Rachel McLeod interviews Seirian Sumner,

a Research Fellow at the Zoological Society of London

Full transcript


Q: What insects do you keep?


A: Well, I donít have any insects in the lab at the moment, but I have kept cockroaches and paper wasps.


Q: If you had to keep only one insect, which would it be and why?


A: I think it would have to be the paper wasp. Why? Well, Iím very fond of the paper wasp. Once you understand its behaviour, then itís not at all aggressive, and you can get on very nicely with it indeed. But I personally find them very interesting because they are a primitive eusocial insect, which means that they are at the very beginning of the eusocial spectrum, changing from a solitary to a social animal, which is very exciting for somebody like me.


Q: What is your favourite place to do field collecting and why?


A: Well, most of my field workís been done in Panama recently, so I guess it would have to be my favourite place. Why? Because thereís lots and lots of paper wasps there, and the paper wasps in Panama , in the tropics, are much bigger than the wasps you get in Europe , and they build much bigger aggregations of nests, which are fantastic for entomologists like me who want to study lots and lots of nests all at once with very little effort.


Q: What was you favourite trip?


A: My favourite trip? My favourite field trip? Well, I think my last one. Iíve just returned from the field about a month ago, and I must say it was a very successful trip, so I think it must be my favourite one. We had actually too many wasps, we had too many wasps to tag, we were radio tagging them, they were everywhere and they were very friendly and none of us got stung, so it was a particularly nice trip.


Q: How did you get involved in entomology?


A: Well, I kind of stumbled across it really, to be honest. I didnít really like insects at all when I was your age. I did a zoology degree and after that Ö well, during my zoology degree I realised I was very interested in animal behaviour, so I decided I wanted to do a PhD in animal behaviour, and social wasps were offered to me as a PhD. As far as I was concerned it fitted the bill because it was about animal behaviour, the animal being the wasp, and watching them behave, and I kind of just got into it that way, really.


Q: What is the most exciting thing youíve done?


A: The most exciting thing Iíve done? Well, I think it has to be the Ö you mean in my research? Yeah. I think it has to be my radio tagging. So Iíve been putting these little radio transmitters onto wasps to monitor their movement between different nests. These little radio tags are just like the tag that youíve had put into your cat so that you can take your cat abroad, and the cat has its own little passport. Well, these are the same tags that go on the wasps, and using those we can follow the movements of wasps between different nests, and by doing that weíve discovered that they visit lots of different nests, which we didnít think they did before, and weíve revealed a whole new behaviour called drifting behaviour, and we think that they drift between different nests in order to help raise the brood on lots of different nests that theyíre related to.


Q: What do you think is the best way to get people involved in entomology?


A: I think we should encourage them to do what youíre doing, which is to get interested in collecting whatever insect they come across. If they happen to come across a bee on their windowsill, have a good look at it, and then maybe work out what it is, look it up on the internet, and learn about the wonderful life of insects and how interesting they are.


Q: What does my generation need to do in terms of entomology?


A: Gosh, thatís a big question. What do you need to do? Well, I donít know what you need to do, but I think what you will be able to do is all the stuff that we couldnít do. So thereís lots of new molecular techniques that are now becoming accessible for all kinds of entomologists. So weíre able to study behaviour now at the level of the genes, which is very exciting, and until very recently that could only be done in what we call Ďmodel organismsí, like the fruit fly drosophila you might have heard of, and other lab organisms, but now weíre able to look at the genesí underlying behaviours in all sorts of different insects. They donít have to be in the lab, they can be in the field. So I think thatís going to be a new and exciting thing for your generation, that itíll become mainstream by the time youíre an adult.


Q: What parts of entomology do you not like?


A: I donít like getting stung. (Laughs.) My wasps have a very big sting, and I react quite badly now. I swell up like a balloon if I get stung. But I take precautions not to get stung now. I wear bee hats and big gloves and stuff. I donít think thereís any other aspect of entomology that I donít like. I think entomologyís a great thing to study because you can have so many study organisms in one tiny little place, making it possible to do all sorts of experiments very easily, whereas if you try to do the same thing on mammals, for instance, it would be much more difficult to have the sample sizes that you need.


Q: Whatís the most expensive piece of equipment you have bought for a trip, and why?


A: For a field trip? Or for my molecular work?


Q: Either.


A: Either. Well, equipment for molecular work is always very, very expensive, and my lab has purchased very expensive pieces of equipment that we needed to analyse the genes. I guess an example might be a real-time PCR machine, which costs around £25,000. A real-time PCR machine enables us to amplify different parts of DNA and to look at the expression of those genes in individual wasps, or individual wasp brains is what I do, or you can look at them in different parts of the body.


Q: Are you scared of any arthropods?


A: Am I scared? I must say I donít like cockroaches. I donít think Iím scared of any arthropods, but I really donít like cockroaches. (Laughs.) Theyíre really quite disgusting. I guess the only other thing Iím marginally near-scared of are the yellow-jacket wasps that you get in this country. I really donít like them. And people always laugh because they think that Iím the wasp woman, I work on wasps, thatís my life, but I really, really hate the yellow-jacket wasps you get here, because they chase you while youíre having your ice creams or your dinner in the summer and theyíre just really nasty and unpredictable.


Q: Whatís the most embarrassing thing thatís happened to you?


A: The most embarrassing thing thatís happened to me? (Pause.)

I can think of horrible things that have happened to me, like Ö A couple of field seasons ago, in Panama, they found a dead body at my field site, which wasnít very nice. Itís not really very embarrassing, though. I got stung on my eye once, and it ballooned up and I looked like Elephant Man, and that evening I had to go and meet an important scientist and it was very embarrassing because I looked horrendous with this huge blown-up face. I guess thatís probably the most embarrassing thing thatís happened to me.


Q: Youíve been quite lucky compared to the other entomologists Iíve interviewed.


A: Oh really? What kind of embarrassing things have they had happen?


Q: One got stung so that he had to pull his trousers down in the middle of the campsite.


A: Okay.


Q: What do you spend most of your time doing?


A: I spend most of my time doing administration, unfortunately, at the moment. Filling in forms for students, for people to come and work with me. Doing ethics forms, because believe it or not we have to do ethics forms for tagging insects. Even cockroaches need an ethics form. I guess the rest of my time Iím writing grants to get money in to do more research, and any time thatís left over Iím writing papers or supervising projects.


Q: Whatís your favourite thing to do in your job?


A: Oh, I love the field work. The field work is wonderful. Thatís when you really get to know your organism, and thereís nothing better than being in your organismís natural environment and seeing, observing its behaviour, actually sitting and watching what it does. And thatís when all the ideas come to you, because you realise things that you canít realise when youíre just reading a book or youíre just analysing numbers on a screen. So definitely the field work.


Q: How do you become an entomologist in your sort of job?


A: How do you become an entomologist? Well, I guess you have to do a degree first, and then you have to do a PhD, and then you just take it from there. You start doing a Postdoc after that, where you work on somebody elseís project. So the PhD is normally your own project that you work on, and then after your PhD you tend to go and do a Postdoc for two or three years, which is generally you work on somebody elseís project but you have a lot of input and control over what happens. And then after that, well what I did after that is I got fellowships, which allowed me to set up my own independent research projects, and then it just kind of builds from there.


Q: What do you think would happen to insect populations if we suddenly disappeared off Earth?


A: If the humans disappeared off Earth? I think the insects would be very happy. (Laughs.) I thought you were going to ask it the other way round: what would happen if the insects disappeared, what would happen to us? Because thatís very topical at the moment with the honey bee problems, isnít it? But anyway, coming back to your question, I think the insects would mostly do very well, except for the invasive ones. So there are many species that weíve helped by carrying them around the world, introducing them to new countries where they havenít got any natural predators, and then thereís nothing to check their populations, to keep the populations down, and they just explode into these huge, huge populations, and they cause immense ecological damage. So I think that would be a good thing, actually, if that was stopped.


Q: What have you contributed yourself to entomology?


A: Well, Iíve contributed in my studies on social evolution. Iíve shown that the genes underlying queen and worker behaviours in paper wasps are different, so if youíre a queen you express different genes to those when youíre a worker. Iíve also revealed this exciting behaviour of nest drifting, where the wasps seem to help on multiple different nests. Previously I used to work on leaf-cutting ants, and I did a little body of work on a social parasite of the leaf-cutters, which was very under-studied, and that social parasite is at the very beginnings of becoming a good parasite, an obligate parasite. So yes, I did quite a lot of work on that.


Q: What is your opinion on entomology being viewed as rather masculine?


A: Entomology being viewed as rather masculine? Well, I guess it is viewed as masculine, because you think of an entomologist as being an old man with a big fluffy beard. Is that right?


A: Hmm, not reallyÖ


Q: When you first became interested in insects and you heard about entomology, did you think an entomologist would be in a museum, with musty cabinets full of dead insects, and a big beard? Thatís how I imagine an entomologist. (Laughs.) So I guess it can be viewed as masculine. But maybe itís more that the sciences in general are viewed as a more masculine topic. But I think thatís changing, very much so, definitely, with my generation and generations coming after me, there are a lot more females in science and entomology, and I think thatís a very good thing.


Q: Whatís the most important question I could have asked you?


A: Whatís the most important question you could have asked me? Goodness me. Umm. (Pause.) Youíre going to ask me to answer it, arenít you? (Laughs.) I think you could have asked me why are social insects so interesting, as opposed to any other insects, seeing as youíre interested in entomology generally, arenít you? So you could have asked me Ďwhy social insects?í

Do you want me to answer that question? (Laughs.) Okay. So, why social insects? Well, I think social insects are so much more interesting than solitary insects because theyíre a whole new level of complexity. Solitary insects that live on their own, they have possibly a very interesting life cycle and biology, but itís just that individual on its own, and it doesnít have any complications around it, except for its ecosystem, obviously. But in social insects, youíve got that extra level of complexity, so youíve got the interactions of that one individual with maybe ten, fifty, a hundred, thousand, even a million other individuals, so I think thatís fascinating, and itís much more of a challenge to understand why and how those animals evolved. Also social insects are incredibly successful. I think Ö I canít remember the actual facts, but I think that ants represent a quarter of the insect biomass in the world, or something like that, so they really are a key species for any ecosystem, and they form enormous colonies, and Iím just fascinated by the way that one colony can function with so many different individuals. So I think social animals in general add a whole new layer of complexity that is really exciting to study as an entomologist.