Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Sruthi Unnikrishnan

You can read Sruthi’s recent research article about the dominance behaviour of primitively eusocial wasps here.

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

My name is Sruthi Unnikrishnan. I am pursuing my post-doctoral research in Dr. Axel Brockmann’s lab in National Centre for Biological Sciences, TIFR, Bangalore. I am currently studying the behavioural maturation in Asian honeybees.

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

I had always been interested in animals. But it was after reading Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar’s book called  “Survival Strategies“ that I became fascinated with social biology and more specifically social insects.

Sruthi at her study site. Photo credit: Thresiamma Varghese

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

I would have to say the model system I worked with for my PhD, Ropalidia cyathiformis. Its a beautifuI, shy wasp, sensitive to human interference and I think a very underrated species, having fallen in the shadow of a more popular sister species, Ropalidia marginata. I believe that R. cyathiformis is a species with a lot of potential to ask many fascinating and wonderful questions. The difficulty to study this species has resulted in its poor understanding which is unfortunate.

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

Actually it was during the analysis of my results for the current paper in Insectes Sociaux. During my analysis it showed that the queen seems to be directing the majority of her aggression towards the PQ (Potential Queen), her immediate successor. This was very exciting to me, because this indicated a certain understanding and perhaps a certain intelligence in them. That they are able to recognise the next successor and target that individual. It was even more exciting because the PQ in turn was targeting the workers. This showed a clear difference in strategy between the queen and PQ and I found that very exciting, because here is a queen that isn’t blindly dominating all the individuals in the colony, but rather had “outsourced“ this job to the next successor. This was a great strategy and not something that we have commonly seen in other primitively eusocial insects. I know it‘s silly, but I felt a little pride for my wasps.

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

I don‘t teach regularly, but I have taught courses in the past as part of being a TA and will be teaching a course on animal behaviour in this semester as well. I usually incorporate my research to better explain how to design and conduct experiments, especially designing behavioural observation schedules without any biases. By providing examples its easier for people to envision the methodology better. I myself find it easier to understand when I have an example. I was also involved in making people aware of the rock bees (Apis dorsata) in apartment complexes. Since the rock bees generally build nests near balconies of apartments, people tend to kill off the colonies due to fear. By making people realise the importance of these bees and making them aware of their behaviour, it reduces such instances of colonies getting culled.

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

I’m not sure about important, because I think every work at the end of the day has its own importance. Personally, for me something that I find interesting is the work on personality and behavioural syndromes in animals. I think social insects are a great model system to study how individual variation might arise and how they might in turn affect group decisions. I feel more focus would be nice on this aspect in social insects.

Nest of Ropalidia cyathiformis.

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

I think in my field, one of the on-going debates is about the categorisation of social insects into different levels of sociality, where does one draw the line for eusociality and sociality and so on. 

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

I read the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. It’s a sci-fi fantasy book series. I really love this genre and in particular I love world building, where there are clear rules about how the world works, which is really beautifully set in these books. Particularly the details of the world-building in this is just amazing!  

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

I love reading and music (both singing and listening). I also enjoy doodling, which is a relatively newfound hobby and I find it a huge stress buster. I also really enjoy doing improv.

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

My parents are my major source of support, the ability to talk to them and just vent out my frustrations and problem or just have a good cry has helped me in a long way. They have been very patient, understanding and extremely good listeners, I think that support has been one of the major reasons I survived through tough times.

Sruthi with her parents at her thesis defense.

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

My kindle for sure, filled with as much books as possible, I can’t imagine going anywhere without it. Also, my laptop and my headphones.

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

It’s hard to pinpoint one person, but my parents have been a great support. They supported me when I decided to choose a slightly different path than was the norm amongst my peers. Another person, I would have to say is my PhD advisor, Prof. Gadagkar. He has very strong ethics and methods of doing science and that has influenced how I myself conduct my research. How to ask good questions, how to design fool proof experiments and how to carry out the experiments without biases are some of the things I learnt from him. My current advisor, Dr. Axel Brockmann has also been a great supportive figure in my life. Brainstorming with him has been amazing and he has helped me appreciate and better understand the molecular and genetic underpinnings of behaviour.

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

To be patient, very patient. Research involving animals and studying them in their natural habitat would most often not go according to what you plan. Several times your model system might not cooperate, or the weather might not or maybe predators of the animal that you are studying might interfere and so on and so forth. There are so many unforeseen circumstances that might come about. Hence, if you ask me, the most important thing a researcher in this field would need is patience and not be dejected and lose hope, but rather strive ahead.

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

I would have to say Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. There was an IUSSI conference in Sao Paulo in Brazil and after the conference I took a trip to Rio and I absolutely loved it! I loved the place, its energy and people! The place was so vibrant and colourful.

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

I would want to investigate the different Ropalidia species that are found in India. There are several Ropalidia species, most of which have gone under the radar. With the strong base laid out by Prof. Gadagkar’s lab with the studies on Ropalidia marginata it could prove as a good comparison point for the other species. It will be especially interesting as there are various levels of sociality present within the Ropalidia genus and just as we found that R. cyathiformis and R. marginata make good examples of comparative systems to study the evolution of social insects, these species would also help in this direction. They make the perfect system to do comparative studies and understand the evolution of eusociality as these species are all of the same genus and have different levels of sociality. The potential for this study would be limitless.

Interview with a Social Insect Scientist: Sara Miller

You can read Sara’s recent research article about the ecogeographical patterns of body size variation in Polistes paper wasps here.

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

SM: My name is Sara Miller. I’m currently a postdoc at Cornell University in the Sheehan lab. My research focuses on why biological diversity evolves and in particular how interactions among animals can drive the evolution of diversity. I now work with Polistes paper wasps, but I did my PhD at the University of British Columbia working on threespine stickleback (a small species of fish).

Sara Miller catching threespine stickleback at North Lake in British Columbia

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

SM: I have always been interested in animals and I think that the question of why are there so many species of animal is one that drives many scientists. I love learning new tools and techniques which makes studying the evolution of diversity a great choice for me. This question can be investigated from many different angles and that has allowed me to work with everything from genomes to live organisms to specimens in museum collections. When I started my postdoc, I decided to switch from fish to social wasps because of how amazing social wasps are as a study system. The small genome size of social wasps and the fact that males are haploids make this a fantastic system for looking at the genetics of diversity. Social wasps are abundant and easy to find so while collecting wasps still requires a net, I no longer need a boat to do research. Social insects are also great because there are decades of amazing work on social behavior for these species but there are still many unanswered questions about diversification in social insects.

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

SM: My favorite social insects are, of course, paper wasps! I love the diversity in this group, particularly the color variation both within and among species. Of the 200 or so species of Polistes, my favorite is probably P. fuscatus. Female P. fuscatus have unique facial markings, and other females use these differences to recognize and remember other individuals, making this species (arguably) the “smartest” insect on the planet. My recent research suggests that this new cognitive ability has likely evolved extremely recently, making this species even more remarkable.

A female Polistes fuscatus on her nest. Note her distinctive facial markings!

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

SM: A large component of my PhD was a pretty high-risk project looking for parallel genetic differences between populations of stickleback fish that occurred with and without a predator species. Going in, I had no idea if I would find even a single genetic difference, and I worried that I had spent a lot of time and money on a project that wouldn’t have interesting or interpretable results. When I analyzed the data, to my surprise, I found differences in more than 600 genes – way more than I would have predicted. One of the best things about science is learning something new and being surprised by that answer.

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

SM: I’ve done social insect outreach as part of Insectapalooza, an annual event in which thousands of local residents come to Cornell to learn about the exciting world of insects. Along with the other members of the lab, I explained to visitors why wasps are so cool.  We set up a “meet a wasp” booth where visitors had the chance to touch a male wasp (males lack stingers) and this was a huge hit, especially with little kids. It was really rewarding to see people changing the way they thought about these often-misaligned species.  

Sara Miller talking about facial recognition at Insectapalooza

Otherwise, a lot of my outreach activities are focused on data digitization and increasing data accessibility. Digitizing and archiving data is important because it increases the diversity of users of that data, and provides baseline information for tracking how species respond to global change. In the context of natural history collections, digitizing specimens allows researchers, science educators, and people from all over the world to interact with the specimens in the collection. I’ve been working with the Cornell University Insect Collection (CUIC) and other natural history collections to photograph, barcode, and transcribe label information associated with specimens. Digitizing natural history collections is a gargantuan task and collections need all of the help they can get so I urge other social insect researchers to consider volunteering at their local natural history collection.

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

SM: The world is becoming increasingly difficult for all insects as these species face simultaneous challenges from changes in climate, land use, pesticides, and invasive species. I think that basic research on the ecology of social insects – how they interact with other social and non-social insect species, the impact of social insects on the ecological community, and what factors limit or promote the expansion of species ranges – will be important for understanding how environmental change will affect social insect species and will provide important information on how to mitigate these effects in the future.

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

SM: There are a lot of unanswered questions and interesting ongoing research about which genes or other genetic mechanisms are necessary for caste development, how conserved are these mechanisms across independent origins of sociality, and how did these mechanisms evolve.

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

SM: If I’m not reading for work, I mainly read fiction. The last books I read were, “Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch and “The Circle” by Dave Eggers. “Dark Matter” is a novel about alternative realities and the consequences of the choices we make, and “The Circle” reads like your crazy relative wrote a 400-page conspiracy theory about social media but also happened to be a pretty good writer. I’d recommend them both if you like fast-paced Sci-Fi.

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

SM: I’m an avid reader, and like to go hiking, or do yoga. I enjoy nature photography and working with social insects has been a great motivation to try to improve my macrophotography skills.

A female Polistes metricus wasp collected in 1896 from the region that would later become the state of Oklahoma.

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

SM: When field work gets tough, I always think of this anecdote by Jonathan Losos from his book, “Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree”. Early in his PhD, he spent days unable to do any research because a key on his computer needed to start his equipment stopped working in the rain. Finally, the sun came out, his key dried out, the experiment worked, and he eventually ended up a professor at Harvard University. Just because you encounter setbacks, doesn’t mean that you won’t eventually succeed. Keep going, be willing to be flexible, and try to learn from the experience so you can make completely different mistakes next time!

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

SM: I would bring equipment for staying connected to friends, family, and collaborators.

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

SM: I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great mentors throughout my career but my PhD advisor, Dolph Schluter, has probably had the greatest influence. He is a meticulous thinker and taught me to consider both the “big picture” of how my research fits into the larger context of science, and to think about all possible explanations for my data.

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

SM: Doing science is much more frustrating and rewarding than learning about science in class. My advice for undergrads interested in a career in science is to get involved in research to see if it is right for you. Contact labs that do research that sounds interesting or look for Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) programs.

The Polistes collection at the American Museum of Natural History, New York

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

SM: I had the opportunity to visit the insect collections at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington D.C and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Combined, these collections have more than 20,000 Polistes specimens from an incredible number of species. It was really interesting both to see species from all over the world and to get a window into the past through these specimens. Some of the oldest Polistes specimens were collected in the 19th Century and it is remarkable to consider how much the world and science have changed since those specimens were collected.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Yoshihiro Y Yamada

You can read Yoshihiro’s recent research article about the influence of photoperiods on caste fate of paper wasps here.

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

My name is Yoshihiro Y Yamada. I am a professor emeritus at Mie University, Japan: I retired at the end of March 2020. I have been studying the behavioral ecology of parasitoids and host-parasitoid population dynamics over 40 years, and I started to study the social biology of paper wasps around 2005. I will continue to study the social biology of paper wasps as long as I am healthy.

Yoshihiro Y Yamada in Zen meditation

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

The late Dr. Matsuura, former professor of Insect Ecology Lab at Mie University, was an expert in the biology of Polistinae (paper wasps) and Vespinae (hornets). I had often talked with him and his students, and I became interested in paper wasps and had several questions about the biology of paper wasps. I am now exploring answers to these questions with my coworker Dr. Yoshimura.

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

Paper wasps. I have observed them for so many years that I feel as if I could understand how they feel, what they want, and what they are thinking about.

Nest of Polistes jokahamae. Photo: Hideto Yoshimura

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

Regarding the field of the social biology of paper wasps, our best discovery is that photoperiod is an important factor for determination of caste fate in the paper wasp Polistes jokahamae (Yoshimura and Yamada 2018, 2021). Bohm (1972) suggested that that photoperiod could influence determination of caste fate in P. metricus, but no researchers have studied the effects of photoperiod in paper wasps since Bohm. Many researchers appear to disagree with the importance of photoperiod. Our preliminary experiments suggest that photoperiod influences determination of caste fate in several other temperate paper wasps. We are sure that most temperate paper wasps use photoperiod as a cue for determination of caste fate.

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

I sometime teach the biology of bees and wasps, including current hot topics and our recent works to high school students and adults interested in the development of science.

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

Regarding social wasps, mechanisms for caste-fate determination and for establishment and maintenance of queen royalty are important themes for current studies. Comparative studies of several species are essential for future research.  In addition, it is important to keep in mind that several factors are involved in the mechanisms.

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

Regarding social wasps, do adults emerge with a caste-related bias? In other words, to what degree does preimaginal caste determination occur? Answering this question is critical for understanding the origin of eusociality and transition from primitive to advanced eusociality.

Hideto Yoshimura, smiling, with a large nest in his hand

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

Pheromones and Animal Behavior: Chemical Signals and Signatures, by Tristram D. Wyatt (2014). I strongly recommend students interested in pheromone communication in animals including insects and vertebrates. The book is quite readable, particularly for people without special knowledge of chemistry. Researchers also might get some hints from the book.

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

Gardening. I am trying to make a garden attractive to animals. When my wife and I have breakfast or tea while watching insects, birds and cats visiting our garden, we have a peaceful and wonderful time.

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

I go to an onsen (hot spring) area for relaxation. In addition, I practice Zen meditation.

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

My wife Tomoko, survival kit including fishing equipment, and sake. I cannot imagine the world without them.

Hideto Yoshiura collecting a nest

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

Dr. Tomo Royama and his book, Analytical Population Dynamics: I managed to understand the essence of population dynamics through him and the book.  I hear that his new book will be published soon.  I am looking forward to reading it.

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

I hope that young researchers will have their own questions and explore them, not just follow current hot topics.

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

Campus and experimental farm and forest of Mie University and mountain and hill areas in Mie prefecture: many insects, including wasps and bees, are found in the areas.

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

I would like to go to subtropical and tropical areas and explore the biology of paper wasps.

How best to sample termites – or the importance of loo rolls

By Paul Eggleton

Based on research for the review paper, in press: “A.B. Davies, C.L. Parr and P. Eggleton. A global review of termite sampling methods. Insectes Sociaux.”

The three co-authors (from left to right: Kate Parr, Andrew Davies and Paul Eggleton) giving out a certificate to a student at a termite identification course in South Africa.

Social insects have always been difficult to sample. Do we count the colonies or the individuals; the organism or the superorganism? The bumble bees buzzing in your garden, are they really separate beings or just flying bits of an individual that is, in fact, much bigger?  But at least bees and wasps fly, so can be sampled using nets or traps that catch insects on the wing, and ants are usually running around on the ground, so can be sampled using traps that they fall into. When it comes to termites, only the reproductive caste flies, and all the wingless individuals, the soldiers and the workers are underground in the soil or hidden in dead wood.  This wouldn’t matter if termites were rare and unimportant things, but, in fact, they make up a huge amount of global animal biomass and are known to be extremely important for ecological processes. This poses a real problem for termite quantitative sampling, which is vital if we are to understand the role of termites in ecosystems. We discuss this in our recent paper, where we review termite sampling methods.

Termites are found predominantly in the tropics, in areas that traditionally have been hard to access. They are at their most abundant in tropical rain forests and savannas, places that are hot and often extremely humid.

Soldiers of Macrotermes bellicosus on the surface of dead wood, Kenya

The most obvious way to sample termites is to extract them from their mounds or nests. Termite mounds are easy to find, and although some of them may have a hard outer wall, are easy to get into. However, this will not give an accurate estimate of the species present as only a small fraction of termites have conspicuous mounds. Most colonies live underground, with no visible external structures. In fact, here are really only two ways to sample termites effectively – sampling them directly by picking them out of where they live or attracting them with baits.

A toilet roll out in the field for monitoring porposes (Sabah, Malaysia)

In dry areas, such as dry savannas and deserts, toilet roll baits are the most effective way of assessing termite diversity and activity. They are essentially cellulose, which is like a chocolate snack for a termite. In fact, termites generally gobble up the outer tissue rapidly and leave the inner roll behind. The termites can be taken directly out of the roll and the state of the roll can be assessed for termite activity. This works because in drier areas there is generally only wood feeders and there are few termites that can be extracted from the dry, hard soil. The main problem is that they are attractive to larger animals, particularly people, and they can, fairly often, be removed or disturbed by pigs or dogs. Toilet rolls are a major part of my group’s field work tools, and shopkeepers are often surprised when you buy their whole stock of loo roll in one go. They must wonder why on earth we need so much!

Toilet rolls waiting to be deployed (Sabah, Malaysia).

In wetter areas the problem there is the opposite – there are too many termites that live in the soil and are not attracted to cellulose baits. Soil-feeding termites become increasingly important as the environment becomes wetter and more stable. They feed directly on the soil and are important elements of the nitrogen cycle. Most of these termites are found living underground, with no obvious nest structures and so digging up the soil is the only way to find them. This is also related to the habitat complexity, as soil feeding termites are predominantly found in tropical rainforest, which show great horizontal and vertical variation, across the ground and up the trees. This means there are more places to search in tropical rain forests than in drier savannas – the soil, in mounds and nests, in and on trees, in dead wood, in the soil, and in the buttress roots of trees.

The authors’ student Fidele, sampling termites using the ‘transect method’ in a Gabonese rainforest.

We recommend some standardised methods in the paper, and essentially propose a standard method, and modifications of it that were developed in the late 90s, by my colleague, David Jones and me.  This involves intensive searching of a 100 m x 2 m “transect”, and takes, a rather gruelling, 20 person hours to complete.  In areas, such as wet savanna, where there are fewer trees, and many fewer places to search, we have reduced this to a fraction of this time, while still retaining the same general principles.

There are some habitats where sampling is harder. Grasslands tend to have surface foraging grass-feeding species that do not come to toilet roll baits and have unpredictable foraging patterns, usually at night. Sampling termites using a head torch is probably a step too far for even the most dedicated termitologist.

Lessons learned from three years as Social Media Editor

Happy holidays social insect enthusiasts!

It’s been a big year, for many reasons. The Insectes Sociaux blog has had over six thousand readers worldwide, and we have continued to build our community over social media. During the COVID-19 pandemic, social insect scientists have shared their coping strategies and advice for others amid chaotic transitions in research and teaching while continuing to publish exciting research in our journal. I would like to take this opportunity to express my heartfelt thanks to all of the blog contributors and interviewees for providing some brilliant insight and candid stories during this time.

I’ve had a wonderful three years as Social Media Editor for Insectes Sociaux, but it’s time for me to move on. I have been pursuing a Ph.D. while I’ve held this position, and interacting with you all has enriched my scientific training and been instrumental in connecting me to the global social insect community. It is difficult to step away from such a rewarding experience, but life (as it tends to do) has taken me down different paths, and I can no longer give this position the time and energy it deserves. Daniela Römer has been working alongside me for many months now and is taking over the role completely.

Part of what makes Insectes Sociaux special is that it is a truly international journal, publishing science conducted by individuals at all career stages worldwide. This globality has made working for the journal all the more rewarding, as I have had the pleasure of seeking blog contributors diverse as the contributors to the journal. I have been reminded daily of the immense diversity and interconnectedness of science, and the field of social insect science in particular – something that makes this field incredibly fun and exciting. I hope to see an even greater expansion of our authors, audience, and research opportunities for social insect scientists around the world going forward.

Besides the regular inspiration I have gathered from our blog contributors, I have learned a lot about communicating science over social media and in blog form. I have compiled a few key takeaways from my experience as Social Media Editor:

Social insect scientists contain multitudes and are super friendly.

I have interviewed nearly fifty social insect scientists over the years and read interviews conducted by my counterparts Daniela and Bernie Wittwer. In every interview, I have discovered something unexpected, inspiring, or hilarious. I mean, y’all seriously know how to have a good time! From dangling above a pool of dolphins to spot a bee colony to embroidering and illustrating your study organisms, social insect scientists love to combine travel, adventure, and creativity with their research. I love that this community of scientists values and promotes a diversity of hobbies, activities, and lifestyles! I have also learned that it is way easier to reach out to scientists than I thought when I was a new graduate student. It can be intimidating to cold-email someone whose work you admire and who has been at the job for decades longer than you. But I have experienced overwhelming friendliness and enthusiasm in responses from scientists of all ages, career stages, and nationalities. No matter what career level you are at, if you have a question or simply admire someone’s work, reach out to them! Social insect scientists are an exceptionally friendly bunch.

Behind almost every study is a hidden motivation, an unexpected turn of events, or an adventure not reported in the paper.

The blog format is remarkable because it allows scientists to tell the backstory of their study – all the details that an academic paper format simply does not allow. Although we write academic papers in a way that makes it seem like we carried out our research in a very logical and straightforward manner, we all know that this is rarely the way it goes down in reality. Instead of a well-formulated research question succinctly coming to us in the lab, we observed a crazy ant behavior in the park. We then messed around with some ant workers in our basement at home until we had any sort of clue what might be going on. Instead of the clean 100 replicates we had planned, half the colonies died in the lab, someone mislabeled a microcentrifuge tube or two, the dog chewed on your lab notebook, or a pandemic interrupted behavioral trials. Sometimes “collecting colonies” means dressing from head-to-toe in a bee suit and tramping through the rainforest for miles by the light of a headlamp. And sometimes, “collecting data at 1-hour intervals for 24 hours” really entails staying up all night with your labmate as you play games and watch movies to keep each other awake. Academic journal articles never contain the full story, and often not the most exciting one. As scientists, we are trained to be as objective as possible, which is just what we need in analyzing and reporting the results of our work. However, we must remember the human side of science. The act of pursuing scientific inquiry is this amazing interplay between our intuition and our logic, and that’s why it’s such a human experience. How do we keep humanity in science? Through storytelling. And blogs are an excellent platform for storytelling. The origin story of your childhood that led to your scientific interests today. The people you met while traveling for fieldwork. The ways in which an experiment forged an unexpected friendship. When we tell our stories in an authentic, jargon-free voice, it is a catalyst for human connection around our science.

Communicating the results of our research can be simple and within reach for everyone.

Although there is a lot to be said for honing science communication skills, there is no reason why it needs to be a complicated endeavor. Communicating science is easily within everyone’s reach! I have learned some simple things everyone can easily do to make their science more accessible and engaging for everyone:

  1. PHOTOS: Everyone loves pictures and, nine times out of ten, will be drawn to them more than the PDF of your journal article. It doesn’t even matter much what the subject matter of the photo is – snap a photo of your study organism, experimental setup, or gel electrophoresis result – even if you think it’s a boring photo, chances are someone who doesn’t work with your study system will find it fascinating or at least intriguing. Think nobody will understand what the photo is depicting? That’s where the intrigue starts! In the end, it’s less important that your audience understands the image entirely and more important that it inspires questions and opens a conversation. In the end, science is an attempt to understand the beauty of the world, and photos can accomplish this too. Social media (Instagram, in particular) is a great place to share pictures because many people engage with these platforms every day, and posting a photo only takes a minute or two. 
  1. STORIES: Humans arguably love stories more than photos. And what’s better – we’re natural storytellers as a species. As mentioned above, chances are there is a backstory to your study. No need to write the next great novel or film a Discovery Channel show about it; simply tell the story to your neighbor, the person sitting next to you on an airplane, or your family at the dinner table. It will likely start a more in-depth conversation about your research, which is your chance to get into the details of your work if that’s what you want to do. 
  2. REACH OUT: Inspired by someone’s work and want to discuss research ideas? Send them an email – science communication doesn’t only have to be aimed at the general public. Notice that the journal where you just published has a blog or social media presence? Let them know that you would like to contribute – they are usually looking for scientists just like you to help them produce content. Notice that the journal does not have a blog or social media presence? Suggest they start one – it will make the science they publish more accessible, and they will likely gain a broader readership as a result—a win-win for everyone.

Stay kind, adventurous, and curious, social insect enthusiasts! And keep your eyes open for more social insect content from Daniela on our sites into the future.

Thanks again, everyone,

Madison Sankovitz

Ants can learn lots, fast

by Tomer Czaczkes

Based on research for the paper “T.J. Czaczkes and P. Kumar. In press. Very rapid multi-odour discrimination learning in the ant Lasius niger. Insectes Sociaux.”

Most people are shocked to hear that ants can learn. While the readers of this blog are probably not surprised by this, quite how good they are might come as a surprise – it certainly surprised me! In our recent study, Pragya Kumar and I found that Black Garden ants (Lasius niger) can learn at least two (most likely three) odour-sugar associations, having only experienced each combination twice. They can learn one association in just one visit.

A curious Lasius niger forager sporting a stylish blue gaster mark. Painting ants helps us follow our trained ant over multiple training visits.

The joys of comparative psychology:

Let’s unpack that: we were exploring discrimination learning, where the ant has to learn that one odour (e.g. rose) means very sweet sugar water, another (e.g. lemon) quite sweet, another (e.g. lavender) slightly sweet, and another (e.g. blackberry) just a teeny bit sweet. If the ant learns successfully, she should prefer rose to lemon, and lemon to lavender. They should never prefer blackberry when one of the other options is available. So, we let individually-marked ants up a bridge to find a drop of flavoured sugar, then let her go back to the nest, and when she came back for a second visit she found another drop with a different taste and a different sweetness. After she’s experienced each combination once or twice, we give her a choice on a Y-maze: for example, does she follow the arm which smells like lemon, or the arm which smells like lavender? By the way, the methods are all published in another Insectes Sociaux paper (Czaczkes, 2018). And if you have a 3D printer, you can print your own mazes too.

The 3D printer Y-maze we used, with added walls (not used in this experiment). Why not print yourself one?

Ants made mostly correct decisions, even if they only experienced each taste/quality combination once. Clever ants! So… why did I say that ants can learn “at least two” combinations? Well, we simply can’t be sure of more.

Consider our situation: Rose > lemon >  lavender >  blackberry. Firstly, they didn’t prefer lavender to blackberry. So, we’re down to three. Now, imagine that the ants never learned the second worst smell (lavender). What would her decisions look like? It would still prefer lemon > lavender, because lemon is better than nothing. So, we’re down to two we can be sure of. Now, we’re pretty sure they learned lavender, but we just couldn’t prove it in this setup!

This, to me, is the joy of comparative psychology – every experiment is like a logical puzzle, where evidence builds up, ruling out alternative explanations, until you run out of alternatives (or evidence). I admit, it’s hard work – or, at least, I find it hard. Sometimes I feel my brain creaking under the pressure. But it’s also very rewarding, when you’ve lined up your evidence, and can knock the alternatives out. Even finding the logical holes is fun, as happened in this experiment!

A lucky marked L. niger forager enjoying a drop of high quality sucrose solution. Yum!

Back to the ants   

So, L. niger ants can learn quite a lot, and fast. Why is that interesting? Firstly, it’s perhaps surprising, given how small their brains are. But enough e-ink has been spilled on this topic. More practically, this opens the door to performing complex training regimes and tests. A lot of psychological research involves asking the question: “which option do you prefer, A or B? How about C or D?”. Because we cannot simply ask animals, we have to train them to associate each option with a cue, and then see which they prefer. So, for example, we can ask if ants like to gamble by teaching them that lemon is a risky smell, but rose is a safe smell. Being able to quickly train ants to complex option sets can open the door to a much deeper understanding of how ants think, what they like, and how they make decisions.


Czaczkes T.J. 2018. Using T- and Y-mazes in myrmecology and elsewhere: a practival guide. Insectes Sociaux 65, 213-224

Simple behaviors – collective outcomes. How individuals affect group decisions.

By Stamatios Nicolis

Based on research for the paper “Nicolis, Pin, Calvo Martín, Planas-Sitjà and Deneubourg. In press. Sexual group composition and shelter geometry affect collective decision-making: the case of Periplaneta americana. Insectes Sociaux

Gregarious arthropods such as cockroaches, constitute the most widespread social species in the animal kingdom. Yet, as far as collective decision-making is concerned, most of the literature is focused on eusocial insects such as ants or termites, which are complex societies. In comparison, cockroaches of the species Periplaneta americana have (as far as we know) no division of labor. During the night, each individual of this species searches for food and during the day, the individuals are at rest. While the first activity is solitary, the second one is collective and implies interactions between individuals. Moreover, resting often happens in shelters that provide protection against predators and whose selection depends on their shape and/or their physical characteristics such as the level of darkness or the temperature.

The aim of the study was to look at the influence of the shape of the shelters and of the sexual composition of groups of individual cockroachesin the decision-making outcome, and to highlight the interactions at work. Despite their less sophisticated modes of communication, our objective was to demonstrate that some combinations of environmental and group-related factors could lead to different collective behaviors that are reminiscent to those observed in eusocial insects.

To do so, we performed lab experiments in which three different group compositions were faced with three different environments. Groups either constituted of 16 males, of 16 females or of 8 males and 8 females. As for the environments, the three different groups had to choose between two identical horizontal shelters where individuals can only settle on the floor of the shelters, two identical vertical ones where cockroaches can settle on the walls and the floor, or one vertical and one horizontal shelter.

Experimental set-up consisting of an arena and two dark shelters (a) along with an example of organization within a vertical (b) and a horizontal (c) shelter.

For the nine conditions we showed that the sheltering behavior implies different levels of interactions between individuals and therefore different levels of collective choices depending on the different group compositions tested. In particular, for the symmetrical geometrical conditions (two vertical and two horizontal shelters), the social inter-attraction between individuals in homogenous groups of males are weaker than the ones in homogenous groups of females or in heterogenous groups of males and females. Formulated differently, males have difficulty reaching consensus (all individuals within the same shelter), which is not the case for the groups of females or mixed-groups.

While it is known that these insects prefer to stand vertically, we expected to observe different collective choices between the two symmetrical (two horizontal or two vertical shelters) conditions, but we didn’t. Yet, in the asymmetrical case (one horizontal vs one vertical shelter), the choice towards the vertical shelter was clear for the three group compositions, although the homogenous groups of males and of females had a weaker selection than the mixed groups of males and females. This result may sound puzzling considering the results obtained for the symmetrical conditions, but could be explained by the fact that homogenous populations of males, while having weaker social interattractions between them (as compared to females), are counterbalanced by a higher preference for the vertical shelter. Conversely, females have stronger interattractions between them and a lower individual preference for the vertical shelter. As for the mixed groups, the strong male-female interattractions coupled with the vertical position preference for the males led to a stronger selection of the vertical shelter as compared to the homogenous groups.

Finally, in terms of internal organization within the vertical shelters, no sexual segregation was found to be at work. But we showed that the tendency to stand in the vertical part of the shelter is amplified with the sheltered population for groups of females and for mixed groups but is independent for groups of males.

The results obtained thanks to experiments in a simple device show that the coupling between individual responses to the environmental heterogeneities and the network of interactions between individuals can lead to a diversity of responses. While they contribute also to our understanding of how individuals of Periplaneta americana are interacting and how they collectively choose their resting place, the genericity of the mechanisms implied lead to the conviction that the phenomena presented are likely to be present in species presenting the same modes of organization.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Katja Kwaku

You can read Katja’s recent research article about leaf transfer behaviour in Atta cephalotes here.

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

My name is Katja Kwaku and I am a Master’s student in the Biology department of Tufts University. I’m an ecologist; I’ve worked on a variety of projects, but I’m generally interested in behavioral ecology and global change biology.

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

I’ve been fascinated by animals and their behavior since I was little, but I only really became interested in social insects and leafcutter ants in particular in 2019 when I worked as an educator at the Montshire Museum of Science in Vermont. The Montshire has a colony of honey bees and a colony of leafcutter ants. The leafcutter ants constituted one of the museum’s most popular exhibits and visitors of all ages always asked great questions. Sometimes, I didn’t know the answer to a question, and moments like these inspired me to delve into the primary literature and start researching leafcutter ants.

Social insect researcher Katja Kwaku.

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

Clearly, I am biased, but I have to go with leafcutter ants. There are so many strong interspecific interactions at play! Leafcutter ants have a mutualistic symbiotic relationship with the fungus they cultivate in their underground nests, they rely on bacteria in many ways to mediate this ant-fungus interaction, and they are voracious herbivores of many tree species. Also, they’re just so adorable when they’re carrying leaf fragments.

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

I’m relatively new to research, but I would say the best moment so far was witnessing leafcutter ants transfer leaf fragments to one another for the first time. My classmates and I had spent several months reading articles about leaf transfer and had finally travelled from Boston to Costa Rica to do a project about it, so it was such a relief seeing leaf transfer with my own eyes and knowing that the entire basis of our project wouldn’t fall through. It was also really exciting to see leafcutter ants transfer fragments directly to one another on tree trunks because leaf transfer in that context, to my knowledge, has not been explicitly documented before.

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

Yes! I am currently a teaching assistant and have served as an educator at various science museums in the past. I love highlighting the connections between my research and the material I’m teaching, even if they’re not directly related, because it shows how everything in science is connected and relays why I’m excited to teach the material and why I think it’s important.

Leafcutter ants on their foraging trail. Photo: Katja Kwaku

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

Some important research questions involve understanding how insects use specific cues to drive foraging decisions and communication. Understanding the mechanisms behind fundamental behaviors will give insight into how to best conserve insect species and associated ecosystem services such as pollination and decomposition.

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

One topic of debate relevant to social insect research is whether or not global insect decline or the “insect apocalypse” is actually happening. There is evidence of insect population declines in many areas, but there are so few insect monitoring programs around the world that we run into the issue of having insufficient data to make a generalized conclusive statement about it.

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

The last book I read was Silent Sparks: The Wonderous World of Fireflies by Tufts professor Sara Lewis. I would recommend it because it’s scientific in content but written like a novel, so it’s an interesting and easy read!

Katja Kwaku and her co-author Elena Gonick observing leafcutter ants in Costa Rica.

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

I love dancing and doing yoga. I also enjoy making videos with my family and friends.

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

Things often don’t go as planned in ecology, so I like to laugh about all the unexpected field work mishaps; they make great stories for later. I also like to reach out to and talk with friends and get exercise when things get tough.

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

I’m the cautious type, so my immediate instinct would be to bring first aid supplies! Otherwise, I would bring a hammock to relax in, binoculars to better enjoy the landscape and wildlife, and a notebook to document my experiences.

Leafcutter ant on an artificial foraging trail. Photo: Katja Kwaku

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

Dr. Colin Orians has been an excellent mentor and professor during my time as a Master’s student. He was always happy to spend lots of time with me discussing science, but ultimately encouraged me to make my own research decisions and let me think for myself.

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

Be patient, since insects don’t always cooperate with experiments right away. Also, if possible, try to send time outdoors observing wildlife outside of dedicated research hours. Your observations will remind you of insects’ magnificence and might inspire your next research question!

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

This is such a hard question since every place is different and has its own positives. One of my favorite places is Long Point, Ontario, where I helped study the endangered Fowler’s toad population. The auditory experience of several frog species chorusing in addition to the sounds of birds and insects at night was enchanting.

Can desert ants take the heat?

by Sean O’Donnell

Based on research for the paper “O’Donnell, S., S. Bulova, V. Caponera, K. Oxman, & I. Giladi. In press. Species differ in worker body size effects on critical thermal limits in seed-harvesting desert ants (Messor ebeninus and M. arenarius). Insectes Sociaux.”

A key puzzle in understanding animal biodiversity is how species with similar ecological needs, sometimes even closely related species, can coexist in a habitat. Why doesn’t competition for shared resources lead to some of the competing species going extinct? If we can understand how species manage to partition their environments, we may gain insights into how high species diversity is maintained. 

In the deserts of the Mediterranean and Middle East, seed-harvesting ants of the genus Messor provide a great study case of this conundrum. Several Messor species often co-occur and all harvest the seeds of desert plants for food. Within nests, Messor ant workers differ widely in body size, and species can further differ in average worker body sizes. Body size affects seed choice, but Messor species still overlap widely on the types of seeds they harvest. Do other factors help reduce interspecific competition?

Deserts are challenging to animal life in many ways, including their famously extreme temperatures. Many deserts, including the Negev, swing from being exceptionally hot to very cold. Small-bodied animals like ants, unable to thermoregulate when working outside their nests, are especially vulnerable to local temperature extremes. 

My lab’s earlier work on army ants (Baudier et al. 2015, 2018) showed that worker body size differences within and among species were associated with the ants’ abilities to withstand temperature extremes. Smaller workers are generally more vulnerable to extremely high temperatures. We hypothesized that Messor species differences in thermal sensitivity, perhaps associated with body size variation, could affect their ability to function in extreme desert temperatures. Differences in thermal biology could influence the species’ relative abilities to harvest seeds under different temperature conditions. A first step in exploring this possibility was to test whether worker ant thermal physiology was related to body size with and between species. We chose two Messor species that co-occur in the northern Negev desert in Israel as research subjects: M. ebeninus and M. arenarius. Messor ebeninus workers range smaller, and M. arenarius workers range larger, but there is some species overlap in worker body sizes.

Ein Avdat National Park provides a stunning setting for the Ben Gurion University Desert Research Center

We collected workers from several nests of each species. Then we brought them to Itamar Giladi’s lab at the Desert Research Center of Ben Gurion University for physiological analysis. We placed single workers in vials in either a digitally-controlled heating or cooling device. By slowly ramping the temperatures up or down and watching for cessation of the ants’ behavioral responses, we determined the maximum or minimum critical temperature for each worker. After the thermal physiology trials, we measured each worker’s head width as an indicator of body size variation. We asked whether worker body size was associated with critical thermal maxima and minima both within and between the species.

The research crew hiking in Ein Avdat Park (left to right: PhD student Karmi Oxman, co-PI Itamar Giladi, research associate Susan Bulova, PhD student Virginia Caponera)

We found that body size was related to maximum thermal tolerance in complex ways. In the larger species, M. arenarius, workers of all sizes were similarly tolerant of high-temperature extremes. In contrast, body size was strongly related to maximum tolerated temperature in M. ebeninus: smaller workers were more thermally sensitive and could not function at temperatures as high as their larger nestmates; larger M. ebeninus overlapped in size with smaller M. arenarius and were similarly thermally tolerant. Worker size showed no relationships with low-temperature tolerance in either species.

Messor ebeninus ant workers returning to their nest from foraging

These results suggest extreme high desert temperatures could differentially affect these two Messor species and their abilities to forage for seeds. We expect smaller M. ebeninus workers to be restricted to foraging at cooler temperatures. Whether the smaller workers only, or the entire foraging force, drop out at higher temperatures remains to be tested (Baudier & O’Donnell 2017). But our results do suggest that temperature effects differ between ant species that share the same habitat and food resource. Species differences in thermal physiology may promote species coexistence.

PI Sean O’Donnell collecting workers from a nest of the ant Messor arenarius
PhD students Karmi Oxman (l) and Virginia Caponera running thermal tolerance trials on Messor ant workers in Itamar Giladi’s lab


Baudier KM, D’Amelio CL, Malhotra R, O’Connor MP, O’Donnell S. 2018. Extreme insolation: climatic variation shapes the evolution of thermal tolerance at different scales. American Naturalist 192: 347-359.

Baudier KM, Mudd AE, Erickson SC, O’Donnell S. 2015. Microhabitat and body size effects on heat tolerance: implications for responses to climate change (army ants: Formicidae, Ecitoninae). Journal of Animal Ecology 84: 1322-1330.

Baudier KM, O’Donnell S. 2017. Weak links: How colonies counter the social costs of individual variation in thermal physiology. Current Opinion in Insect Science 22: 85-91.

All images taken by the author.

Interview with a social insect scientist: Robin Southon

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

Who are you, and what do you do?

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

How did you develop an interest in your research?

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

What is your favorite social insect, and why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another cold war relic home to wasps – Trinidad

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you keep going when things get tough?

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

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

Polybia nest – Trinidad

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

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

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

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

What is your favorite place science has taken you?

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

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

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