Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Olivia Bernauer

You can read Olivia’s research article about life cycle, nesting biology, and social organisation of the bee Exoneura angophorae at the upper extreme of its altitudinal distribution here.

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

OB: My name is Olivia Bernauer, and I have been working with pollinators and social hymenopterans for the last eight years. Recently, my research interests have focused on foraging behaviour and the implications for pollination, examinations of pollination efficiency, which is a measure of how much pollen is deposited on a flower by different insects after a single visit, and social insect biology. In my recent publication, we investigated the nesting biology and social organization of the facultatively social allodapine bee, Exoneura angophorae, at the upper limit of its altitudinal range.

Photo of Olivia hiking near Coorongooba campground in Wollemi National Park, NSW (Australia).

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

OB: I think two things led me to develop an interest in social insects and pollinators. First, I have been obsessed with flowers since I first learned to walk and talk, and second, I took an entomology course at UW Madison during my undergraduate education and fell in love with insects, in general. Once my eyes were opened up to the magical world of entomology, I viewed flowers with a new sense of wonder, savouring every flower visitor. Toward the end of my undergraduate education, I joined an entomology research lab and began an independent research project studying how a fungicide affects bumble bees and have been hooked ever since.

Olivia standing next to her experimental bumble bee colonies during her undergraduate education.

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

OB: My favorite social insect is Bombus fervidus. I love all bumble bees, I mean, how can you not love such fluffy bees?! But B. fervidus is a really striking species, it’s got a rather long abdomen which is adorned in beautiful yellow hairs, and seeing them always brings a smile to my face. I also love how much the workers can vary in size, with some workers being quite large and, at first glance, could even be mistaken for a queen while others are so small.

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

OB: One of the most exciting moments of my research so far was when I first encountered the social parasite of Exoneura angophorae in my nest dissections from my recent publication. My supervisor had mentioned that I may come across these parasites, and to keep an eye out for them. I came across a nest of bees that looked quite similar to E. angophorae, but something was a bit off about them. I popped them under the microscope and sure enough, they were different bees – their faces were concave, mandibles tiny, and scopal hairs quite reduced. We encountered only a few other nests containing Inquilina species, only 8 out of 609, so each time we found them, it was very exciting. The next exciting work is to determine which Inquilina species we have found and whether it may be a new species.

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

OB: Yes! I really enjoy engaging with the public to talk about insects, the importance of pollination, and what can be done to support insect pollinators. My lab group regularly engages with schools and community events to help educate school children and members of the public about the local insects which contribute to pollination. One of my favorite outreach tools is our “suitcase” stingless bee hives. They’re hives installed into wooden boxes with a sheet of plexiglass over the top of the hive. The flat and shallow design encourages the bees to spread out and when the suitcase is opened, we can show off the inner workings of the bee hives! My PhD work focused on apple pollination, and I also have had the opportunity to engage with our growers to share findings and discuss useful future research avenues. By collaborating with the growers, we can tailor our research to better understand pollination and assist the growers in solving any problems they may have.

Members of Olivia’s pollination lab group attending an outreach event, Kurrajong-a-buzz, in November 2019.

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

OB: I think that further investigations into the biology of social parasites are an important future direction for social insect research. I know that some research has been done on bumble bee social parasites (Bombus (Psithyrus) sp.), but understanding other social parasites, for example, Inquilina sp., would be interesting and important.

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

OB: One area of social insect research that generates the most debate and discussion is the evolution of eusociality. It feels like this has been a subject of debate for a long time and that despite lots of good research, we still don’t have a complete picture of how eusociality evolved.

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

OB: The last book I read was The Less People Know About Us by Axton Betz-Hamilton. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who likes a good mystery story. This book is a memoir about the author’s experience with identity theft and I first heard about her story on an episode of the Criminal podcast years before the book came out. I remember listening to the podcast with my jaw dropped in surprise about the twists and turns Axton’s story takes. When I found out she had also written a book about her story, I was eager to check it out and was not disappointed.

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

OB: I spend most of my free time outside. I love going for bushwalks and am obsessed with native flora. I get really excited when I find wild orchids and encounter new-to-me plants. I also enjoy fishing with my partner (I always catch the best fish), camping, and exploring new places. In summer I enjoy snorkelling and will spend hours observing creatures in tidepools when given the chance (see the adorable bubble snails below). When I can’t be outside, I like to spend my time reading true crime books and trying new recipes in the kitchen.

Two bubble snail species I found while walking among tidepools. The rose petal bubble snail on the left (Hydatina physis) and the red lined bubble snail on the right (Bullina lineata).

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

OB: For me, when things get tough, I typically take a break from the work and spend some time recharging with friends or in nature. Once I’ve had a bit of a rest, I’m able to get back to work and am able to work more effectively. It also helps me to take a step back and think about the big picture, what are my long-term goals and how will this work help me get there.

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

OB: If I had to live on an uninhabited island and could only bring three things with me, I think I would take a good magnifying glass, a sharp axe, and a hammock. I would bring the magnifying glass with me so that I could take a closer look at the plants and insects around me and, hopefully, I’d be resourceful enough to find a way to document and study them while on the island. I could also use the magnifying glass to start a fire to keep warm, cook food, and as a source of light. The sharp axe would have many uses, it would allow me to build a structure to live in and harvest food. The hammock would provide me a comfy place to sleep from the get-go and could also be used to provide protection from the sun until I was able to build a proper structure to live in.

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

OB: When I think about my scientific journey, two people immediately come to mind. First, Dr. Robert Bohanan, my first scientific mentor, who facilitated my first independent research project. He taught me, leading by example, the importance of a high-quality mentor and helped to open my eyes to different avenues of science and teaching. I was fortunate to find another high-quality mentor in Dr. Hannah Gaines-Day. She mentored me through my first research project on bumble bees and helped encouraged me to pursue graduate school. I credit these two scientists for helping shape my first scientific experiences and for setting me on my current career path.

The inside of a Tetragonula carbonaria stingless bee hive, showcasing the spiral brood pattern and the queen, the bee with a lighter-coloured, enlarged abdomen near the centre of the photo.

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

OB: My advice to someone wanting to get involved in social insect research would be to seek out a high-quality mentor. Having someone to support you, challenge you, and share their expertise and experience is so beneficial when getting involved in research.

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

OB: My favorite place science has taken me, so far, is to Australia. I found a PhD position advertised on twitter to study apple pollination in Australia and applied thinking there’s no way they’d pick the girl from Wisconsin, but 3.5 years later, here we are. It’s been such a delight to get acquainted with the Australian insect fauna, I have particularly enjoyed getting to know the stingless bee, Tetragonula carbonaria, which has the most beautiful, intricate, spiral comb and loves to forage on apple pollen! Plus, Australia has given me a chance to meet and appreciate some really neat ants including giant bull ants and the green weaver ants, which are quite tasty!

On the left are two Australian giant bull ants (Myrmecia gulosa) that were fighting and on the right, a green weaver ant (Oecophylla smaragdina).

IS: Is there anything you wish we would’ve asked you that we should ask other social insect scientists in the future?

OB: If your study species could speak, what would you ask them?

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