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How One Entomologist Explores Flowers’ Dual Role for Bee Health

Laura Figueroa, Ph.D., holding two insects, one in each hand

Meet Laura Figueroa, Ph.D., postdoctoral researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst whose work in bee ecology and conservation earned her a spot in the Early Career Professional Recognition Symposium at the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of ESA, ESC, and ESBC. Learn more about Figueroa and her work in this next installment of our “Standout Early Career Professionals” series. Here, Figueroa participates in Insectapalooza, an annual science outreach event hosted by the entomology department at Cornell University, where she earned her Ph.D. in 2020.

By Lorena Lopez, 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.) It is also the second in a set of four featuring ECPs selected to present their work during the ECP Recognition Symposium at the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia, November 13-16, in Vancouver. Read past posts in the Standout ECPs series.

Laura Figueroa, Ph.D.

Laura Figueroa, Ph.D.

Laura Figueroa, Ph.D., is currently a National Science Foundation (NSF) Postdoctoral Research Fellow in biology in the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she is developing a bioacoustics tool to monitor bees based on their sounds, as well as working to understand how different plant species mediate bee-disease dynamics in wildflower plantings. Prior to her postdoc, Laura received her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Oklahoma in 2015 and her Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University in 2020, where she investigated pathogen transmission in plant-pollinator networks.

Figueroa was selected to present her research at the ECP Recognition Symposium at the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia, November 13-16, in Vancouver. Her presentation in the symposium, titled “Flowers: From dirty doorknobs to pharmacies for foraging bees,” is slated for 9:40 a.m. Pacific Time, on Tuesday, November 15.

Lopez: Can you describe your current research?

Figueroa: I have been working in the field of pollinator ecology for the past nine years, and I care deeply about pollinator health and conservation. One of my current research projects explores the role of different plant species in mediating bee disease dynamics. Many insects, particularly bees, foraging for pollen and nectar gather on flowers. If any of the bees visiting the flowers happen to be sick with an infectious disease, they can leave behind pathogens on the flowers for the next foraging bee to pick up. In this sense, flowers can act as hotspots of disease transmission. Flowers, however, can also provide natural medicines to help curb sick bees’ infections.

My postdoc advisor Dr. Lynn Adler and her colleagues discovered that sunflower pollen strongly and consistently reduces infections of a common trypanosomatid gut pathogen, Crithidia bombi, in the common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens). We followed up this research, finding that the medicinal effect extends to other members of the sunflower family in the laboratory setting and that the effect is driven by the spiny structure of the sunflower pollen. We are now working to understand whether this medicinal effect scales to real-world conditions, supported by a five-year NSF Integrative Research in Biology grant.

In addition, I have spearheaded a cross-disciplinary project working to develop a machine-learning model that can monitor bees based on their sounds in a non-lethal and standardized way. Standardized monitoring of bees is foundational to establishing baseline levels of bee abundance and diversity as well as assessing conservation needs in different environmental conditions. This project bridges together bee biology with cutting-edge computer science. I am very grateful for my collaborators at the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, Drs. Laurel Symes and Shyam Madhusudhana, and hope to have more to share about this project soon!

Laura Figueroa, Ph.D.

Laura Figueroa, Ph.D., is conducting ongoing research on stingless bee biology and ecology, including the carnivorous “vulture bees” in the neo-tropics. Here, Figueroa pauses to examine a map locating the traps baited with chicken meat that her team placed to lure the elusive bees in Costa Rica.

My ongoing research interests also include stingless bee biology and ecology, including the fascinating world of vulture bees in the neo-tropics. I am very interested in learning more about these surprisingly understudied taxa. With my colleagues at University of California, Riverside, and the American Museum of Natural History, we published our first article on this last year, exploring the differences in microbiome for bees that forage on flowers (most bees in the world!), exclusively on vertebrate carcasses for their protein needs (only three known species in the world!), or both.

For this project we set out chicken (bait) traps along transects in Costa Rican forests. (Shoutout to the Organization for Tropical Studies for their amazing facilities and research sites!) We then surveyed the bait traps, collected the bees, and brought them back to the U.S. to look at their gut microbes using deep-sequencing techniques. We found that that vulture bees had novel associations with acidophilic bacteria, similar to other types of carrion feeders such as alligators, black vultures, and turkey vultures.

The article garnered worldwide attention and was rapidly picked up by USA Today, CNN, Smithsonian Magazine, and BBC radio, to name a few. It was exhilarating to see the world get excited by a group of insects that I love and be able to share my enthusiasm with journalists from around the globe. I can’t wait to keep working in this research field!

What’s your favorite aspect of your research?

I love looking for bees in the field! My research projects enable me to work outside only when the weather is nice. (Since the bees don’t forage when it is cold and rainy, that means I get to stay inside too!) Over the years my work on bee ecology has taken me to explore wildlife management areas across the state of Oklahoma, farms along a gradient of landscape simplification in upstate New York, tropical rainforests in Costa Rica, and pollinator-friendly wildflower plantings across western Massachusetts and Connecticut. Recently, I have enjoyed getting to interact with many kind and enthusiastic homeowners and land managers who are establishing pollinator habitats on private property (often their backyards) because they are invested in doing what they can to help bees.

Laura Figueroa, Ph.D.

One part of Laura Figueroa’s research is bridging bee biology with computer science to develop a machine-learning model that can monitor bees based on their sounds in a non-lethal and standardized way. Here, Figueroa sets up an arena to record flight sounds of the common eastern bumble bee (Bombus impatiens).

What’s a recent research challenge you had to overcome, and how did you do it?

I am currently a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biology, an award I am immensely grateful for. I applied for the fellowship in the fall of 2019 and had proposed to work with two incredible advisers, Drs. Katja Poveda and Lynn Adler on a project exploring the interactive effects of landscape context and pesticide pressure on stingless bee health in Colombia. My project was scheduled to start in the fall of 2020 in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic when all international travel was shut down.

NSF was very understanding and supportive of its fellows and encouraged us to find alternative ways of remaining productive and pursuing our research questions within the restrictions imposed by our institutions and governments (state, federal, and international). I was able to remain highly productive by pivoting my research questions to what I could answer with what was available to me, and that enabled me to develop the bee bioacoustics project, which I am very excited about, and I hope it becomes a core tool that I can use for many years to come to address pressing questions in the field of pollinator ecology and conservation.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to your graduate-student self?

Work smarter, not harder. Efficiency matters way more than the number of hours worked. Everyone is learning and still figuring it out, not just you. Be kind to yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions of seminar speakers, peers, and faculty in your department; those conversations can lead to great insights and even future project ideas! And, enjoy the ride.

What is one thing you would change about the field of entomology?

I would like to see more interactions among disciplines within entomology and interdisciplinary collaborations beyond entomology. This includes interactions with social scientists, artists, computer scientists, and many more. Diversity enables creative problem solving, and I believe that we would be much better at dealing with many of the world’s most pressing issues (such as food insecurity, vector-borne diseases, and biodiversity loss) when we work together.

Laura Figueroa, Ph.D.

As a graduate student in entomology, Laura Figueroa, Ph.D. (center), earned first-place honors in the Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section, Pollinator Health, Graduate 10-Min Presentation category of the Student Competition for the President’s Prize at the 2018 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia. Pictured with Figueroa are Tyler Wist, Ph.D., member of the 2018 ESC Student Awards Committee (left) and 2018 ESA President Michael Parrella, Ph.D. (right). (Photo via Entomological Societies of America)

What’s the coolest thing about your job that you wish more people knew?

I love that my job not only requires that I “do” science but also that I communicate that science with many different audiences. This includes, of course, writing grants and manuscripts for peer-reviewed journals and giving presentations at scientific conferences. (The annual ESA meeting is one of my favorite conferences to present in!) There is, however, a whole other side of my job that many people don’t realize exists, which is all about broadening participation in science and engaging with people beyond the scientific community. This allows me to share my love for science and entomology with people from many different backgrounds.

I love thinking creatively about how to engage as effectively as possible with each audience and tailoring my stories about bees and conservation accordingly. The content and style of my presentations are different when I am speaking with a kindergarten class, compared to an after-school program for 8th graders, or with policymakers. Yet, I am always happy to note how certain things get people excited about insects and conservation, regardless of backgrounds, such as when I bring a live bumble bee colony and ask people to try to spot the queen! I have found that most people, including many who initially are adamant about their distaste for all insects, come around and can get excited about the fascinating world of insects.

Learn More

Early Career Professionals Recognition Symposium

2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia, November 13-16, Vancouver

Lorena Lopez, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at Virginia Tech Department of Entomology’s Eastern Shore Agricultural Research and Extension Center and chair of the ESA Early Career Professionals Committee. Twitter: @lorelopez257. Email: lorelopezq257@vt.edu.

All photos courtesy of Laura Figueroa, Ph.D., unless otherwise noted.

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