Last week I attended what was the largest gathering of entomologists ever, at ICE in Orlando, Florida. The weather was beautiful and the conference lived up to its expectations as big! I spent a lot of time travelling between rooms but saw some great diverse talks, and met some lovely new people.

There were great talks acorss the insect olfaction symposia, in particular a talk by Marcus Knaden explaining navigation in the desert ant Cataglyphis. The visuals in this fascinating species were stunning. I enjoyed the evolution of sociality talks as well, and the myrmecophile talks were very interesting if not a little creepy.I gave a talk about our recently submitted research looking at communication evolution in halictids. There were plenty of cool bee talks, and Sarah Lawson’s work on maternal manipulation in Ceratina calcearata stood out.

Overall the conference was very busy, very big and it was fantastic to see the diverse research from all over the world. orlando

The perils of cataloguing complexity

A recent paper in Insectes Sociaux highlights the problems bee researchers have with labels of life-history strategies. The paper (Dew at al. 2015), explains how often the terms we have come to rely on fall short of adequately describing the life-history strategy of any particular species. There are a number of reasons; not least of all is the complexity and variety that persists throughout the bees. One species’ social status may change over the course of seasons, lifetimes and populations. A number of species are solitary, but can be found in aggregations when their nesting substrate is at a premium. Others form cooperative nests for brood care, but are capable of nesting solitarily if required. Some species are polymorphic, with life history strategies differing across populations, and the plasticity of this polymorphism is also varied among species.

I think this diversity is what makes bees such wonderful taxa to study but as shown in Dew et al., the labels we use must not be applied without care. For comparative work however, I have found it more useful to ditch the old terminology altogether and focus on the characters we agree are relevant in the path to sociality (or as may be the case, the path to solitary living). Reproductive skew, number of broods per year, the presence of a worker caste, and perhaps dimorphism in the hierarchy, are but a few characters (sometimes) common to species across the spectrum of sociality. Tracking these characters through losses and gains of behavioural states should be easier to manage in a comparative approach, and yield more relevance in the results, than broader categories and labels may be able to.

Lasioglossum_albipes Lasioglossum albipes – socially polymorphic across populations, a wonderful example of diversity of behaviour that bees demonstrate

The Kimberley

Across a month in August and September my partner and I travelled throughout the Kimberley. This was our third trip to the region – we consider Broome a second home and would definitely love to live there one day. The Kimberley is the most beautiful region I have ever seen, it’s ancient, and the evidence is everywhere you look. Windjana Gorge and Tunnel Creek are carved from Devonian era reef systems, and fossils can be seen as you walk through the area. Fresh water crocodiles are everywhere, even in the pitch black recesses of the cave of Tunnel Creek. Both Windjana and Tunnel Creek were sites for conflict in our more recent history, see the story of Jandamarra, a resistance fighter of the Bunuba. The beauty of this region contrasts with the hardship and pain the original Australians suffered after the Kimberley was colonized for cattle stations. I recommend all visitors understand the story before they travel the region.

Our trip took us along the Gibb River Road, stopping at Manning Gorge, Charnley River, Ellenbrae and El Questro. It’s hard to describe these places in words, they are all stunning, beautiful ranges, gorges, swimming holes and wildlife. There are literally dozens of other beautiful places to explore along the way, that we didn’t get to this trip.

We went as far east as Purnululu National Park, home to the Bungle Bungle Range. Whilst packing up the tent, I had two different species of native bees land on my hands, in contrast to the amazing effort it took to find any the last time we were in the Kimberley on field work. Photos of the bees are below, I think one is Austroplebeia australis, the other essingtoni. I will confirm the identification soon.

Our Kimberley trip was amazing, and we’ll be back as soon as we can. It’s a very underrated part of the country, even by the rest of Western Australia. I can’t recommend travel through this region enough!

Purnululu bee australis? Austroplebeia australis (?) Purnululu National Park, WA

Purnululu bee essingtoni? Austroplebeia essingtoni (?) Purnululu National Park, WA

ESEB 2015

I attended ESEB15 in August in Lausanne, Switzerland. The conference was held on the grounds of the University of Lausanne, bordering Lake Geneva (Lac Léman). I presented my research on Lasioglossum albipes, a socially polymorphic halictid bee. I think the species is very interesting and other researchers agreed; I got a lot good feedback. The work with albipes is ongoing but the other authors and I hope to have this fascinating story submitted for publication by the end of the year.

The conference was full of very interesting talks and I highly recommend catching up on the plenary talks, which the organisers have very generously recorded and uploaded. My only criticism was that sometimes it felt researchers had lost touch with their study species, constantly referring to them as a ‘system’. Whether we work on genomics, morphology, behaviour or any other aspect, it’s important to remember these are animals interacting, behaving and responding to their ecologies. I think it helps keep the more menial side of scientific exploration interesting.

DSC02374 Lac Léman from the surprisingly tropical Swiss town of Lausanne.

Bee antenna – taste, touch and smell

My current research is examining bee antenna – assessing whether there is a phylogenetic correlation between the complexity and diversity of antenna, and the evolution of social behaviour. I am interested in not just the morphological variety that is present across species, but the functional and underlying genetic differences as well.

This image is one segment of an antenna from a female Tetragonula carbonaria, taken under a scanning electron micrscope. This species is a native Australian, stingless, eusocial species and the diversity of sensilla types can be clearly seen.  Antenna detect chemical signals from inter and intra-specific sources and are vital for identifying resources, mates and sources of danger. Given this functional importance, antennal morphology is subject to significant selective pressures, to increase both functionality and account for the extreme variety of morphology we observe.

I am currently producing some experimental work examining the differences in nest mate recognition and behaviour, in different worker castes of this Australian species.