Interview with a social insect scientist: Jenny Jandt

You can read Jenny’s recent research article on differences in yellowjacket colony-level aggression over time and across contexts here.

That’s a big one! Jenny showing a PERFECT Vespula nest excavation. She later discovered that the bottom half was just paper – presumably to be repurposed into lower layers of brood comb. This colony is referred to as V3 in the Jandt et al. 2020 Insectes Sociaux paper.

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

JJ: My name is Jenny Jandt. I’m a Senior Lecturer (equivalent to an Assistant Professor in the US) at the University of Otago, New Zealand. I study behavioural ecology and evolutionary biology of social insect colonies.

Waiting for directions. When Jenny is searching for wasp nests, sometimes she finds nectar feeders full of sugar water (for birds) that are being dominated by wasps. Jenny waits until a wasp is full of sugar and watches as she flies away. Jenny uses the trajectory of the wasp’s flight to track the nest.

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

JJ: I fell in love with social insects in 2000 when I did a summer study abroad in Costa Rica. I discovered how I could be in a most beautiful place in the world and my study organisms would come to me! I didn’t have to keep them locked up in a lab (which I would do later anyway) or spend all of my time searching for footprints or poo (both of which I studied in some way with social insects eventually too).

While working with many colonies of bumble bees for my Ph.D. and many more colonies of paper wasp for my postdoc, I thought a lot about the differences among colonies. Why did some colonies grow so fast? Why did some colonies refuse to cooperate in the experiment I set up for them? Were some colonies actually more likely to sting or attack me?

When I started my lab in NZ, I focused on developing research to investigate factors that influence colony differences in bumble bees, wasps, and ants. I’m still fascinated by the individuals, but now I’m focused on understanding how those individual differences interact to create a robust colony phenotype. And I get to study them in another most beautiful place in the world.

Everyone’s a critic. Occasionally, the workers like to double-check the camera settings.

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

JJ: My favorite is probably the German yellowjacket. I think the yellow and black color patterns are striking and beautiful, and I love photographing them on flowers and leaves. They have a ferocity when defending their nest, and I respect that. They were also the first social insect I worked with. As a Master’s student, I studied their foraging behavior, but also helped design a box where I could watch them interact with each other inside the nest. There’s so much more to them than just their sting.

I also fell in love with Halictid bees at some point. I love their brilliant colors, I love that they land on my skin and try to drink sweat, and I love that they pretend they have a powerful sting. It’s also pretty fun to consider that these bright green bees that carry bellies of yellow pollen are obviously Green Bay Packer fans too.

I never imagined I would include an ant on this list, but I can’t leave out the bullet ant. I’ve never been stung by these brilliant beasts, but I did have an opportunity to study their foraging behavior in Costa Rica one summer. I got some video of these visual predators standing next to a trail of leaf-cutting ants and picking foragers off one by one. I even saw one ant catch a bee in mid-air! Luckily, the ant was so excited and shocked by her success that she forgot how to get home and walked back and forth often enough for me to capture an exceptional photo of her with her prize. I found a way to publish that photo with the study we were doing on their foraging behavior.

A Vespula queen visits a Grevillea flower. Neither are native to NZ, but both are pretty.

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

JJ: I remember the day that I realized a hypothesis I was testing for my Master’s work, that yellowjackets leave footprints at a food site to attract conspecifics, was not going to be supported. I remember telling other students in the lab, who all recommended that if I wanted to convince my advisor (who held a firm view that the hypothesis was true), I needed to have strong evidence. So I designed the project in a way that made it absolutely clear that yellowjackets do not leave footprints at the food site. I brought him the evidence, and I was so nervous. Who was I to challenge my advisor? But he listened to my explanation and said “ok.” I felt fireworks going off in my head! My first publication was a null result, reported in the title “Vespula germanica foragers do not scent-mark carbohydrate food sites.”

I’ve had the opportunity to work on some really neat projects over the years (sometimes based on really cool hypotheses that were even supported!), but that one was memorable because I was young, very new to the field, I challenged an expert in the field, and I presented the evidence in a convincing way. I earned the confidence that I built that day, and I’ve carried that win with me ever since.

Ancistrocerus gazelle visits a daisy. Neither are native to NZ, but the wasp is a solitary Eumenid, suggesting the soil properties and floral rewards of Jenny’s garden are adequate to support the European tube wasp and her nest!

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

JJ: I teach behavioral ecology and insect neuroecology. I’m very fortunate to work at a university where I can teach on topics that overlap with my research interests. Whenever possible, I bring examples of my research to my lectures – I love sharing photos and videos of my bees and wasps. Insect neuroecology is slightly out of my area of expertise, so I’ve been reading a lot of current literature for the class, and then incorporating lecture content into some of my research proposals.

I love bringing my bees (especially when they have number tags) and ants to school groups or outreach events. Most people have never seen a bumble bee colony, and in NZ, very few people have seen ants! I find ways to bring wasps too, with posters and videos, pinned specimens, and nest paper/comb. I love explaining how each strip of color represents a single individual’s foraging trip for pulp. Sometimes we write on the paper too.

I use social media for outreach, as well. I’ve begun experimenting with my “yarden” to provide natural pesticide-free space for birds and invertebrates, and of course, to attract bees and wasps. I try to record and share observations of visitors to the yard on Facebook, Twitter, and iNaturalist.

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

JJ: There is some really neat research being conducted on colony interactions and social interactions affecting individual development/phenotype. I think combining these fields to investigate how changes to individual gene expression can influence colony-level phenotype would be an awesome area for future research.

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

JJ: One area that I’m involved with concerns “saving the bees.” What do we mean when we say we want to save the bees? Scientists and media have done an exceptional job of convincing the general public that bees need to be saved. However, there are some groups that argue honey bees should not be a focus of these efforts because they are domesticated and managed. Instead, native or solitary bees deserve the most attention, as they can be more susceptible to pesticides and reduction in floral rewards. This group also includes folks that would like to change the narrative to saving insect diversity in general. On the other side of the debate, honey bees are the primary group of bees that require attention.

I don’t study or manage honey bee colonies. I build my yard to promote bumble bees (also not native to NZ, but they’re a good indicator species of soil health), native solitary bees, and natural predators (wasps, beetles, etc.). If honey bees come from someone else’s managed hive to my yard for a sip of nectar or a bit of pollen, that’s fine. If I find more non-Apis bees foraging in my yard, though, that’s a big win. I encourage folks to plant more flowers and keep pesticides out of the soil, as those two things can help honey bees and everything else.

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

JJ: Eek! I read a lot. Here are a few of the recents from each category:

Popular Science: I just finished Justin Schmidt’s “The Sting of the Wild.” I would definitely recommend this book. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to meet Justin, you can hear his voice as he tells these incredible stories of the lengths he went through to collect venom, and the number and variety of attempts he made to tape up his bee suit to minimize stings. It is entertaining, informative, and full of stinging insect diversity.

Science Fiction/Fantasy: I love books with dragons, and am currently reading the Anne McAffrey series: “Dragonriders of Pern.” I just started the second book. It’s complex, but brilliant. I also have to give a shout out to the Robin Hobb series “The Rain Wild Chronicles.” One of the dragons is a main character, so at times you get to see the world from her perspective. 

Comic Books/Graphic Novels: There are a couple of very cool Harley Quinn origin series that have come out (“Harleen” and “Joker/Harley”). They’re printed under “DC/Black Label”. I also finally finished “The Walking Dead: Compendium 1”. I immediately ordered Compendium 2. If you’re a fan of the show, the comic series is equally as awesome, but the storyline diverges just enough to make it worthwhile to read.

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

JJ: I love my garden (maybe that’s already obvious). I’ve never been a birder, but now I can recognize the calls of 4-5 species of birds that visit my yard. I love taking photos of bees, wasps, and other insects on flowers or crawling around the dirt.

I’m also a huge comic book nerd. Marvel does an exceptional job of showing 3-dimensional characters with a diversity of backgrounds while trying to get the science right in their universe (aside from, of course, Ant-Man insisting all of his ants, and now BEES, are male. Don’t worry – I’ve written Marvel a letter on the topic. I’m still waiting on the response). They also have a number of young women scientists with their own titles; a few examples include: The Unstoppable Wasp (Nadia, I named my cat after her) is the daughter of the late Hank Pym, the adopted daughter of Janet van Dyne (the original Wasp), and a genius. She started “G.I.R.L: Girls in Research Labs”, and she invited a diverse team of other young women geniuses to work in the lab with her to help save the world. And of course, she shrinks down to the size of a wasp and kicks a**. At the end of each issue of Unstoppable Wasp, they include an interview with a woman in S.T.E.M., and it’s so neat to read their stories. Shuri is another great series (hopefully you’ve heard of her from the Black Panther films). Her character is given some really powerful (physically and mentally) story arcs, but overall, she’s brilliant, and it’s amazing to watch her save the world too.

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

JJ: Some days I don’t. On those days, if I can, I just have to stop everything and give myself space to just take a break. If I can’t stop, I try to wrap up everything that needs to be done that day as quickly as possible, then I stop checking emails and I go home and tune out the world.

I regularly reach out to mentors, my mom, and my friends, especially when things get tough. There are few things better than when my mentors reassure me that I’m not alone in how I feel, and we find ways to power through. My mom and friends are good listeners, and good for a laugh, because sometimes powering through isn’t the answer, you just need a distraction.

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

  1. Water filter – I know there are ways to filter water naturally, but I’d probably get really sick or dehydrated before I figured them out.
  2. My phone – to take photographs and notes (no need for WiFi, I would just need a lot of storage). I would make sure a bunch of books and comics were pre-loaded on there too. Of course, the phone itself would need to be solar-powered, because I’m not wasting option 3 on a charger. Nor am I wasting two options on a pen and paper.
  3. My bee/wasp suit. It has a ton of pockets (for carrying my phone and water filter), it’ll protect from UV, and will be useful when digging into wild honey bee and wasp colonies for some protein and honey. 

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

JJ: Just like insects and books, it’s hard to pick just one person. My parents supported me as I took a non-traditional career path, which resulted in me being in grad school for what felt like forever and then moving to the other side of the world. My grad school and postdoc advisors shared their enthusiasm about science but challenged me to figure things out on my own. They are still there if and when I need advice, guidance, or just someone to run ideas by.

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

JJ: There is a reason you want to be a social insect researcher, and it’s probably that you think social insects are the coolest things you’ve ever heard of/witnessed/researched. Hold on to that enthusiasm and interest. It will keep you going during the tough times when you can’t remember why you pursued a career in research, and it will bring people joy to see you smile about the thing you love.

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

JJ: Here, to New Zealand. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to a lot of places for research and conferences, but I call New Zealand my home, and this place is incredible. I’m so lucky to have this life.

IS: If you had unlimited funds to conduct whatever research you wanted, where would you go and what would you investigate?

JJ: I would love to investigate colony aggression in tropical Polistine (swarm founding) wasps. I’ve heard some terrifying stories of being chased by a swarm of angry wasps in the tropics, and I think it would be neat to quantify those experiences.

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