Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Jim Hunt

Jim’s recent review article on the origin of the worker phenotype in paper wasps can be found here.

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

JH: My name is Jim Hunt. I was James in public school, but on the way out the door of my last day of high school I became Jim. James was simply too stuffy. At age 77 I’m retired and no longer active in research, but I spent my professorial career in pursuit of the origin of eusociality in paper wasps. There were a few studies of solitary mud daubers and tropical swarm-founding wasps along the way, but I never lost focus on my long-term goal. My research ranged from behavior to molecular biology. The review out in Insectes Sociaux pulls it all together and places it in context as the solution to a quest I began in 1974.

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

JH: Edward O. Wilson’s book The Insect Societies appeared in 1971, during the time I was a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. I read it cover to cover. Twice. My Ph.D. research was on the comparative ecology of ants in Mediterranean climate habitats of southern California and central Chile. My postdoctoral research at Harvard was to be a similarly-structured study of ants in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona and a corresponding hot desert in Catamarca Provence, northwestern Argentina. Between those projects, in the summer of 1973, I attended the First International Congress of Systematic and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado. I listened as Herbert Baker, professor of Botany at Berkeley, presented research that he and his wife, Irene, had pursued on the presence and abundance of free amino acids in floral nectar of different guilds of flower types (hummingbird pollinated, bee pollinated, bat pollinated, etc.). While listening I recalled a photo in Wilson’s book by Ulrich Maschwitz showing an adult Vespula vulgaris, a yellowjacket wasp, drinking saliva from a larva in its nest. As I listened to Baker, I thought it might be interesting to someday use their analytical methods on the larval saliva. Then on a Friday evening in March of 1974, while talking with a non-biologist housemate, I had a bolt-from-the-blue AHA! That’s why they’re social !! – the saliva is nourishment for the adult! I knew in that instant I’d found my passion. At first, I was thinking like an ecologist – a wasp could improve its foraging energy efficiency by combining prey foraging for larvae and nourishment for itself into a single trip. That weekend I wrote a short manuscript describing the idea and on Monday morning discussed it with Wilson, my postdoctoral sponsor. Unbeknownst to me, he was writing Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in which he placed all of his eggs into an inclusive fitness basket. He vigorously disagreed with my idea. “It isn’t right. It can’t be right. … Even if it’s right, and I’m not saying that it is, no one will believe you until you have years of data to back yourself up.” I left Wilson’s office with my career path laid out in front of me. In August I took a position at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. On my first weekend there, a faculty member took me to one of the University’s field stations. I spotted a large colony of Polistes fuscatus on an abandoned building and moved closer for a better look. One of the wasps greeted me with a sting beneath my right eye, and my love affair with Polistes was underway.

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

JH: Polistes metricus was the most abundant paper wasp at the two field sites where I pursued field studies almost every season of the 33 years I was at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. I put wooden boxes with open bottoms on posts about 1.5 m high that I spaced about 10 m apart in rows in open fields of mixed grasses and forbs. Foundresses established nests beneath the box lids that could be lifted off for easy access. In early years the occupancy rate was 60% or more. Students and I could monitor colony growth, feed individual larvae, feed whole colonies, or remove individual larvae for physiological or gene expression analyses, depending on what that year’s experiment was. They were easy to bring into the lab and rear under controlled conditions. Importantly, P. metricus is a single-foundress species, therefore I avoided multiple foundress colonies and the confusions and misleading pathways that such colonies unavoidably have.

Polistes metricus being reared in the lab by Amy L. Toth, then at the University of Illinois. Note that colored paper has been supplied as the source for pulp with which this foundress has continued construction of her nest after having been brought in from the field.

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

JH: During a project in Costa Rica on the paper wasp Mischocyttarus immarginatus, I was collecting larval saliva and encountered a remarkable behavior. I could easily take saliva from larvae in pre-emergence nests with only a foundress present, but in post-emergence nests with multiple workers feeding larvae that would become gynes and males, larvae refused to give me a single drop. Instead, they rolled their heads forward into a pocket on their ventral surface and withdrew it into the nest cell. The resulting turgor pressure caused a rigid pointed lobe to come quickly forward beyond the head. It would have prevented an adult wasp from taking saliva. It also prevented me. It was an unmistakable sign that the saliva was valuable nourishment that the larva retained for its own development. A day or so after returning home I described the remarkable behavior to a senior member of my department and said that its discovery was pure serendipity. He replied, “Ah, but serendipity doesn’t come sit in your lap while you’re lounging behind your desk in your office”.

I subsequently learned that every Mischocyttarus has a similar larval lobe, although its morphology varies among species. In a corresponding behavior, gyne and male larvae of Polistes metricus (and all Polistes?) roll their heads forward and withdraw into the nest cell, causing the ventral surface to become turgid and foremost in the nest cell, blocking access to the mouthparts. It’s easy to feed them but impossible to take saliva from them.

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

JH: While at UM-St. Louis I led several workshops for high school biology teachers to introduce them to taking their teaching outdoors. I co-authored a short publication on common wasps and bees for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and did an inventory survey of insect collections in colleges and universities around the state. There were a few TV and newspaper interviews during yellowjacket outbreak years in St. Louis. Lamentably, there was little more than that.

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

JH: Having done my last research in 2015 has left me out of date in areas other than my own, which I follow through published literature and occasional correspondence with colleagues. Anything else I might say would be speculation.  

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

JH: In my research area, the biggest debate concerns the role of relatedness in “the evolution of eusociality.” In his 2011 book Principles of Social Evolution, Andrew F. G. Bourke lumps me together with E. O. Wilson and others as poor saps who just cannot understand and therefore acknowledge the central role played by inclusive fitness. It was good company to be in. I couldn’t have been prouder. With my paper now having appeared in Insectes Sociaux, it’s game, set and match.

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

JH: Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and The Rise of White Supremacy by David Zucchino. Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize, it’s a horrific true story of events that took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, during the years following the U.S. Civil War. The centerpiece of the story is the coup d’état of a democratically elected mixed race city government. It was the only coup d’état in US history, but it’s also a story that disappeared almost immediately after it occurred. I grew up in North Carolina and live here now, but I’d never heard of it until about 2 years ago when it was described to me by a high school friend who is an historian.

Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina at the time and had been the last open port of the Confederacy. During Reconstruction after the Civil War, black and white racial mixing was present in Wilmington’s municipal government and police force, the state legislature, and the state’s delegation to the US House of Representatives. Wilmington had a large working class Black population and also a thriving Black middle class. A Black owned and edited daily newspaper served the Black citizens. White merchants advertised in it. At the same time, however, nighttime acts of white terrorism were taking place in rural locations throughout the region.    

I attended Josephus Daniels Junior High School in Raleigh, my hometown. Daniels had been Secretary of the Navy during World War I and was later the ambassador to Mexico. I was proud of my school’s namesake. In Zucchino’s book I learned that, in his position as editor and publisher of the state’s largest newspaper, Daniels was also an unabashed racist. With fake news, race baiting, and outrageous editorial agitation, he led the state’s White population to become increasingly fearful of an imaginary Black supremacy. White supremacists in Wilmington gave speeches that enflamed emotions. White citizens of Wilmington purchased thousands of guns. 

The coup d’état occurred two days following a municipal election marked by precinct gerrymandering, extreme voter intimidation of Blacks, and ballot box stuffing by White supremacists. White supremacists’ plans were scarcely concealed, and newspaper reporters from Atlanta to New York were there to record it. On the day of the coup, the office of the Black newspaper was burned and more than 60 black men were murdered. Blacks fearful for their lives fled into the woods and swamps. Members of the mixed-race board of aldermen were forced to resign, marched to the train station, and told to never return.

Blacks who had fled the city were urged to return – as long as they stayed “in their place.” The coup d’état marked the beginning of the southern apartheid – Jim Crow. Although lengthy, the book tells the heretofore untold tale of one of the most significant milestones in US history. It should be required reading for anyone interested in US history – or, especially, anyone seeking insight into the political and social climate of the USA today. I highly recommend it.

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

JH: In the summer I was 8, my dad was enrolled in grad school at the University of Maryland. He bought me a beginner’s stamp collecting kit to keep me busy while we were there, and almost immediately I was hooked. I continued to fill spaces in albums until the end of high school, but then things went dormant. In the early ‘90s the collecting bug, soon an obsession, came roaring back. Filling album spaces gave way to preparing exhibits for competitions at stamp shows around the country. They’re like all-breeds dog shows – no two exhibits are on the same topic. I now show the world’s best collection of the revenue stamps of Boliva (yawn), revenue stamps of Chile used to pay postage (yawn), and the provisional stamps of Arequipa, Peru, from 1880 to 1886. That one has an historical context and is actually somewhat interesting for non-collectors. I’ll continue to target my collecting for new exhibits until I no longer am able.

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

JH: My partner (“wife”) and I (“husband”) will soon celebrate our seventh anniversary. We’ve traveled to faraway places for a month at a time, including three trips to Latvia, where she was born. With the pandemic here, we’re no longer able to travel internationally. Instead, we’ve begun exploring North Carolina via week-long stays at lovely B&Bs. Our house is on a steep hillside in the woods. When looking out the front picture windows, we’re living in a treehouse in the forest canopy. We try to make every day we’re home rich and enjoyable. My tough times are behind me. Life is good.

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

JH: My trifocals, so that I can see; a hat to protect my baldpate from sunburn; and the retainer that I wear at night to keep my lower teeth from migrating into misalignment. If those are presumed to be givens, then my three things would be a room-size tent in which I can stand up – I’ve done more than enough crawling into camping tents in my life; a machete – a marvelous multi-function tool; and a solar powered 3D printer to make trinkets for barter with the hordes of tourists that will inevitably flock to visit a previously uninhabited island.

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

JH: When one has reached my age there has been abundant time for many people to have influenced a career. Those whom I acknowledge here are not the only ones, but their influence has been significant at steps along my way.

Thomas L. Quay, the father of my best friend in elementary and junior high school, was a professor and ornithologist at North Carolina State University. He took me out locally on natural history trips and to the Duke University Marine Biology Lab. By the time I was in high school he made sure someone took me along on Audubon bird counts. When I entered State as a freshman, Dr. Quay gave me a job as his assistant, an office with a view out onto the campus, and a key to the building. Almost immediately I began hanging out with Zoology Department graduate students, dressing the way they did and going to the field to assist in their thesis and dissertation research on birds and mammals. With that jump-start, I was trained and ready for grad school.

My master’s thesis advisor at Louisiana State University, George H. Lowery, Jr., came next and was one of the two persons who had the greatest impact on my career. One night in the fall of 1967, Doc (as we all called him) came down to my desk in the grad student warren in the basement of the Museum of Zoology and asked me to come along on a trip to the post office uptown. He said we had to find a thesis project for me. Doc focused his career on building the bird collection at LSU. Each year he sent a team of grad students to the Amazonian rainforest of Peru to collect birds and mammals and return the study specimens to the museum. I told him that I wanted to go to the tropics but wanted to do a research project rather than go on a collecting expedition. He said, “find a project, and I’ll send you.” At about the same time he had bartered for a shoebill and a kagu, representing the last two bird families missing from the museum’s collection. With that accomplished, he decided it would be good if his students learned the families of birds of the world. One, Zeledoniidae, had a single species – the wrenthrush. It had short, rounded wings, almost no tail, and was highly restricted in habitat and geographic range to the high elevation cloud forests of Costa Rica. Monotypic families are anathema to taxonomists, and was it a wren or was it a thrush? About two weeks after our conversation in the car, I went to Doc’s office and proposed a field study of the wrenthrush. It was morphologically and ecologically unique, making it suited to my interest, and it fell into Doc’s area of interest as well. He thought it was a great idea. But I said that I’d need transportation to go to and from my study site. He pointed through his office wall to the parking area outside and said, “Take the carryall!” But I said I’d need to get it there and didn’t speak a word of Spanish. “Take Al!” Doc put me on a museum assistantship as a source of income for the trip. He shared a good-ole-boy evening over Wild Turkey Bourbon with Edward McIlhenny Simmons and returned with a check to cover the costs of the trip. A bottle of McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce has adorned my office ever since. Early in 1968, Al Gardner, a Spanish speaking fellow grad student, and I hit the road. Our trip took 8 days. Al showed me how to get from San Jose to where a study area could be found, and about a week later he flew home.

In the Costa Rican cloud forest, 1968, while doing my master’s degree research on the wrenthrush, Zeledonia coronata. The wire cages were part of a dissertation research project by Robert K. Colwell, then a grad student at the University of Michigan and later my major professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

Everything significant in my early career came from that trip. When I returned, Doc encouraged and supported me in moving to a doctoral program with a stronger focus on ecology. In the summer of 1969, Frank A. Pitelka, an ornithologist and Head of the Department of Zoology at the University of California at Berkeley signed my application, saying “Oh, what the hell. Let’s give him a chance.” In Costa Rica in ‘68 I’d met a member of the selection committee, and the following summer was admitted to “Advanced Tropical Ecology,” a two-month course in Costa Rica co-coordinated by Daniel Janzen with Harold Mooney as the first visiting instructor. A year later, after searching in vain for a field site in northern California to study ant ecology, I wrote Janzen, who called and said to call Mooney before he left for Spain. Mooney was leading a comparative ecosystems program in the chaparral/matorral environments of California and Chile. He said to write a grant proposal and have it ready to go as soon as he was back from Spain. Not long after that I was on my way to Chile.

Atop Cerro Robles, Chile, in 1972 while pursuing my dissertation research on the comparative community ecology of ants in Mediterranean scrub ecosystems of southern California and central Chile. In the photo, L to R, fellow grad students Bill Glanz and Eduardo Fuentes, our major professor Rob Colwell, and me.

The Chile project had a sister project in the deserts of Arizona and Argentina. The director was Otto Solbrig, who also had been a visiting instructor on the advanced tropical ecology course. Otto wanted someone to look at ant communities and offered me two years of support as a post doc at Harvard. My sponsor was Edward O. Wilson, whom I’d met two years earlier at Berkeley. After the first year, I was worried about job prospects and accepted a one-year teaching appointment at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The faculty member there who recommended me to the dean was Theodore Fleming, someone else whom I’d met in 1968 in Costa Rica. Upon arrival in St. Louis, I began my inquiry into the origin of eusociality in paper wasps. I remained in St. Louis for 33 years.

My first nest boxes. I spent the summers of 1975 and 1976 at boxes like these, beginning from scratch to learn the behaviors and basic biology of Polistes paper wasps.

The person with the second-most impact on my career is Raghavendra Gadagkar. In 2001 and at the invitation of Klaus Hartfelder, I gave a presentation to a meeting in Berlin of the North-west European Section of the IUSSI. Afterward, Raghavendra came up and said that he’d forgotten how much fun it is to listen to me think – the highest academic compliment I’ve ever received. At dinner the following evening he asked about the background of a paper I’d published in Evolution in 1999. I said that it was the only decent chapter of an unsuccessful mid-1990s attempt to write a book on the evolution of social wasps. He asked if I thought I might be ready to try again. I said yes. He said he knew of a place where I could do it – the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. The where?? He described an academic institution in which 35 or so fellows of diverse disciplines come for a year, each to write a book. And then, with a bit of a twinkle in his eye, he said, “I’m on the committee that selects new fellows.” I knew in an instant that I’d just been invited to spend a year in Berlin.

Academic year 2003-04 at the Wissenschaftskolleg was one of the best years of my life, both personally and professionally. I wrote my book, The Evolution of Social Wasps, and restored my faith in my academic abilities. Along the way I had the second-most important Aha! insight of my career – that gyne paper wasps are in reproductive diapause. I promptly walked to the office of the Academic Director and said I’d like Wiko to fund bringing Gro Amdam for a week, that we’d write a paper together, publish it in Science, and change forever the way the origin of paper wasp eusociality is understood. He didn’t hesitate. Gro came and we worked on our separate parts before putting it together and submitting it to Science. It’s one of my favorite papers – an idea, a model, and no data.

In 2006, Eugene Robinson invited me to spend a semester in his lab at the University of Illinois. His only paper wasp student, Amy Toth, and I became academic friends and colleagues. She and Robinson’s lab tech, Tom Newman, taught me how to do bench work in a molecular biology lab, and we produced a nice paper together. During that same semester I enticed another grad student, Heather Hines, to take a look at the molecular phylogenetics of Vespidae. Her results showed unequivocally that sociality arose twice independently – subfamilies Stenogastrinae and Polistinae do not have a most-recent common ancestor. A vituperative rejoinder was published in defense of a single-origin of eusociality hypothesis, but in the end enough independent studies replicated Heather’s findings that there is no longer room for disagreement. In 2007, the Head of the Biology Department at N.C. State University, Damian Shea, provided me a 50% salary for three years to finish my career here. I took early retirement from UM-St.Louis, and the 3-year period carried me until I was old enough for full Social Security benefits. Although I now work from a home office and am no longer pursuing research, I’ll have an online virtual existence as a visiting Professor of Biological Sciences at State until I die.

2007 was my first year as a Visiting Professor at North Carolina State University. Here I’m on a day trip to the Anza Borrego desert during the Wednesday off-day of the 2007 annual meeting of the Entomological Society of America. With me are Ed Vargo, Anne-Geneviève Bagnères and Freddie-Jeanne Richard. Freddie-Jeanne and I co-authored two review articles published in Insectes Sociaux in 2013.

[When I arrived at NC State in 2007, the Head of the Department of Entomology offered me my choice of two offices. The one I selected had been my office in the summer of 1963 – and it hadn’t changed! I broke out laughing and asked if he could at least paint the walls and put down carpet. I turned it into the best-looking office in the building.]

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

JH: Know thy organism. Go outdoors. Learn where it lives, how it lives, how it behaves. Read natural history literature. If the organism occurs on the other side of the world, read the local natural history literature if you can handle the language. In particular, read older natural history literature. Researchers in both the past and now who document natural history have made valuable contributions. By reading their work you can glean tidbits of information or significant insights that may, either now or in the future, become cogs in the wheels of your thinking. Or if not yours, that of someone else.

If you see it report it. If something is unusual or unexpected, write a short note and publish it. This will mean placing papers in so-called “minor journals.” If you’re under pressure to earn tenure, put your observation in a file and publish it after you’ve passed that milestone. Do a thorough literature search before you publish. During your reading you may discover that your observation was reported decades ago but has been long overlooked. Give priority to that researcher.

Read Darwin.

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

JH: My favorite place, by far, is the high elevation cloud forest of Costa Rica. I went for my master’s thesis research – a natural history study of an enigmatic little songbird, the wrenthrush, Zeledonia coronata. It’s a rare bird and hard to find. I’m the only person to have studied it in the field. I was the first to record its songs and calls, found the first nests to be reported in a publication (there were second-hand anecdotal mentions from the 1930s), and found the first eggs and nestlings. Albumin of the first-laid egg went to Charles Sibley at Yale, who was doing protein electrophoresis as a pioneering venture into molecular systematics. His finding that it was not a thrush was perhaps the only unequivocal new determination in his studies. But neither is it a wren – recent molecular phylogenetics has it out on a branch of its own, indicating mountain-top isolation a long, long time ago in a restrictive environment with a limited geographic range. I spent 101 nights at a roadside restaurant, La Georgina, at an elevation of 3,100 meters, a few kilometers from the 3,341 meter highest point of the Pan-American Highway near the 3,491 meter peak of Cerro de la Muerte – the mountain of death. Every night during the dry season the sky was clear and star-filled, and the temperature dropped to freezing. I slept in an Eddie Bauer 4 lb down sleeping bag (I still have it) on the bed in my room, which was about the size of a solitary confinement jail cell. When the rainy season came, nighttime temperatures were not quite down to freezing, but every day was chilly with fog, and cold rain was frequent. Sometimes the door to the restaurant would be left open, and fog just rolled into the dining room. I began to learn Spanish by going down the menu board on the wall and ordering every item except the white lightning rum (guaro) that truck drivers drank one shot after another to warm themselves before heading back out on the rocky unpaved highway. A website, “Driving the wild Cerro de la Muerte road,” describes the current highway as paved but filled with potholes, riddled with blind corners, hair-raising cliffs, and careless drivers. I never drove the highway at night.

La Georgina as it is today. Only the central building was there in 1968. The first window on the end wall was the full width of my room. My bed was parallel to the window with only a few centimeters between the ends of the bed and the walls on either side.

It was high adventure. It was 1968. I was 23 and on my own for my first trip to the tropics. I wore long johns, and the guard dogs that spent every night inside the restaurant gave me fleas. The cloud forest floor was always wet, so I wore wool socks and high-top lace-up rubber boots. In the rainy season I wore rain pants and a rain jacket. In rainy season afternoons when my birds were no longer calling (the only way I could locate them in the dense, moss-covered vegetation), I headed out with a double-barrel 12-guage shotgun with supplementary cylinders I could drop inside to accommodate smaller 410 shotgun shells and even 32-caliber dust shot. I’d collect a bird or two, sit by the upstairs front windows for light (the generator ran only for breakfast and dinner), and prepare study specimens that I took back to the Museum at LSU.

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

JH: Although I’ve retired (and disappeared), I’d ask younger scientists to envision where their research program will be 5 years from now. 10? 20?

At the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, 2013.

It’s been a good career.

Interested in Jim’s treasure trove of research? Check out his website, which can be found here.