Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Joshua King

You can read the interviewee’s study, where they investigated factors that limit successful nest-founding by ant queens, specifically whether belowground predation by ants affects survivorship of founding fire ant queens here.

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

JK: My name is Joshua King. I am an Associate Professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando Florida. I am a social insect ecologist and most of my effort (and interest) in social insects is directed into better understanding the ecology of ants in Florida, subterranean termites in the eastern US, and, generally, how social insects impact the world around them.

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

JK: I was always interested in ants, but it was not until I did a semester abroad study in northeast Queensland, Australia as an undergraduate that I decided that ants and other social insects were what I really wanted to work on as a scientist. That was a formative experience because I saw ants in a whole new light – enormously abundant and a variety of forms that my small brain struggled to understand. Also, seeing Myrmecia for the first time made me believe that THEM! might actually have been, at least loosely, based on reality.

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

JK: My favorite ant that I commonly see here in Florida is Dorymyrmex bureni. So frantic and busy, stinky, and gaudy. Toiling away in the hottest part of the day when everyone else is taking a snooze belowground. But I like lots of ants. Even fire ants. I also have a growing affinity for subterranean termites. As a myrmecologist, I have developed some sympathy and a liking of these “ant snacks.”

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

JK: When I was a postdoc with Walter Tschinkel, he had proposed a preposterous idea to the USDA – that it was possible to manipulate fire ant populations without insecticides and by doing so, it was possible to directly test the competitive effect of fire ants on other ants. So the USDA, while snickering under their breath, said “OK, here’s some money, show us some magic.” Walter then hired me as a postdoc on the project and said, “Josh, we have a problem…” After a few months of steam burns and lots of chewed finger nails, we figured out a way to generate enough hot water to kill lots of fire ant colonies that we could transport around in the back of a truck. It was memorable because for a while, neither of us was sure that we could actually pull off the planned experiments. This is my favorite example because Walter and I always have so much fun doing science together and that is a special thing. But there have been many such examples in my career where the necessities of research prompt new approaches and methods to working with and manipulating social insects in the field and lab, and when they succeed, it is really satisfying.

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

JK: The university where I am faculty (the University of Central Florida) is likely the largest university in the US that you have never heard of. In fact, it is one of the largest universities in the US, and, in fact most people haven’t heard of it because we are in Orlando, and the only thing anyone ever notices about Orlando is that it is where you fly to when visiting Disney World. Our current undergraduate enrolment is around 68,000 undergraduates and we also have thousands of graduate students as UCF is a major research university. I teach a variety of courses, including non-majors biology and general biology (for majors) and these classes often have over 400 students in them. Thus, every time I step into the classroom it is a sort of outreach because my audience is usually huge. I frequently talk about and use examples from my research in my teaching and usually this is in the form of using something about social insect biology, physiology, or ecology to illustrate a general concept.

One of the field sites. A view of the longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem common throughout the Apalachicola National Forest in northern Florida.

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

JK: One of the most obnoxious, but admittedly compelling, questions that I am frequently asked by the public when I’m out counting fire ant mounds on the roadside or by students in my classes is: “what good are ants?” As a myrmecologist it is easy to give some canned answer about “ecosystem services” or “seed dispersal” or something. But in my mind, at least, I don’t think we really have a compelling answer that can compete with, say, the answer to “what good are plants?” That is, well, without plants, we’d all be dead (or something equally dramatic). Termite ecologists have it made because they can answer that without termites, we’d all be drowning in dead wood and not even Elon Musk could save us from the avalanche of cellulose. I’m not confident that we can give such an answer for ants, so I think that the hottest topic that everyone should be working on is an answer to the question: “What good are ants?” A necessity of this work is to understand how ants impact the world around them and ultimately (and this is the hard part) to scale that impact beyond what we see happening on a particular branch or at a bait to entire ecosystems. That is something we have not been very good at doing and the idea of scaling social insect impacts to whole ecosystems, in my opinion is very important.

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

JK: I’m not really sure. For me personally, my biggest debate is whether or not I should keep doing fire ant research because I get really tired of being stung by fire ants. But they are really cool and they keep teaching me new stuff. So, I go back and forth.

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

JK: I almost never read science books (or for that matter, books based in any way on reality) in my spare time. I do enough science reading during work hours. I am currently reading Chapterhouse: Dune and just finished Heretics of Dune. If you like science fiction and complex story lines, then I would recommend these books.

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

JK: I am into weightlifting and fitness activities. I play basketball on occasion. I play with my miniature dachsunds at home and I like to go watch my kids do sportsball activities as they are all pretty serious athletes. .

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

JK: I remember that I live a life of privilege working as a scientist at a major research university in the US and most of the things that might be “tough” in my life (currently) are not actually tough in the broader sense. Rejection, petty reviewers, unethical scientists, bloviating “geniuses,” etc. are all pretty easy to deal with if you’ve ever had a taste of real problems.

Monte and Matilda. Joshua King’s miniature dachsund companions who also sometimes help him find ants.

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

JK: My partner, enough food, and enough water. Humans need to eat and drink to survive and ultimately, we are social animals, so having someone around to complain to about the state of the world is necessary for survival.

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

JK. Sanford Porter and Walter Tschinkel.

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

JK: Spend substantial time with social insects you are interested in out in nature, if at all possible. Just observing.

IS: Has learning from a mistake ever led you to success?

JK: Absolutely. Mistakes in experimental designs and approaches have led many times to failures, that once corrected, have succeeded.

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

JK: I am privileged to work in some of the nicest remaining natural areas in Florida on a regular basis. These are special places that I really enjoy visiting.

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