Of Bugs and Kids, during quarantine

By Thomas Chouvenc

As recently mentioned in a previous Insectes Sociaux blog post, the quarantine has affected the usual way of life for everyone, including us, the nerdy academic social bug people. Personally, with the lab being essentially closed, I had to come up with a contingency plan to keep the 25 million termites reared in my lab from being neglected, which would have led to their inevitable demise. The thought of a potential massive loss of irreplaceable live biological material tends to keep me awake at night. Also, like many of you, graduate students’ projects are essentially stalled, and even my fieldwork is on a hiatus, as most of my sites are on city parks, which are closed for an unforeseeable future.

With the initial delusional thought of taking the opportunity of this lockdown to write grants and to finish some longstanding manuscripts, I quickly came to the brutal realization that, while stuck at home with a 4yr-old kid, my academic productivity would effectively come to a halt.  Full-time parenting is not compatible with much else according to academic chatters on twitter, and I had to deal with this imposed situation and make a necessary readjustment of priorities. My daily routine now consists of homeschooling activities, but as I am lucky to have a decent size Florida backyard, I was eventually able to connect lessons and bugs in an educational setup.

I, therefore, started using the backyard as more than just a playground: this is a place of wonders and miraculous bugs. A backyard with a diversity of plants, birds, and insects can immediately become a fertile ground for observations and life lessons – pollination, decomposers, food chains, invasive species, photosynthesis, microbes, bugs, and more bugs. The list of topics is wide and, with some imagination, approachable for the young mind. As my daughter tagged along with me to look at ants, mealybugs, termites, ladybugs, planthoppers, mole crickets, butterflies, and many more, it also had the indirect effect of keeping my sanity in this weird new normal. I also took on the opportunity to start taking photographs of bugs for an image book of “name that bug” she would eventually share with her class when things are back to normal.

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However, taking pictures of insects is an art, and regularly checking on the bug twitter-verse with some amazing insect photographers makes you feel small and humble (and makes you reflect on how miserable you are). This sparked a motivation to use this downtime as an opportunity to actually learn insect photography and hopefully improve my skills. On top of taking pictures of flying termites and other random backyard bugs, I took on the challenge to attempt documenting an obscure ant species and eventually went down the rabbit hole. What was I thinking? For this, let’s go back in time and explain how I got to this situation.

In 2017, when a tiny yellow ant species showed up in my Florida backyard, I initially thought that this was the commonly found Wasmannia auropunctata (the little fire ant), because of its size and color. I did not investigate much further, because after all, I was more of a termite guy. But my spouse eventually shared with me her annoyance when they started showing up in the kitchen, in @#$%! large numbers. After a quick ID session, we realized we had a new ant record in the continental US: Plagiolepis alluaudi, The Alluaud’s little yellow ant. It is native from Madagascar but has spread in various places around the tropics.

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Less than 2mm in length, extremely polygynous, and presumably exhibiting unicoloniality, it rapidly became dominant in the neighborhood, and this newly found invader spiked my curiosity about invasive ants in general. After all, with about 250 species of ants in Florida, approximately 1/5 of them are invasive species (Deyrup 2016), and Plagiolepis alluaudi was now added to the list. I looked into what else was around and found common tramp ant species that already had reached the status of global invaders: Paratrechina longicornis, Pheidole megacephala, Pheidole navigans, Brachymyrmex obscurior, Camponotus sexguttatus, Monomorium floricola, Tapinoma melanocephalum, Technomyrmex difficilis… I came to the sad conclusion that almost all ant species in my urban backyard were invasive tramp ant species.

However, most of these ant species have been well documented because of their long history of invasion and their wide distribution in the Southeastern US and because of their potential economic and ecological impact. In comparison, this newly found little yellow ant has only been found in a few localities within Broward Co. (FL), and the literature on Plagiolepis alluaudi is mostly non-existent, except for the documentation of its wide distribution across the tropics. More problematic: its size. It is difficult to manipulate, contain, and experiment with; ask my graduate student who inherited the project to document the biology of this species. Everything about this ant species make it challenging to study.

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One of the many frustrations from this tiny ant species, beyond its annoying presence in my kitchen and its difficulty to study, was my inability to properly document it with quality visuals. I attempted to document it on a twitter account dedicated to it (@ant_yellow)  but, this “side project” was rapidly placed on the backburner and neglected, as I had to rethink my priorities while being in a tenure track position: Termites first. Then, COVID-19 arrived. Spending time in the backyard meant that I would get to see them everywhere, all the time. It, therefore, gave me some time and motivation to (finally) look closer at Plagiolepis alluaudi. In the evening, I spent time on YouTube for advice on how to shoot bugs in macro, what options on my gear I needed to use, light requirements, etc.

I realized that shooting videos at 24fps in macro for this small ant would not work. These ants were too fast in the field of focus. I had to get closer, use tubes on my macro lens to get some focus at this magnification so they would not be the size of a pixel, and also had to switch to 180fps. This meant: I needed a lot of light. Let me rephrase. I needed a huge amount of light. I just happen to live in very sunny Florida, so it meant I had to learn to take videos using sunlight while avoiding the shadow of my own camera. Not easy when you are less than 2cm away from your subject, and I had to learn the hard way. Then, I spend some time learning the basics of movie editing and asked a couple of musician friends to help with the soundtrack. I was eventually able to put together an educational video aimed at the South Florida community to help raise awareness about this new invasive ant species. But in all reality, I just wanted to show this ant to the rest of the world. I came around to actually appreciate it.

Enjoy, keeping in mind that this is my first attempt to really do a macro video:

Embedded video; see on YouTube for full HD.

Let’s be honest. Without the quarantine, I know that I probably would never have the chance to take the time to learn some basics of macrophotography (Bugshot Florida 2020 just got cancelled 😦 ). I know I still have so much more to learn and improve my skills, but at least I finally got started to work on them. These dramatic times in our life are not easy for anyone, but I am fortunate to have a backyard full of wonders to go explore every day, which makes the quarantine easier on us all. And with this unexpected opportunity, I was finally able to take the time to look closer at this new invasive ant species.

 

Thomas Chouvenc is an assistant professor at the University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Ft Lauderdale Research and Education Center, Florida. He studies termite biology, evolution, ecology, symbiosis, and control. Twitter: @ChouvencL

 

Chouvenc, T., Scheffrahn, R.H. and Warner, J., 2018. Establishment of Alluaud’s little yellow ant, Plagiolepis alluaudi Emery (Hymenoptera: Formicidae: Formicinae): first continental New World record. Florida Entomologist101(1), pp.138-140.

Deyrup, M., 2016. Ants of Florida: identification and natural history. CRC Press.

Wetterer, J.K., 2014. Worldwide spread of Alluaud’s little yellow ant, Plagiolepis alluaudi (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Myrmecological News19, pp.53-59.

 

An alternate version of this story was published in Entomology Today.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Johanna Romero

You can read Johanna’s recent research article on crop-gizzard content and variations among Afrotropical Apicotermitinae here.

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

JR: I am a curious and enthusiastic learning person. I am finishing a Ph.D. in Belgium, studying the diversity and feeding-ecology of soil-feeding termites in Africa and South America. My current research includes several axes, such as the anatomy of the digestive tube, feeding niches, and phylogenetic relationships. I also have experience in other topics, but I love the fieldwork and the ecology of insects.

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

JR: I have always been passionate about social insects. When I was an undergraduate at biology and ecology school, entomology and insect ecology courses had a huge impact on me. For most of my self-directed projects, I tried to use ants as model species. I did a project about ants as bioindicators in fragmented tropical forests. For my master’s thesis, I studied the collective behavior of ants on nest digging. Then, for my Ph.D., I had the opportunity to continue studying social insects, so I started my research on soil-feeding termites. It was challenging because of my “ant background”, but I was able to dive into it. My current research model is Apicotermitinae, a highly diverse and successful subfamily, far from being well studied.

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

JR: In short, the carpenter ants, a special one that I observed in the Ecuadorian jungle. This species appears to be laughing when you observe it under a stereomicroscope. I also think of Pseudomyrmex triplarinus that lives in symbiosis with trees of the genus Triplaris. This ant protects the tree against predation by other insects and animals. This type of interaction is an interesting study subject.

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

JR: I think each project generates plenty of delightful memories. In my last project, my most interesting discovery was the great diversity of sclerotized structures in the foregut of Apicotermitinae termites. More specifically, the gizzard contained in some cases a predominant percentage of fine clay, among other minerals, but the function of these sclerotized structures remains unclear to this date.

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

JR: I was involved in practical work for undergraduate students. It is there where I incorporated the techniques I learned during my doctoral research. I also communicate my research to the public through scientific photography contests and research image expositions organized during the university open house.

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

JR: The notion of importance is quite relative. In general, the current most investigated questions in social insects are the caste differentiation and modes of reproduction. These have many adherents in the social insects’ domain. The approaches used in this research field have been evolving alongside the improvement of molecular techniques.

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

JR: Surely, the definition of limits between sociality and eusociality. Another great debate focuses on insect systematics and the use of different techniques in genomics and morphology.

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

JR: I usually read two books at the same time, just like the Netflix series for other people. The Last Kingdom is a historical fiction book set in England during medieval times. Real historical figures are depicted as brave Danish warriors trying to take over the English kingdoms. A single fictional protagonist, Uhtred, is introduced. He is English but grew up like a Danish.

Ecuadorian customs (Las costumbres de los ecuatorianos, original title) is a socio-historical book. It is a review of literature based on texts written by foreign naturalist explorers and their opinions of the native population during the colonial era. I would recommend both books if their themes interest the reader.

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

JR: I love outdoor walks, which sadly are not possible now (due to COVID-19 confinement measures). So, instead, I try to keep myself active by doing cardio training or yoga. However, my great hobbies are drawing, wood carving, and embroidery. As you can see (photos below), insects and nature are the focus of my pieces. I am not excellent, but it is what I love to do to relax.

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

JR: I try to keep my motivation as high as possible. I remember what my dreams are and how much I want to achieve them. If there is a conflict situation on a specific topic, I take a break and try to keep my distance with a short walk in full consciousness. Afterwards, I am ready to face it or ask for help, if necessary. Sometimes, to keep going, I think about how ant workers work hard over and over again. It may take time, but it is difficult for them to leave the trail of pheromones.

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

JR: My set of chisels, a camping pot, and my embroidery set. I can survive with that.

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

JR: The books of Marie Curie’s life and E.O Wilson’s research were my main influences to keep going in science. During my master’s thesis, Jean Louis Deneubourg taught me a passion for practicing science. His focus, motivation, and trust were very formative.

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

JR: In general, science is a long-term commitment. Insect social research is no different. So, you have to learn, postulate, test, enjoy, and keep doing.

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

JR: Science has brought me not only to places, but also new cultures. Among all the places I have been, my favorite is Africa. To do my Ph.D. fieldwork, I spent a few months in Côte d’Ivoire and Cameroon. I really loved these countries. Sharing with people from villages or cities allowed me to understand more about what is essential in human beings. There are many contrasts, and yet people do not lose their joy. “Europeans have watches, but we have time.”

Science in the time of COVID-19

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Scientists around the world are being affected in unforeseen ways by the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether they’re working from home, being forced to pause or terminate research projects, or losing their job altogether, researchers are meeting novel challenges and given no choice other than to adapt. For some, stay-at-home orders offer time to learn new skills and work on data analysis and writing projects that otherwise would have been on the back burner for the foreseeable future. For others, their experiments are taking a toll in irreversible ways. Whatever your experience, we know that everyone in our community of social insect scientists is facing challenges and doing their best to cope during this time. We asked some researchers to share their experiences in hopes of providing comfort to those of you experiencing similar things and to continue the conversation amongst our community.

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Are you working right now, and if so, where?

“I am working from my home near Tufts University, just north of Boston, MA. With the current situation, I am unable to travel to my field site in Washington. Thankfully, two WSU field technicians, Jason and June, are local to the prairie we work on. Between analysing data and writing from home, I virtually meet with Jason and June to go over protocols for data collection, entry, etc. As long as Jason and June can social distance while in the field (which is pretty easy on the 180-acre prairie) and healthy, my data is getting collected! While I am grateful for this, my makeshift home office using my husband’s childhood desk is not as enjoyable as fieldwork.” –Dr. Rachael E. Bonoan, Postdoctoral Researcher, Tufts University & Washington State University

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Rachael’s makeshift home office

“Ha! Work. Yes. I’m attempting to work from home.” –Dr. Tommy Czaczkes, Animal Comparative Economics Group leader, University of Regensberg

How has the COVID-19 outbreak impacted your scientific research/teaching?

“I am lucky to have a lab with large numbers of reared termite colonies. I was able in the past 7 years to create from mating pairs more than 500 colonies, many of them are held in large containers. I think we have more than 25 million termites under our roof, which comes with many opportunities, but also responsibility and limitation. Space is the major limitation, or so I thought. I now fully realize that our main limitation is: time. I need the time (and the time from technicians) to maintain these colonies. Normally, we have 1 technician full time to keep these colonies feed, moist, and contained.  Now, we currently have a single person coming once a week, just to check and minimal maintenance. Mostly to keep them from escaping (Coptotermes is good at that!), making sure that colonies are not starving, and that humidity levels are where they should be. I expect the loss of a few colonies by the end of this pandemic. We will try to minimize this loss, as colonies will probably be on life support until they can get back to their initial expected logistical growth. However, it is not just the lab access limitation. I have many field projects, all in city and state parks. All of them are closed, which means, I have no access to these sites to collect the data. ” -Dr. Thomas Chouvenc, Urban Entomology Assistant Professor, University of Florida IFAS Ft Lauderdale Research and Education Center

“At present, I am not teaching any courses because I have a Research Professorship. My current work consists of data analysis and writing of manuscripts, books, and general articles. At least in the short run, my work has benefited from the absence of commuting and travelling for committee work. At the same time, I am having no difficulty interacting with my students and post-docs, virtually. I also have more time for reading and I am able to read books that I would normally consider a luxury. Yes, we have had to discontinue two major experiments and were forced to release the wasps back into nature. I am confident though that we will resume those experiments next year.” -Dr. Raghavendra Gadagkar, DST Year of Science Chair Professor, Indian Institute of Science Centre for Ecological Studies

“I am in the unique position that I am an emeritus scientist who has no ongoing students, teaching, administrative duties, or laboratory access that is restricted by the virus.  My laboratory contains only my personal research operation.  Thus, no physical distancing problem and no new social isolation.  In my case, COVID-19 has not negatively affected my work.  Oh, I could quibble that getting some supplies and materials, and that contacting colleagues has been hampered, but so far toilet paper has not been a problem! I always like to look at the brighter side of any situation.  There is a brighter side to the COVID-19 experience.  I personally have benefited from this opportunity via receiving faster reviews and, in turn, had the time to complete the revisions more quickly.” -Dr. Justin Schmidt, Southwestern Biological Institute & Department of Entomology, University of Arizona

“Our university does not allow official travel and has closed our field stations, so I have abandoned the 2020 field seasons for two projects, one monitoring the spread of a non-native ant in Texas and the other on a locally social parasitic ant. I will still be able to publish, but with less data than I’d like. We have also ceased most general collecting for the UT collection. I was teaching a small, 15 student class this semester, but the transition to online teaching has taken more time than I had anticipated, especially as we redesigned student projects and re-did many of the lectures. Fortunately, I co-teach this class with my wife, so we are both able to do this together from home. I have also cancelled two photography workshops, two outreach events, and an invited seminar at another university.” -Dr. Alex Wild, Curator, University of Texas Insect Collection

“While my data is still being collected, I am not able to be in the field myself. [WSU field technicians] Jason and June are doing a fantastic job but as a field biologist, this is tough for me. Especially since I love my prairie field site, bursting with wildflowers, and the WSU folks I spend time with when I am there. I have worked with Jason and June to ensure we have enough supplies to avoid sharing clipboards, butterfly nets, etc. and to pare down experiments to allow for social distancing and if necessary, an abrupt break in data collection.” -Rachael

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Rachael with field team

“Luckily for me, I don’t have to do any structured teaching. But my research has completely ground to a halt. As my group works almost exclusively on foraging, our work is very seasonal. Spring and early summer are the very best time to collect data – the ants are so motivated! Indeed, for sensitive experiments, I am reluctant to collect data any later than September. We had just started a 6-month collaboration with a visiting Ph.D. student, who had to cancel everything. I’m worried that, even if everything opens, we can’t just start at the drop of a hat. Indeed, if the shut-down goes on until June, we might lose the whole season. Oh yes, and for the first time, I had to withdraw a paper from review. We were asked to perform a minor control – three weeks of work or less – but then COVID-19 hit. Happily, the first author has a post-doc (or had – he returned home with COVID-19), but this is quite a blow for him too.” -Tommy

How do you cope with social distancing? Are you alone at home or do you live with others?

“As an extroverted social insect scientist and field biologist, social distancing and staying home has been mentally and emotionally difficult. It has also been physically difficult—it took working from home for only one week to realize how comfortable my desk as school is! Thankfully, I do have my husband with me to remind me to take a break to stretch or go for a walk around the block. To cope, I am trying to keep as much of a “normal” routine during the workweek as possible. I work out in our basement like I would normally do before going to work, I make tea and watch some of the Today Show (big Al Roker fan), and then I “go” to work. If the weather is nice, I take an afternoon break to go for a walk. At Tufts, I work in an open office space with about ten other post-docs/grad students. One of the students set up an “office” Discord channel (online chat), which has been nice for keeping in touch and asking questions about stats, writing, etc. like we would if we were in our shared space.” -Rachael

“Ah, it’s not so bad! I have a wife and two lovely kids (6 and 3), so I am far from alone. Indeed, now that all my friends (most of which are far from where I live) are getting involved in video chats, I’ve had a lot more social contact! I’ve had lovely chats with friends I have not spoken to in years – in one case over a decade!” -Tommy

“My wife and I live by ourselves in our home and we are fortunate to be able to get all that we need delivered to our doorstep.” -Raghavendra

“I am home with my partner and our two young children. I have enjoyed the close time with our children; earlier this week our 3-year-old wrote his name for the first time, and our 6-year-old has been raising caterpillars. It’s been really nice, to be honest. However, I devote more time to childcare and home-schooling than any other activity, by a large margin, and given social distancing and school closures we do not have external childcare. So my actual work time is reduced by half, at least.” -Alex

What platform do you and your colleagues use to stay in touch (e.g. Skype, Zoom, etc.)?

“Oh, let’s face it, they’re all pretty much the same… (3-year-old comes in: “Robin hit me!” “oh dear, do you want to do a puzzle in the office?”… etc,  etc… ok, I’m back). The ad-hoc nature of houseparty has been quite fun.” -Tommy

If you are working from home, are you working on the same things as usual?

“Experiments have stopped, travel has stopped, but reading and writing have become intensified, more diverse, and more pleasurable.” -Raghavendra

“I can keep up with some of the administrative tasks of the UT collection from home, as well as the odd journal reviews and collaborations. But in general, I am unable to perform many of my regular curatorial responsibilities as those involve physical work in the collection itself. I am still doing some work on our database, but so much of my much-reduced work time is given over to online teaching that I probably have no more than 3-4 hours per week of curation-related work. I write more for our department’s blog than normal.” -Alex

Have the restrictions due to COVID-19 had any positive side effects for your research, for example, time to learn a new skill?

“Yes, actually! I have finally taken the time to learn to do data management, data visualisation, and statistical workflow reporting in R. I have been putting this off since the start of my Ph.D., so it’s about time! My next paper will have shiny ggplot2 figures, and an HTML file giving the entire code and output of my analysis. I’ve still not caught up to my (ex) Ph.D. students, but I’m making progress. It has been a lot more fun than I thought it would be.” -Tommy

What activities or hobbies are you currently doing to fill your time?

“To fill my time, I have been doing a lot of cooking and baking. One of my favourite de-stressing activities is watching The Great British Baking Show while cooking dinner or baking dessert. While I have yet to try anything as technical as they have on that show, I have been practicing baking bread! This weekend, I am going to attempt Portuguese sweet bread, a hometown Easter treat. I am also using this time to do virtual outreach. My husband and I recently wrote a kid’s story, “Dress Like a Scientist Day,” and have been working with an illustrator. Now that we have illustrations, I am creating a website so kids can read the illustrated story and learn about the diverse “uniforms” in science as a free eBook!” -Rachael

“During this time at home, I was hoping to catch up with data analysis and writing, but being a dad of a 4yr-old, it is now established that I will get nothing accomplished.  I am therefore converting my time as a backyard entomologist to show my daughter the wonders of our yard: termite swarms, invasive ants (15 of them in my yard alone, welcome to south Florida), wasps, bees, mole crickets, flies, mosquitoes, planthoppers… A lot of fun, and learning about why bugs are cool.” -Thomas

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Thomas Chouvenc’s office these days. He’s taking advantage of this lockdown to get better at photography and video editing.

“I spend an hour every day engaged in what people might consider ‘silly art’, just to keep my creativity flowing!” -Raghavendra

Do you have any tips for readers on how best to cope with the restrictions the COVID-19 outbreak has imposed on your scientific work or private life?

“I need structure to be productive. If you can relate, I suggest keeping as much of a routine as possible and using a planner to block out your day. I swear by my Passion Planner, which has each day broken down into half-hour blocks, and space to plan both work and personal goals. You can try the Passion Planner for free with their downloadable PDFs. My favourite pens for writing in my Passion Planner are FriXion erasable pens—they allow for color-coding and keeping things neat when your schedule shifts around (as it does). A game-changer for me with video meetings is to add all recurring meetings (which seem to keep multiplying), with their meeting links, to my email calendar. This way, I get a reminder (with the link!) 15 minutes before the meeting starts and I am not searching through my email for what feels like forever. For each video meeting, I try to get up and go to another room as possible. This way, I get a bit of a change of scenery and I am not sitting at my desk all day. Outside of work, make sure to stay connected with friends and family as much as possible, whether it be through text, phone, video, online gaming, etc. Like a colony of social insects, the only way we are going to get through this is by working together.” –Rachael

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“Don’t expect too much – especially if you have children. I have heard from colleagues, especially in the US, that there is often an atmosphere of “we’re getting on and being productive, so you should be too.” This sounds pretty toxic. We also see a lot of social media about people putting together online seminars, organising e-journal clubs, and so on. This is great! But this should not be considered ‘normal’. Normal – especially with kids at home – is having a pleasant day. Everything else is bonus.” -Tommy

“Most of us in academia usually have so much backlog and are always putting off some of the most pleasurable reading and writing, owing to demands on our time, that temporary lockdowns can have very positive effects, as long as our basic needs are taken care of.” -Raghavendra

“Everyone should recognize the nature of this crisis and not set goals for themselves beyond maintaining basic mental and physical health. We also need to be aware that this crisis is just beginning. The downstream economic effects have the potential to be far more destructive to our fields than a few weeks of sheltering in place.” -Alex

Anything else you would like to share about how COVID-19 has affected your work and life as a scientist?

“Mostly, it has emphasised again how lucky we are, as scientists. I don’t have a business that will go bankrupt. I will continue to be paid. The German Science Foundation is even offering 3-month no-questions-asked grant and salary extensions for many of the researchers it funds. I can even, in principle, be productive from home. Honestly, I couldn’t ask for more.” -Tommy

“I realise of course that I might have had a very different perspective if I were a young Assistant Professor with two young children! But I see that even people in that situation I know are coping very well. Generally, I think scientists are far too busy doing more and more of the same thing, affording no time for continued broad education in the humanities, culture, and philosophy. This is an opportunity for course-correction.” -Raghavendra

“I am seeing the value in our department’s epidemiologists, now more than ever.” -Alex

Interview with a social insect scientist: Maddie Ostwald

You can read Maddie’s recent research article on temporal and spatial dynamics of carpenter bee sociality here.

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

MO: My name is Maddie Ostwald, and I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Animal Behavior at Arizona State University. I’m a student in Jennifer Fewell’s lab, which has a focus on coordination and emergence of cooperative behavior in social insect groups, particularly ants and bees. My research focuses on the costs and benefits of group living in a facultatively social carpenter bee, Xylocopa varipuncta. I’m also really interested in native bees as pollinators and how basic behavioral research can inform efforts to combat population declines.

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

MO: I first became interested in insect sociality when I was a high school student working at the Children’s Museum of Maine, where I taught science programs to kids. I was really excited about a program I got to teach using a honey bee observation hive, and I spent a lot of time watching these bees interact and reading about their behavior. This experience inspired me to study honey bee social behavior as an undergrad. Since then, I’ve developed an interest in the “weakly social” bees that can tell us a lot about how complex social groups like honey bee colonies evolved.

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

MO: I really love the carpenter bees that I work with. They are really large, buzzy, and charismatic. They bump into things a lot, which is their cutest feature.

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

MO: When trying to measure the resting metabolic rates of carpenter bees, I found that most bees weren’t willing to rest, and instead were always trying to chew their way out of their container. Their perseverance was frustrating at the time but led me to discover that if I gave them a piece of wood, they would perform nest excavation behavior in the lab! I was then able to measure the metabolic rate of excavating bees, which I never thought would be possible. This ability was really exciting because it meant that a hypothesis I had really wanted to test was suddenly and unexpectedly in reach.

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Breaking apart logs containing carpenter bee nests

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

MO: Most of the science outreach I do is with a non-profit organization called Sonoran Desert Native Bees, which I helped to found. Our mission is to engage our local community in efforts to support and learn about native bee populations. I also volunteer as a biology teacher for inmates at the state prison here. People in Arizona tend to be really afraid of bees because Africanized honey bees are common here, but they tend to appreciate them more when they learn about the ecological value of bees and the fact that the Sonoran Desert is one of the most bee-diverse regions in the world!

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

MO: To me, the most exciting questions in the field explore mechanisms for social evolution beyond kin selection, which has been the dominant paradigm for understanding these questions for many years. I think more research should examine systems that don’t fit neatly into this framework, like non-kin groups or groups where offspring are coerced into helping. These alternative drivers should give us a fuller picture of how and why social behavior evolved under different conditions.

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

MO: I think some of the most heated debates in the field surround the value and use of inclusive fitness theory. It’s surprising to me that this is still such a contentious issue, given the volume of work supporting this theory.

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

MO: I recently read Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Pérez, which I have been recommending to everyone I know. This book explores the “data gap” underlying pervasive discrimination against women: the ways in which the failure to collect data on female biology and experiences leads to products, medical treatments, workplaces, etc. designed for the default male. For example, I was surprised to learn that the vast majority of medical research is done on male subjects and male tissues. Fortunately, social insect researchers are used to studying female-dominated societies, so the data gap isn’t as big in our field!

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

MO: I really enjoy spending time outdoors, hiking, camping, kayaking, rock climbing, etc. Growing up in Maine, I had to restrict a lot of these activities to the few warm months of the year, and now that I live in Arizona, I can be outdoors anytime I want!

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

MO: I am lucky to have really supportive friends and family members. I especially appreciate talking and spending time with my friends who are not scientists, and therefore give me a more balanced perspective on my work and the things that I value outside of research.

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

MO: I would bring a fishing net so I could eat, a hammock to sleep on, and a friend so I wouldn’t be lonely.

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

MO: I was really strongly influenced by my undergraduate research advisor, Tom Seeley, who is a really kind, thoughtful person on top of being an excellent scientist. Tom is guided by his love for bees and his excitement for his research, and I learned from him that this approach often yields more important work than just chasing hot topics in the field.

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

MO: I would encourage anyone hoping to study social insects to embrace opportunities to work with understudied species. There are certainly challenges associated with this approach, but I think there’s a lot of value to asking questions across a range of systems and some really rewarding opportunities for discovery.

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

MO: I really loved the few months I spent on Barro Colorado Island in the Panama Canal before starting my Ph.D. Not only is BCI a really beautiful place with incredible wildlife, but it also has a great scientific community.

Do honeybees make life or death decisions?

A blog post highlighting the article by Justin Schmidt in Insectes Sociaux.

By Justin Schmidt

Throughout much of human history, the ability to think and make decisions was considered a special property of our own species.  Other animals were generally considered to be acting on the basis of instinct.  Decision-making was a part of intelligence, a property most developed and humans, with other animals, including apes, dolphins, whales, and even (my emphasis) some birds like ravens and parrots having some lesser degree of intelligence.  Insects were often described as living robots that simply followed their genetic programming.  We now know that this is a grossly egocentric view and that many species have abilities to learn, as exemplified by honeybee learning in response to nectar rewards.

The ability to make decisions, that is, to tailor the individual’s behavioral response after evaluating input information, appears to be correlated with intelligence.  If so, then is decision-making mainly a property of vertebrates and lacking, or weak, in organisms such as insects?  I suspect that insects and other invertebrates have considerably greater abilities than credited for making optimal decisions based on their evaluation of presently available information.

To test this hypothesis, honeybees were challenged with attacks by a potential predator.  The attacks were a constant that was identical in all situations.  In one situation, the colony nest contained no larvae or pupae and little honey or pollen resources.  The colonies in this situation could also readily abandon their nest and successfully continue by establishing a new nest if necessary.  In the other situation, the colony nest contained a large number of larvae and pupae and substantial honey and pollen resources.  These latter colonies contained only older adult bees and a limited alternative of abandoning the nest and successfully continuing in a new nest.  The little-to-lose colonies were reproductive swarms that had been established in their artificial nest cavity for only three to four days.  The much-to-lose colonies were reproductive swarms that had been established in their artificial nest cavities for 19 to 22 days.

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            The predation threat consisted of the “predator” (me) exhaling three times directly into the main nest entrance and then stepping back 5 m and collecting with short-handled insect nets all bees that were attacking my face.  This procedure was repeated as many times as necessary until no more bees were attacking.  Upon finishing collecting all attackers, the colony was collected, frozen, and all attacking workers, non-attacking workers, males, and the queen were hand-counted and weighed.  Colony resources were also removed and weighed.

The results were that the colonies with much-to-lose sent forth 2.9 times as much of their worker force as attackers than the colonies with little-to-lose.  Many other comparative measurements of the two categories of colonies showed the same trend that the colonies with much-to-lose defended more vigorously than the little-to-lose colonies.

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            If a worker honeybee attacks and stings a potential predator, she loses her stinger and dies shortly thereafter.  Thus, her decision to attack is not a minor decision; it is a life-or-death decision that has serious consequences for both the individual worker and her colony.  This study revealed that individual workers can evaluate the situation and base their decisions to attack, or not, on the information present at that time.  The study demonstrates that workers can evaluate different situations and decide accordingly how to act in the best interest of the colony.  It leaves many more questions unanswered.  What are the factors the worker uses for making her decision?  Is the decision made by each individual acting alone, or is she acting in response to the actions of other individuals in her colony?  Does the worker evaluate the quantity of brood, honey/nectar, pollen, wax in the combs, or the number of other adult bees, and if so, how?  Is the presence of a queen or queen cells important?  Is the reproductive status, that is, nearness to issuing reproductive swarms, important?  And, to be fair, are the numbers of males present in the colony a factor?  What about pheromones?  As with all studies in science, the results raise more questions than they provide answers.  This is good!  I hope I have cracked the door open a little wider towards an understanding of the abilities of honeybees.

The Insectes Sociaux social media team

Hello social insect fans,

We have had some turnover in our social media editing duo for Insectes Sociaux, so we wanted to take this opportunity to introduce ourselves. Our most recent social media editor, Bernadette Wittwer, had moved on, and we will miss her. I (Madison) am staying on, and it’s my pleasure to welcome Daniela Roemer to the team. I’m excited to work with her to bring you news about new and exciting social insect research! Here’s a little bit about us:

Daniela Roemer

I am a behavioral ecologist interested in self-organized pattern formation in social insects and my study organisms are leaf-cutting ants. After receiving my Ph.D. from the Julius-Maximilians University of Wuerzburg, Germany, I spent two years as a postdoc at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay. Currently, I am a postdoc in the Roces Lab at the University of Wuerzburg, where I study foraging patterns and nest architecture of leafcutters, either in the lab at my university or in the field in Northern Argentina.

Aside from work, I have a passion for travel, books, and my pets (cats, fish, and stick insects). In recent years I have also become interested in science communication and sharing the hard work of my fellow scientists with a broader audience to raise awareness of the importance of scientific research and funding. As the newest member of the social media team, I am very excited to bring you the newest publications and stories from Insectes Sociaux and its blog across the journal’s social media channels.

Madison Sankoviz

I am an entomology Ph.D. candidate in the Purcell Lab at the University of California Riverside. My research focuses on nesting patterns and landscape-level genomic adaptations of Formica ants. I received a B.A. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Colorado Boulder, where I studied the effects of Formica podzolica ant colonies on soil moisture, nitrogen, and plant communities. I am passionate about science communication and am always thinking about ways to bring out the stories behind scientific experiments and findings. The research of other social insect scientists continually inspires me, and I admire these entomologists’ unique enthusiasm for examining social aspects of the natural world. It’s been a blast to highlight publications and help tell the stories behind them as a social media editor for Insectes Sociaux, and I’m excited to continue in this role!

The best part of this role is working with all the contributors to the blog and our interviewees. Thank you to all of you who have participated; we look forward to our communication with many more of you.

If you are interested in blogging or interviewing, do not hesitate to contact us via Twitter (@InsSociaux), Facebook, Instagram, or via email at madison.inssoc@gmail.com and daniela.inssoc@gmail.com.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Harmen Hendriksma

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IS: Who are you, and what do you do?

HH: My name is Harmen Hendriksma. I aim to understand and identify drivers and threats to bee vitality. I currently work on monitoring bees in agricultural landscapes throughout Germany.

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

HH: As a nature boy, I wandered endlessly through the meadows of Friesland. Ants, butterflies, and wild bees strangely enchanted me. Then one magical day, a beekeeper passed my way, and this he said to me: “the greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love bees and be loved in return”.

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

HH: My first love was the bumblebee Bombus lapidarius. Yet I was given a hive as a youngster, and ever since, I have been in love with the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Would you oppose having a socialist matricentric society of vegetarians, for a change?

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

HH: We found bees to counter nutritional deficiencies; not only to differentially cover their protein and carbohydrate needs, but also particular needs for essential fatty acids and amino acids. Memorable to me is that many findings come together with crippling self-doubt.

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

HH: I generally follow a biocentric perspective. Whilst teaching Animal Behavior at Iowa State University, the 145 students felt that I sincerely cared for them, and very much care about all other animals too. I never shoehorn bees into lectures. In Germany, Israel, California, and Iowa, I gave many extension talks to beekeepers. I felt those folks all enjoyed hearing stories from a passionate bee scientist who sees beekeepers as facilitators to let bees shine in the spotlight.

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

HH: Many wild bee populations are in decline, and many honey bee colonies dwindle and die. I thusly think that drivers of bee demise need elucidation. Regarding colony structure, e.g., it would be helpful to know the pathogeneses of the many different viral diseases that plague colonies. Future research would benefit from insight into interactions (and maybe synergies) between different stressors, such as nutritional stress and disease.

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

HH: I’m biased toward the nutrition field. There is debate on if generalist bees actively balance deficient colony nutrition, and, how.

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

HH: Spread the word; Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari. To me, the book eloquently illustrates a misnomer; Homo sapiens, since pestis would have been a better fit.

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

HH: I have haphazard homey hobbies. I recently inoculated wetted pine wood shavings with mycelium – to grow mushrooms in my kitchen. I hung a birdhouse and a bee hotel outside my home. I glued a pigeon skeleton together that I found in my chimney. I made myself curtains on a sowing machine. And, I stream lots of movies and series – soon also to select new films for an international film festival here in Braunschweig. Once or twice per week, I go out for drinks and bites, targeting unknown cozy places.

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

HH: I tend to just keep pumping in hours and simply keep rocking. I ask for support when needing a boost.

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

HH: I would not bring anything. I’d go out adventuring like a Minecraft survival world. I’d punch down a tree with my fist to make some wooden tools, eat kelp and mobs, etc.

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

HH: During my Ph.D., Stephan Härtel showed me how to practice science. His approach, trust, and patience were most formative.

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

HH: Our social insect researcher society has super kind people that provide astounding support. Take the opportunity and learn from us, work with us, and simply become a part of our field.

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

HH: Dangling above a pool with dolphins in Eilat, Israel, to spot an invasive Apis florea bee colony. I ❤ Israel.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Tae Tanaami Fernandes

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

TTF: My name is Tae Tanaami Fernandes. I finished my Ph.D. in 2018 at the University of Mogi das Cruzes, in the Myrmecology Laboratory of Alto Tietê, under the guidance of Drª Maria Santina de Castro Morini, where we studied ant ecology. The purpose of my thesis was to observe whether abiotic factors of twig structure interfere with ant colonization. We’ve also evaluated the overlap and co-occurrence of other invertebrates in twigs colonized by ants. I am currently developing a postdoctoral project about ants on twigs at the edges of vegetable growing areas in the Alto Tietê region.

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

TTF: During my bachelor’s, I met my current advisor in a course that she taught at the university on urban ants. From that point, I became interested in these insects and started searching for an internship in myrmecology. When I started in the Myrmecology Laboratory of Alto Tietê, there was already an ongoing project that included the study of ants on twigs. Since then, I’ve never wanted to change topics.

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

TTF: I am passionate about the Thaumatomyrmex genus. Although I have never met it in the field, its biology fascinates me. The mandibles are like pitchforks; each mandible is composed of three long tines joined at the base. They are specialized predators of millipedes and are covered with detachable barbed setae that entangle potential predators. The Thaumatomyrmex workers use their long, specialized mandibles to capture millipedes and subsequently strip them of their setae.

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

TTF: I’ve had many memorable moments during the project. One of them was when I did an academic period in Mexico, where I managed to get the real dimension of my work. Another moment was when I started my master’s, and many people were working on the same project with the same energy to work and understand the process of colonization of ants on twigs.

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

TTF: Recently, I began teaching students from 14 to 18 years old in high school. Whenever I can, I talk about what it’s like to be a scientist, what we do in the laboratory and the field, and I talk about the importance of science, especially the importance of insects, which are seen as undesirable animals. I always explain it to my students so that they can spread it to their community.

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

TTF: The identification of ant morphospecies. There are many more species of insects than are catalogued in the literature, and we still don’t know the biology of these species. It would be fascinating to have more people in that area.

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

TTF: Global environmental issues are the main trend. Green areas are continuously shrinking, and this directly interferes with all organisms, especially social insects. The indiscriminate use of pesticides is also a matter of considerable debate since, for many farmers, it is necessary. But with the correct knowledge, the application of pesticides could be reduced.

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

TTF: The book I am reading is Diversity of Life by Edward Wilson. I highly recommend it firstly because the author is a very renowned myrmecologist. Secondly, the text is captivating and rich in detail. In this book, he talks about field experiences in the Amazon rainforest, focusing on its environmental degradation.

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

TTF: I enjoy running, reading non-academic books, and watching TV series. In my hometown, I like watching basketball games with my mother and friends.

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

TTF: I take a few hours off to do other things that are totally different from what I was doing. Then I come back and focus on the problem, and if necessary, I discuss it with my colleagues. Everything works out in the end! This is my slogan.

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

TTF: I would take a bottle to fill with water, a raincoat (which can keep me warm in the cold too), and a knife, which can always be useful.

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

TTF: Certainly my advisor. She was always by my side with a lot of patience and persistence. She has always offered opportunities, suggestions for different courses, and lectures, which were essential for my career and for forming the professional I am today.

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

TTF: Don’t give up at the first difficulty; science needs you! Be curious, questioning, and read a lot. Always ask your supervisors and lab colleagues questions; it may surprise you how helpful these people can be.

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

TTF: A lot of places! The first place was Mexico, where I stayed for four months at the Instituto de Ecología (INECOL), working with Dr. Wesley Dáttilo. I’ve met wonderful people who helped me a lot, especially his students, as well as beautiful landscapes that are only found there. I also got to know Argentina and many Brazilian cities during courses and congresses.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Julia Eloff

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

JE: I am Julia Eloff, and I currently live in Wellington, New Zealand. I have most recently studied the population genetic structure of the invasive German wasp in South Africa. I am very passionate about the natural world and like to take part in other studies involving insects. I love fieldwork and collecting insects, as well as the lab work and molecular sides of studies.

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Nature walking in Whangerei, New Zealand. At Whangerei falls.

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

JE: I’ve always had a passion for social insects, in particular, ants. When I was younger, I always believed that they were most like humans. They can solve complex problems, are highly plastic, have a distinct hierarchy, and even build intricate and complex structures. As I got older and continued to study biology, one of my undergraduate courses required a self-directed project in which, not surprisingly, I did a project on ants and their cognitive abilities. I then came into contact with Antoine, the ‘ant guy’, who was at the time doing his Ph.D. He introduced me to his supervisor Prof. Phil Lester, who asked me whether I would be interested in working on wasps. I started to do a lot of background research to find out a bit more about them and even drawing them to learn how to identify them a bit better. One thing led to another, and here I am, researching wasps.

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

JE: I think I may have hinted at earlier, but definitely ants! In particular, Solenopsis invicta or the fire ant. I have always been intrigued by their cognitive ability as a group in which they can problem solve as a collective. This is seen in floods, where they group together, creating makeshift rafts that float on floodwaters and house all members of the colony, including the workers, queens, larvae, and eggs. Although many are scared or afraid of fire ants, I tend to appreciate their collective problem-solving abilities.

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

JE: The best moment of my research would have to be the moment my lab group and I were travelling back from a conference in the South Island, New Zealand. During this time, we were stopping regularly, hunting for wasp samples that we could catch and use for research. This collecting involved lots of running around with pottles and nets, and in some cases jumping into bushes. The people who saw us awkwardly catching wasps in random areas and giving us confused and awkward glances – I can only imagine what they were thinking at the time. The amusement from the situation and confused bystanders has definitely made its way into my memory books.

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

JE: I have been a teaching assistant for several undergraduate courses at Victoria University of Wellington. The two main courses I have taught have been genetics and animal diversity, which are both excellent platforms for sharing what I do. I have also been involved in many outreach events, including judging school science competitions or university open days. I like to encourage young minds to find a passion for science and hopefully find a field in which they are truly passionate about. I won’t lie though, I may have a slight bit of favouritism when people show a passion toward the entomological sciences.

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

JE: I think cognition in insects has been an ongoing area of importance in social insect research. There have been multiple studies looking at the brain of social insects (social brain hypothesis) and others that look at visual cognition as well as other forms of learning behaviour. In particular, in invasive social insects, increased cognitive plasticity could lead them to learn in a new environment quicker and consequently adapt to their new surroundings. Therefore, I think more research in the cognition of invasive social insects and their ability to problem solve as a collective should be undertaken. This has always been an area of social insect research that I have been quite passionate about!

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

JE: I definitely think one of the biggest questions generating debate is whether we should make use of CRISPR-Cas9 gene drives in the management of pest insects. Not only is it a controversial topic where the release of genetically modified organisms concerns the public, but there are some ecological concerns as well. One of the more commonly bought up ecological risks would be the question as to whether we would be able to contain them to prevent their spread outside of the targeted areas. Another question would be whether genetic mutations could result in a rapid removal of the gene drive. Although gene drives can be highly useful as pest management tools in some situations, they may not be as effective in others. With the correct background research and careful consideration of hazards involved, the implementation of gene drives may be a useful tool in the removal of invasive social insects.

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

JE: The last book I read was ‘All Creatures, Great and Small’ by James Herriot. I absolutely loved the book and reading about all his funny tales as a veterinarian and the heart-warming moments. It’s definitely a book I would recommend, especially to all my fellow animal lovers. It’s a book based on true-life stories filled with humour and compassion and multiple animal tales.

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

JE: I’ve always been a nature walk enthusiast. I love to experience nature and to look at the plants and creatures. I also love to draw and paint. From portraits of people to drawing my favourite insect creatures, it’s a passion I’ve had since childhood. More recently, I’ve been trying to get in touch with my sporty side and taking part in some martial arts classes.

Some of Julia’s insect sketches and drawings. @artyjewlz

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

JE: One thing that definitely helps when things get tough is taking advantage of my creative outlet. I like to pick up a pencil and put my emotions on paper. Sometimes just remembering those little moments that made me smile in the day helps too.

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

JE: First, my sketching gear to get me through those tough moments, and document all the nature I see. Secondly, some seedlings to garden for entertainment and maybe food. Lastly, my guitar, music definitely can calm the soul.

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

JE: I mentioned Antoine Felden before, but he has definitely been there for me. Without him, I would not have been where I am now. He was there for me during the roughest of times and let me feed his ants. He excited my science career with his passion and helped me stay in social insect research. Secondly, Mariana Bulgarella, she taught me everything I know, from lab work to analyses. She is one of the most amazing teachers I have ever had who kept my passion for science alive.

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

JE: Keep talking to people about your passions; you never know when you may speak with the right person (like ‘Antoine the ant guy’), who will introduce you to the right people to start your science career.

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

JE: Recently, I took part in a moth survey at Zealandia Ecosanctuary, New Zealand. This survey took place at night. Between the combination of the night sky and the sanctuary, there were thousands of glow worms surrounding us. It made me feel like I was in a scene from Avatar. Not only that, but seeing kiwi in the wild, as well native gecko species and tuatara. It was definitely the right place at the right time.

Insectes Sociaux Best Paper 2019

It is a pleasure to announce that the winner of the 2019 Best Paper Award is “Vitellogenin and vitellogenin-like gene expression patterns in relation to caste and task in the ant Formica fusca” by Claire Morandin, Anna Hietala and Heikki Helanterä at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Here is the journey of how this project came to be, in Claire’s words.

When I started my Ph.D. in early 2011, Vitellogenin (Vg) was the “hit” gene that everyone was interested in. Vg is one of the most studied genes involved in the division of labour across social insects. My first Ph.D. project was to look at Vg expression patterns across multiple Formica ant species, but upon constructing the first Formica transcriptome (Dhaygude et al., 2017), we surprisingly came across not only one Vg gene, but four. To understand these new Vg-like-genes (as we named them), we performed gene expression analyses, protein modelling, and evolutionary analyses, and found that these three new homologues were the result of ancient duplications. They partly differ in their conserved protein domains and have undergone rapid evolution after duplications. Furthermore, their expression patterns and thus their likely roles in social regulation were not consistent across the seven Formica species we looked at, providing important new insights into the complexity of insect social behaviour and gene expression variation amongst even closely related species.

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Understandably, we got really excited about these Vg-like genes and knew we needed to look deeper into their roles. In species with multiple conventional Vg (such as Solenopsis invicta), the multiple copies show sub-caste and task-related expression patterns, potentially linked to the loss of reproductive constraints and evolution of new functions for the duplicated copies (Wurm et al., 2011). We then questioned if similar caste- and/or task-related expression differences would likewise have emerged during the ancient duplication events between/among the conventional Vg and the three Vg-like genes. Hence, to begin to comprehend the role of Vg homologs and their potential involvement in division of labour, we designed a study that would allow us to investigate the relationships of expression patterns not only between castes (queens vs. workers), but also between different tasks (nurses vs. foragers), between colonies with and without a queen, and between several points in time.

At the same time, Anna started her master thesis with us. It was a challenging and stimulating project that involved a lot of field and lab work. Once the snow melted, we went out around Tvärminne Zoological Station in the south of Finland and collected dozens of F. fusca colonies. The time frame was tight, as we needed to find them after they came out of hibernation, but before they got too active, in order to catch the entire colony (or most of it), the queens included. As we needed colonies with several queens, we could not afford to miss queens while collecting. Back in the lab, the colonies were carefully sorted to find and count all of the queens (that’s a tedious job that involves going through a bucketful or two of nest material and soil for each nest, and hundreds or even a few thousand workers that do not appreciate your efforts). Experimental nests were established in plastic trays with a feeding platform so we could differentiate nurses and foragers. The experiment lasted for 20 days; every five days we collected nurses, queens, and foragers from each nest for gene expression analyses and checked whether queens or workers had been laying eggs. After that, we brought back the samples to the University of Helsinki for gene expression analysis. Anna extracted RNA from more than 500 individuals and performed qPCR analysis (needless to say it was a challenging task for someone who has never done any lab work after one or two basic courses, but she managed brilliantly). Apart from the wet lab work, Anna also dissected the ovaries of a few hundred workers to see whether queenlessness incites ovary development in workers.

Our results showed that each of these genes had a unique caste-specific expression pattern in F. fusca. Expectedly, we found a significant caste and worker task-related increase for the conventional Vg. We found that task (nurses vs. foragers) was the only factor that explained expression variation among workers in any of the studied genes and that removing the queens did affect expression, despite the fact that the proportion of fertile nurses increased significantly. As in previous studies (Kohlmeier et al., 2018; Salmela et al., 2016), our results are consistent with the idea that Vg-like-A may be involved in worker behaviour, and Vg-like-B in stress resistance in ants, while Vg-like-C displayed a consistent forager-biased expression pattern (just like in other social insects (Harrison et al., 2015), suggesting that Vg-like-C might have sub functionalized to a completely different role.

With this project, we aimed to get a clearer picture of the roles of these newly found Vg-like genes for caste differentiation. We still do not know their precise roles, and for example, tissue-specific expression analyses would be an important next step, but at least now we know that their expression patterns are consistent with roles in the division of labour separate from the conventional Vg. We hope this study will spark further interests in these really interesting Vg homologues, and hopefully, at some point we will find out exactly what these genes are doing at a molecular level.

As many projects do, this one took its time as well, and there were challenges along the way. For example, extra effort was needed from Anna who had to write the thesis in English and not in her native Finnish as Claire as her supervisor needed to understand it as well. It was a long journey from the beginning to Anna’s MSc thesis, and then publication in Insectes Sociaux. After all the work for this study, the award means a lot to all of us!

 

Dhaygude, K., Trontti, K., Paviala, J., Morandin, C., Wheat, C., Sundström, L., & Helanterä, H. (2017). Transcriptome sequencing reveals high isoform diversity in the ant Formica exsecta. PeerJ, 2017(11), 1–31. https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.3998

Harrison, M. C., Hammond, R. L., & Mallon, E. B. (2015). Reproductive workers show queenlike gene expression in an intermediately eusocial insect, the buff-tailed bumble bee Bombus terrestris. Molecular Ecology, 24(24), 3043–3063. https://doi.org/10.1111/mec.13215

Kohlmeier, P., Feldmeyer, B., & Foitzik, S. (2018). Vitellogenin-like A–associated shifts in social cue responsiveness regulate behavioral task specialization in an ant. PLoS Biology, 16(6), 1–26. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2005747

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