Interview with a social insect scientist: Robin Southon

You can read Robin’s recent research article about female reproductive skew in Polistes wasps here.

Who are you, and what do you do?

Robin Southon, I did my PhD at the University of Bristol and was most recently a postdoc at University College London in the Sumner Lab. I’m an ethologist at heart, and a little bit fanatical about wasps. My current research focuses on the social evolution of wasps and their potential use in integrated pest management.

How did you develop an interest in your research?

Quite by luck. I was finishing a job in the US and about to return back to the UK but saw an urgent ad for an internship in Panama on Polistes paper wasps – a slight detour. The study site was an abandoned cold war era US military communications station. A surreal setting with nature slowly reclaiming dilapidated concrete structures, but a haven for wasps with hundreds of nests dotted between different rooms. It’s impossible not to fall in love with Polistes, watching a nest is like a soap opera, from the fall of a dominant queen and the ensuing chaos as sisters battle for power. I was hooked and had too many questions, so ended up doing a PhD to try and answer at least some of them.

What is your favorite social insect, and why?

A wasp I’ve not worked with yet and only seen museum specimens of, Polistes gigas. The males are remarkably larger than females and possess enormous mandibles for fighting. Males likely defend a territory around a nest from rivals. It’s rather unique morphology and behaviour in comparison to the leks and aggregations observed in males of other wasps. A hopeful future study.

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

The crux of my PhD was whether newly emerged males in the wasp Polistes lanio would help on their natal nests. Male helping behaviour in the Hymenoptera hadn’t received much attention in the literature, so it was a risk to base an entire thesis on. Arriving in Trinidad and locating my first nest with males, I fed one and he chewed up the food and shared it out to his siblings, which was a big relief. Looking back, I was also very lucky to have fed a young male first, as it turned out older males stop feeding nestmates. Repetition is key even in preliminary experiments.

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

In the past I’ve volunteered for two great organisations: Soapbox Science which promotes women in science and highlights STEM as a career path; Pint of Science in which researchers present a talk about their subject at a local pub or cafe to the general public, quite hectic but fun.

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

There’s an increasing number of publications that demonstrate the effectiveness of ants and social wasps as biocontrol agents. At the moment, discovering methods that promote existing natural populations to target pest species seems an achievable goal. But to unlock the full potential of these agents, in comparison to the domestication of the honeybee, we are a few thousand years behind. We are missing basic questions to advance this goal, such as knowledge on how to successfully maintain and breed such species in captivity.

Another cold war relic home to wasps – Trinidad

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

There has been a clawback on what we should describe as eusocial or a superorganism, and the same applies for terms such as primitively eusocial. In structure, how much difference is there between a Polistes paper wasp colony and a group of cooperatively breeding meerkats? Testing the limits of subordinate to reproductive transitions/successions within tropical totipotent species may be insightful, given that reproduction is not as strictly dictated by seasonality and mate availability in such environments.

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

Forest and Jungle by PT Barnum from 1900; found in an antiques shop. I would not recommend as it’s both very archaic in its scientific and cultural view of the natural world. A window into the past and thankful reminder of changes made.

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

I’m a typical naturalist: travelling, hiking, and filling up my home freezer with more insect samples that I promise myself to one day pin.

How do you keep going when things get tough?

Misery loves company – grabbing a coffee with equally frustrated colleagues and listening to and hashing out ideas together has always helped.

If you were to go live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things, what would you bring? Why? A machete and fire striker for survival, eppendorf tubes with RNAlater/ethanol for when my boss complains about where I’ve disappeared to.

Polybia nest – Trinidad

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

The ‘spark’ happened back in my childhood thanks to my grandfather. He lived out in the countryside and was a bit of an amateur zookeeper: horses, fish, owls, peacocks, attack geese, etc. When I visited, I would sit inside enclosures thinking about why animals behaved in certain ways and the interactions between them. Some things haven’t changed.

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

For undergraduates, reach out to labs that align with your interests. Research assistantships provide opportunities to get valuable experience, which can give you a head start in future postgrad studies. Also, a bee-suit is not necessarily a wasp-suit, Vespula are incredibly good at finding vulnerabilities.

What is your favorite place science has taken you?

Trinidad – astounding nature, excellent food, and an abundance of wasps. I met many people with the attitude of “if it doesn’t bother me, I don’t bother it” when it comes to wasps, and you can find all sorts of different species around the eaves of houses. I don’t know if it truly was an old motto or someone trying to amuse me, but I was once told having wasps around your house is a sign of good fortune, the symbolism being between wasps bringing back forage and people bringing back money to the home.

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

My fantasy answer would be to use a large artificial self-contained biosphere to study the impact of environment on sociality. Actual tests of inclusive fitness are complex, but this would allow genetic and demographic data for each subsequent generation to be sampled for the entire population, whilst manipulating the climate, predation risk, and resource availability. I would hope funding also covers a control-biosphere…

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