How Studying Sociality in Bees Shapes One Entomologist’s Role in Society
By Monique Rivera, Ph.D.
Editor’s Note: This is the next post in the “Standout ECPs” series contributed by the Entomological Society of America’s Early Career Professionals (ECP) Committee, highlighting outstanding ECPs that are doing great work in the profession. (An ECP is defined as anyone within the first five years of obtaining their terminal degree in their field.) Learn more about the work ECPs are doing within ESA, and read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.
Hollis Woodard, Ph.D., is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of California, Riverside. Woodard was the 2017 recipient of the Excellence in Early Career award for the ESA Pacific Branch, and in 2015 she served as a co-author on the ESA Position Statement on Pollinator Health. Below, we ask Hollis a few questions about her research and the inspiration for her career choice.
Rivera: What would you say is the main goal of your research?
Woodard: My research group is trying to learn as much as we can about the basic biology and evolution of bumble bees so that we can understand and try to save them.
Have you always studied bees? How did this come to be your study organism?
I worked with paper wasps in the first year of my Ph.D. and still have a soft spot for them, but then I started working on bumble bees and I haven’t looked back since. I did my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois with Gene Robinson, who developed the honey bee into a model system for studying the genomic basis of social behavior. I want to try to do something similar in my system, which is to work with the research community to build bumble bees into a system that can be used for answering complex questions about social biology, ecology, evolution, and also conservation.
What is the most interesting research challenge that you have encountered and what was your approach to solving it?
The focus of my Ph.D. was on figuring out how sociality evolved in the corbiculate bees [those with pollen baskets] using molecular approaches. This is quite a challenge, considering that these bees probably evolved sociality more than 100 million years ago! I approached the problem using two strategies, one of which was inspired by the work of Andy Clark at Cornell University, who at the time was performing some of the first large-scale, cross-species comparative genomic studies of human evolution. Andy ended up collaborating with us on a project that involved generating and comparing a lot of sequence data for bees with varying types of sociality, which yielded some new insights into genes that are rapidly evolving in social corbiculate bee lineages and might be important for bee social evolution.
The other approach was inspired by the work of Amy Toth at Iowa State University, who was using comparative analyses of brain gene expression to study social evolution in paper wasps. Amy had the idea that, essentially, comparisons of expression patterns across particular life history stages in extant species might shed light on social evolution. This was a molecular extension of Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s ideas about groundplans and social evolution. I used this approach in bumble bees to try to figure out how maternal care behavior evolved in the group. It was a lot of fun to use new molecular approaches to try to answer some long-standing questions about social bees.
You’re a research scientist and professor and yet you still seem to prioritize outreach. How do all of these responsibilities intersect for you and what do you enjoy most?
All of these activities—my research, outreach, activism, everything—intersect completely for me. How can I only do basic research if I know that the group I study is disappearing? How can we conserve bumble bees if there are so many things about their basic biology that we don’t fully understand?
Also, outreach is a political act for me. Every public presentation on bees is an opportunity to talk about much broader things like the reality of evolution and the importance of conservation. These themes are poorly understood among some sectors of the public in ways that are holding back social progress and hurting marginalized groups. I’m from a very small town in the south, and my educational experience growing up was altogether inadequate. I used to be embarrassed about that, but now I draw a lot of inspiration from it and it compels me to be outspoken in these kinds of ways.
Finally, if you had to pick a single favorite insect what would it by and why?
Well now of course I’m going to say bumble bees, probably a species in the circumpolar subgenus Alpinobombus. But the runners-up are cicadas, paper wasps, burying beetles, and pollen wasps (masarines).
Monique Rivera, Ph.D., is an assistant cooperative extension specialist at the University of California, Riverside. She is also the Pacific Branch Representative to the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Email: email@example.com.
All photos courtesy of Hollis Woodard, Ph.D.