any courses because I have a Research Professorship. My current work consists of data analysis and writing of manuscripts, books, and general articles. At least in the short run, my work has benefited from the absence of commuting and travelling for committee work. At the same time, I am having no difficulty interacting with my students and post-docs, virtually. I also have more time for reading and I am able to read books that I would normally consider a luxury. Yes, we have had to discontinue two major experiments and were forced to release the wasps back into nature. I am confident though that we will resume those experiments next year.” -Dr. Raghavendra Gadagkar, DST Year of Science Chair Professor, Indian Institute of Science Centre for Ecological Studies

“I am in the unique position that I am an emeritus scientist who has no ongoing students, teaching, administrative duties, or laboratory access that is restricted by the virus.  My laboratory contains only my personal research operation.  Thus, no physical distancing problem and no new social isolation.  In my case, COVID-19 has not negatively affected my work.  Oh, I could quibble that getting some supplies and materials, and that contacting colleagues has been hampered, but so far toilet paper has not been a problem! I always like to look at the brighter side of any situation.  There is a brighter side to the COVID-19 experience.  I personally have benefited from this opportunity via receiving faster reviews and, in turn, had the time to complete the revisions more quickly.” -Dr. Justin Schmidt, Southwestern Biological Institute & Department of Entomology, University of Arizona

“Our university does not allow official travel and has closed our field stations, so I have abandoned the 2020 field seasons for two projects, one monitoring the spread of a non-native ant in Texas and the other on a locally social parasitic ant. I will still be able to publish, but with less data than I’d like. We have also ceased most general collecting for the UT collection. I was teaching a small, 15 student class this semester, but the transition to online teaching has taken more time than I had anticipated, especially as we redesigned student projects and re-did many of the lectures. Fortunately, I co-teach this class with my wife, so we are both able to do this together from home. I have also cancelled two photography workshops, two outreach events, and an invited seminar at another university.” -Dr. Alex Wild, Curator, University of Texas Insect Collection

“While my data is still being collected, I am not able to be in the field myself. [WSU field technicians] Jason and June are doing a fantastic job but as a field biologist, this is tough for me. Especially since I love my prairie field site, bursting with wildflowers, and the WSU folks I spend time with when I am there. I have worked with Jason and June to ensure we have enough supplies to avoid sharing clipboards, butterfly nets, etc. and to pare down experiments to allow for social distancing and if necessary, an abrupt break in data collection.” -Rachael


Rachael with field team

“Luckily for me, I don’t have to do any structured teaching. But my research has completely ground to a halt. As my group works almost exclusively on foraging, our work is very seasonal. Spring and early summer are the very best time to collect data – the ants are so motivated! Indeed, for sensitive experiments, I am reluctant to collect data any later than September. We had just started a 6-month collaboration with a visiting Ph.D. student, who had to cancel everything. I’m worried that, even if everything opens, we can’t just start at the drop of a hat. Indeed, if the shut-down goes on until June, we might lose the whole season. Oh yes, and for the first time, I had to withdraw a paper from review. We were asked to perform a minor control – three weeks of work or less – but then COVID-19 hit. Happily, the first author has a post-doc (or had – he returned home with COVID-19), but this is quite a blow for him too.” -Tommy

How do you cope with social distancing? Are you alone at home or do you live with others?

“As an extroverted social insect scientist and field biologist, social distancing and staying home has been mentally and emotionally difficult. It has also been physically difficult—it took working from home for only one week to realize how comfortable my desk as school is! Thankfully, I do have my husband with me to remind me to take a break to stretch or go for a walk around the block. To cope, I am trying to keep as much of a “normal” routine during the workweek as possible. I work out in our basement like I would normally do before going to work, I make tea and watch some of the Today Show (big Al Roker fan), and then I “go” to work. If the weather is nice, I take an afternoon break to go for a walk. At Tufts, I work in an open office space with about ten other post-docs/grad students. One of the students set up an “office” Discord channel (online chat), which has been nice for keeping in touch and asking questions about stats, writing, etc. like we would if we were in our shared space.” -Rachael

“Ah, it’s not so bad! I have a wife and two lovely kids (6 and 3), so I am far from alone. Indeed, now that all my friends (most of which are far from where I live) are getting involved in video chats, I’ve had a lot more social contact! I’ve had lovely chats with friends I have not spoken to in years – in one case over a decade!” -Tommy

“My wife and I live by ourselves in our home and we are fortunate to be able to get all that we need delivered to our doorstep.” -Raghavendra

“I am home with my partner and our two young children. I have enjoyed the close time with our children; earlier this week our 3-year-old wrote his name for the first time, and our 6-year-old has been raising caterpillars. It’s been really nice, to be honest. However, I devote more time to childcare and home-schooling than any other activity, by a large margin, and given social distancing and school closures we do not have external childcare. So my actual work time is reduced by half, at least.” -Alex

What platform do you and your colleagues use to stay in touch (e.g. Skype, Zoom, etc.)?

“Oh, let’s face it, they’re all pretty much the same… (3-year-old comes in: “Robin hit me!” “oh dear, do you want to do a puzzle in the office?”… etc,  etc… ok, I’m back). The ad-hoc nature of houseparty has been quite fun.” -Tommy

If you are working from home, are you working on the same things as usual?

“Experiments have stopped, travel has stopped, but reading and writing have become intensified, more diverse, and more pleasurable.” -Raghavendra

“I can keep up with some of the administrative tasks of the UT collection from home, as well as the odd journal reviews and collaborations. But in general, I am unable to perform many of my regular curatorial responsibilities as those involve physical work in the collection itself. I am still doing some work on our database, but so much of my much-reduced work time is given over to online teaching that I probably have no more than 3-4 hours per week of curation-related work. I write more for our department’s blog than normal.” -Alex

Have the restrictions due to COVID-19 had any positive side effects for your research, for example, time to learn a new skill?

“Yes, actually! I have finally taken the time to learn to do data management, data visualisation, and statistical workflow reporting in R. I have been putting this off since the start of my Ph.D., so it’s about time! My next paper will have shiny ggplot2 figures, and an HTML file giving the entire code and output of my analysis. I’ve still not caught up to my (ex) Ph.D. students, but I’m making progress. It has been a lot more fun than I thought it would be.” -Tommy

What activities or hobbies are you currently doing to fill your time?

“To fill my time, I have been doing a lot of cooking and baking. One of my favourite de-stressing activities is watching The Great British Baking Show while cooking dinner or baking dessert. While I have yet to try anything as technical as they have on that show, I have been practicing baking bread! This weekend, I am going to attempt Portuguese sweet bread, a hometown Easter treat. I am also using this time to do virtual outreach. My husband and I recently wrote a kid’s story, “Dress Like a Scientist Day,” and have been working with an illustrator. Now that we have illustrations, I am creating a website so kids can read the illustrated story and learn about the diverse “uniforms” in science as a free eBook!” -Rachael

“During this time at home, I was hoping to catch up with data analysis and writing, but being a dad of a 4yr-old, it is now established that I will get nothing accomplished.  I am therefore converting my time as a backyard entomologist to show my daughter the wonders of our yard: termite swarms, invasive ants (15 of them in my yard alone, welcome to south Florida), wasps, bees, mole crickets, flies, mosquitoes, planthoppers… A lot of fun, and learning about why bugs are cool.” -Thomas


Thomas Chouvenc’s office these days. He’s taking advantage of this lockdown to get better at photography and video editing.

“I spend an hour every day engaged in what people might consider ‘silly art’, just to keep my creativity flowing!” -Raghavendra

Do you have any tips for readers on how best to cope with the restrictions the COVID-19 outbreak has imposed on your scientific work or private life?

“I need structure to be productive. If you can relate, I suggest keeping as much of a routine as possible and using a planner to block out your day. I swear by my Passion Planner, which has each day broken down into half-hour blocks, and space to plan both work and personal goals. You can try the Passion Planner for free with their downloadable PDFs. My favourite pens for writing in my Passion Planner are FriXion erasable pens—they allow for color-coding and keeping things neat when your schedule shifts around (as it does). A game-changer for me with video meetings is to add all recurring meetings (which seem to keep multiplying), with their meeting links, to my email calendar. This way, I get a reminder (with the link!) 15 minutes before the meeting starts and I am not searching through my email for what feels like forever. For each video meeting, I try to get up and go to another room as possible. This way, I get a bit of a change of scenery and I am not sitting at my desk all day. Outside of work, make sure to stay connected with friends and family as much as possible, whether it be through text, phone, video, online gaming, etc. Like a colony of social insects, the only way we are going to get through this is by working together.” –Rachael


“Don’t expect too much – especially if you have children. I have heard from colleagues, especially in the US, that there is often an atmosphere of “we’re getting on and being productive, so you should be too.” This sounds pretty toxic. We also see a lot of social media about people putting together online seminars, organising e-journal clubs, and so on. This is great! But this should not be considered ‘normal’. Normal – especially with kids at home – is having a pleasant day. Everything else is bonus.” -Tommy

“Most of us in academia usually have so much backlog and are always putting off some of the most pleasurable reading and writing, owing to demands on our time, that temporary lockdowns can have very positive effects, as long as our basic needs are taken care of.” -Raghavendra

“Everyone should recognize the nature of this crisis and not set goals for themselves beyond maintaining basic mental and physical health. We also need to be aware that this crisis is just beginning. The downstream economic effects have the potential to be far more destructive to our fields than a few weeks of sheltering in place.” -Alex

Anything else you would like to share about how COVID-19 has affected your work and life as a scientist?

“Mostly, it has emphasised again how lucky we are, as scientists. I don’t have a business that will go bankrupt. I will continue to be paid. The German Science Foundation is even offering 3-month no-questions-asked grant and salary extensions for many of the researchers it funds. I can even, in principle, be productive from home. Honestly, I couldn’t ask for more.” -Tommy

“I realise of course that I might have had a very different perspective if I were a young Assistant Professor with two young children! But I see that even people in that situation I know are coping very well. Generally, I think scientists are far too busy doing more and more of the same thing, affording no time for continued broad education in the humanities, culture, and philosophy. This is an opportunity for course-correction.” -Raghavendra

“I am seeing the value in our department’s epidemiologists, now more than ever.” -Alex

Interview with a social insect scientist: Maddie Ostwald

You can read Maddie’s recent research article on temporal and spatial dynamics of carpenter bee sociality here.


IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

MO: My name is Maddie Ostwald, and I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Animal Behavior at Arizona State University. I’m a student in Jennifer Fewell’s lab, which has a focus on coordination and emergence of cooperative behavior in social insect groups, particularly ants and bees. My research focuses on the costs and benefits of group living in a facultatively social carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta. I’m also really interested in native bees as pollinators and how basic behavioral research can inform efforts to combat population declines.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

MO: I first became interested in insect sociality when I was a high school student working at the Children’s Museum of Maine, where I taught science programs to kids. I was really excited about a program I got to teach using a honey bee observation hive, and I spent a lot of time watching these bees interact and reading about their behavior. This experience inspired me to study honey bee social behavior as an undergrad. Since then, I’ve developed an interest in the “weakly social” bees that can tell us a lot about how complex social groups like honey bee colonies evolved.

IS: What is your favorite social insect, and why?

MO: I really love the carpenter bees that I work with. They are really large, buzzy, and charismatic. They bump into things a lot, which is their cutest feature.

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

MO: When trying to measure the resting metabolic rates of carpenter bees, I found that most bees weren’t willing to rest, and instead were always trying to chew their way out of their container. Their perseverance was frustrating at the time but led me to discover that if I gave them a piece of wood, they would perform nest excavation behavior in the lab! I was then able to measure the metabolic rate of excavating bees, which I never thought would be possible. This ability was really exciting because it meant that a hypothesis I had really wanted to test was suddenly and unexpectedly in reach.

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Breaking apart logs containing carpenter bee nests

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

MO: Most of the science outreach I do is with a non-profit organization called Sonoran Desert Native Bees, which I helped to found. Our mission is to engage our local community in efforts to support and learn about native bee populations. I also volunteer as a biology teacher for inmates at the state prison here. People in Arizona tend to be really afraid of bees because Africanized honey bees are common here, but they tend to appreciate them more when they learn about the ecological value of bees and the fact that the Sonoran Desert is one of the most bee-diverse regions in the world!

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

MO: To me, the most exciting questions in the field explore mechanisms for social evolution beyond kin selection, which has been the dominant paradigm for understanding these questions for many years. I think more research should examine systems that don’t fit neatly into this framework, like non-kin groups or groups where offspring are coerced into helping. These alternative drivers should give us a fuller picture of how and why social behavior evolved under different conditions.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

MO: I think some of the most heated debates in the field surround the value and use of inclusive fitness theory. It’s surprising to me that this is still such a contentious issue, given the volume of work supporting this theory.

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

MO: I recently read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Pérez, which I have been recommending to everyone I know. This book explores the “data gap” underlying pervasive discrimination against women: the ways in which the failure to collect data on female biology and experiences leads to products, medical treatments, workplaces, etc. designed for the default male. For example, I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of medical research is done on male subjects and male tissues. Fortunately, social insect researchers are used to studying female-dominated societies, so the data gap isn’t as big in our field!

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

MO: I really enjoy spending time outdoors, hiking, camping, kayaking, rock climbing, etc. Growing up in Maine, I had to restrict a lot of these activities to the few warm months of the year, and now that I live in Arizona, I can be outdoors anytime I want!

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

MO: I am lucky to have really supportive friends and family members. I especially appreciate talking and spending time with my friends who are not scientists, and therefore give me a more balanced perspective on my work and the things that I value outside of research.

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

MO: I would bring a fishing net so I could eat, a hammock to sleep on, and a friend so I wouldn’t be lonely.

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

MO: I was really strongly influenced by my undergraduate research advisor, Tom Seeley, who is a really kind, thoughtful person on top of being an excellent scientist. Tom is guided by his love for bees and his excitement for his research, and I learned from him that this approach often yields more important work than just chasing hot topics in the field.

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

MO: I would encourage anyone hoping to study social insects to embrace opportunities to work with understudied species. There are certainly challenges associated with this approach, but I think there’s a lot of value to asking questions across a range of systems and some really rewarding opportunities for discovery.

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

MO: I really loved the few months I spent on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal before starting my Ph.D. Not only is BCI a really beautiful place with incredible wildlife, but it also has a great scientific community.

Do honeybees make life or death decisions?

A blog post highlighting the article by Justin Schmidt in Insectes Sociaux.

By Justin Schmidt

Throughout much of human history, the ability to think and make decisions was considered a special property of our own species.  Other animals were generally considered to be acting on the basis of instinct.  Decision-making was a part of intelligence, a property most developed and humans, with other animals, including apes, dolphins, whales, and even (my emphasis) some birds like ravens and parrots having some lesser degree of intelligence.  Insects were often described as living robots that simply followed their genetic programming.  We now know that this is a grossly egocentric view and that many species have abilities to learn, as exemplified by honeybee learning in response to nectar rewards.

The ability to make decisions, that is, to tailor the individual’s behavioral response after evaluating input information, appears to be correlated with intelligence.  If so, then is decision-making mainly a property of vertebrates and lacking, or weak, in organisms such as insects?  I suspect that insects and other invertebrates have considerably greater abilities than credited for making optimal decisions based on their evaluation of presently available information.

To test this hypothesis, honeybees were challenged with attacks by a potential predator.  The attacks were a constant that was identical in all situations.  In one situation, the colony nest contained no larvae or pupae and little honey or pollen resources.  The colonies in this situation could also readily abandon their nest and successfully continue by establishing a new nest if necessary.  In the other situation, the colony nest contained a large number of larvae and pupae and substantial honey and pollen resources.  These latter colonies contained only older adult bees and a limited alternative of abandoning the nest and successfully continuing in a new nest.  The little-to-lose colonies were reproductive swarms that had been established in their artificial nest cavity for only three to four days.  The much-to-lose colonies were reproductive swarms that had been established in their artificial nest cavities for 19 to 22 days.


            The predation threat consisted of the “predator” (me) exhaling three times directly into the main nest entrance and then stepping back 5 m and collecting with short-handled insect nets all bees that were attacking my face.  This procedure was repeated as many times as necessary until no more bees were attacking.  Upon finishing collecting all attackers, the colony was collected, frozen, and all attacking workers, non-attacking workers, males, and the queen were hand-counted and weighed.  Colony resources were also removed and weighed.

The results were that the colonies with much-to-lose sent forth 2.9 times as much of their worker force as attackers than the colonies with little-to-lose.  Many other comparative measurements of the two categories of colonies showed the same trend that the colonies with much-to-lose defended more vigorously than the little-to-lose colonies.


            If a worker honeybee attacks and stings a potential predator, she loses her stinger and dies shortly thereafter.  Thus, her decision to attack is not a minor decision; it is a life-or-death decision that has serious consequences for both the individual worker and her colony.  This study revealed that individual workers can evaluate the situation and base their decisions to attack, or not, on the information present at that time.  The study demonstrates that workers can evaluate different situations and decide accordingly how to act in the best interest of the colony.  It leaves many more questions unanswered.  What are the factors the worker uses for making her decision?  Is the decision made by each individual acting alone, or is she acting in response to the actions of other individuals in her colony?  Does the worker evaluate the quantity of brood, honey/nectar, pollen, wax in the combs, or the number of other adult bees, and if so, how?  Is the presence of a queen or queen cells important?  Is the reproductive status, that is, nearness to issuing reproductive swarms, important?  And, to be fair, are the numbers of males present in the colony a factor?  What about pheromones?  As with all studies in science, the results raise more questions than they provide answers.  This is good!  I hope I have cracked the door open a little wider towards an understanding of the abilities of honeybees.

The Insectes Sociaux social media team

Hello social insect fans,

We have had some turnover in our social media editing duo for Insectes Sociaux, so we wanted to take this opportunity to introduce ourselves. Our most recent social media editor, Bernadette Wittwer, had moved on, and we will miss her. I (Madison) am staying on, and it’s my pleasure to welcome Daniela Roemer to the team. I’m excited to work with her to bring you news about new and exciting social insect research! Here’s a little bit about us:

Daniela Roemer

I am a behavioral ecologist interested in self-organized pattern formation in social insects and my study organisms are leaf-cutting ants. After receiving my Ph.D. from the Julius-Maximilians University of Wuerzburg, Germany, I spent two years as a postdoc at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay. Currently, I am a postdoc in the Roces Lab at the University of Wuerzburg, where I study foraging patterns and nest architecture of leafcutters, either in the lab at my university or in the field in Northern Argentina.

Aside from work, I have a passion for travel, books, and my pets (cats, fish, and stick insects). In recent years I have also become interested in science communication and sharing the hard work of my fellow scientists with a broader audience to raise awareness of the importance of scientific research and funding. As the newest member of the social media team, I am very excited to bring you the newest publications and stories from Insectes Sociaux and its blog across the journal’s social media channels.

Madison Sankoviz

I am an entomology Ph.D. candidate in the Purcell Lab at the University of California Riverside. My research focuses on nesting patterns and landscape-level genomic adaptations of Formica ants. I received a B.A. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Colorado Boulder, where I studied the effects of Formica podzolica ant colonies on soil moisture, nitrogen, and plant communities. I am passionate about science communication and am always thinking about ways to bring out the stories behind scientific experiments and findings. The research of other social insect scientists continually inspires me, and I admire these entomologists’ unique enthusiasm for examining social aspects of the natural world. It’s been a blast to highlight publications and help tell the stories behind them as a social media editor for Insectes Sociaux, and I’m excited to continue in this role!

The best part of this role is working with all the contributors to the blog and our interviewees. Thank you to all of you who have participated; we look forward to our communication with many more of you.

If you are interested in blogging or interviewing, do not hesitate to contact us via Twitter (@InsSociaux), Facebook, Instagram, or via email at and

Interview with a social insect scientist: Harmen Hendriksma

Bild Harmen Hendriksma

IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

HH: My name is Harmen Hendriksma. I aim to understand and identify drivers and threats to bee vitality. I currently work on monitoring bees in agricultural landscapes throughout Germany.

IS: How did you develop an interest in your research?

HH: As a nature boy, I wandered endlessly through the meadows of Friesland. Ants, butterflies, and wild bees strangely enchanted me. Then one magical day, a beekeeper passed my way, and this he said to me: “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love bees and be loved in return”.

IS: What is your favorite social insect, and why?

HH: My first love was the bumblebee Bombus lapidarius. Yet I was given a hive as a youngster, and ever since, I have been in love with the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Would you oppose having a socialist matricentric society of vegetarians, for a change?

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

HH: We found bees to counter nutritional deficiencies; not only to differentially cover their protein and carbohydrate needs, but also particular needs for essential fatty acids and amino acids. Memorable to me is that many findings come together with crippling self-doubt.

IS: Do you teach or do outreach/science communication? How do you incorporate your research into these areas?

HH: I generally follow a biocentric perspective. Whilst teaching Animal Behavior at Iowa State University, the 145 students felt that I sincerely cared for them, and very much care about all other animals too. I never shoehorn bees into lectures. In Germany, Israel, California, and Iowa, I gave many extension talks to beekeepers. I felt those folks all enjoyed hearing stories from a passionate bee scientist who sees beekeepers as facilitators to let bees shine in the spotlight.

IS: What do you think are some of the important current questions in social insect research, and what’s essential for future research?

HH: Many wild bee populations are in decline, and many honey bee colonies dwindle and die. I thusly think that drivers of bee demise need elucidation. Regarding colony structure, e.g., it would be helpful to know the pathogeneses of the many different viral diseases that plague colonies. Future research would benefit from insight into interactions (and maybe synergies) between different stressors, such as nutritional stress and disease.

IS: What research questions generate the biggest debate in social insect research at the moment?

HH: I’m biased toward the nutrition field. There is debate on if generalist bees actively balance deficient colony nutrition, and, how.

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

HH: Spread the word; Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. To me, the book eloquently illustrates a misnomer; Homo sapiens, since pestis would have been a better fit.

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

HH: I have haphazard homey hobbies. I recently inoculated wetted pine wood shavings with mycelium – to grow mushrooms in my kitchen. I hung a birdhouse and a bee hotel outside my home. I glued a pigeon skeleton together that I found in my chimney. I made myself curtains on a sowing machine. And, I stream lots of movies and series – soon also to select new films for an international film festival here in Braunschweig. Once or twice per week, I go out for drinks and bites, targeting unknown cozy places.

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

HH: I tend to just keep pumping in hours and simply keep rocking. I ask for support when needing a boost.

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

HH: I would not bring anything. I’d go out adventuring like a Minecraft survival world. I’d punch down a tree with my fist to make some wooden tools, eat kelp and mobs, etc.

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

HH: During my Ph.D., Stephan Härtel showed me how to practice science. His approach, trust, and patience were most formative.

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

HH: Our social insect researcher society has super kind people that provide astounding support. Take the opportunity and learn from us, work with us, and simply become a part of our field.

IS: What is your favorite place science has taken you?

HH: Dangling above a pool with dolphins in Eilat, Israel, to spot an invasive Apis florea bee colony. I ❤ Israel.