Tam on STEAM
Hollis Woodard sees bumblebees as the pandas of the insect world.
“They are a very charismatic bee,” she said. “They are big and chunky and fuzzy. They move kind of slow, so you can watch them bumbling around. People are pretty attracted to them.”
But what fascinates Woodard about bumblebees goes beyond their endearing fuzziness. As an assistant professor of entomology at the University of California, Riverside, she studies bumblebees in the lab and tracks them in extreme environments from the Alaskan tundra to the Sonoran desert.
Woodard is exploring how bumblebees evolved their social behaviors. She is also monitoring how these bees are faring as climate change transforms their habitats. And she is providing insights about what we can do to protect these pollinators and the crucial part they play in our food supply.
HOOKED ON CLASSICS
Woodard was born in the Outer Banks of North Carolina and grew up in Ocean Isle Beach, a small coastal town near the South Carolina border. It was a poor area with pig farms and tobacco fields dotting the surrounding countryside. Her mother was a special education teacher, and her father was a banker.
As a girl, she showed few signs of the biologist she would become.
“I don’t think anyone would have met me as a kid and said, ‘This girl is going to turn out to be a scientist,’ ” Woodard observed. “I was a bit wild. I was interested in running around outside and looking at things, but I wasn’t interested in a formal way.”
Her reading tended toward classic English literature. Jane Eyre was her favorite book and English was her favorite subject in school. “I was really into literature and writing,” she said. “The fact that there are metaphors within things and they have deeper meanings has stuck with me.”
Science classes, on the other hand, “didn’t inspire anything in me,” she said.
She had plenty of ideas about what career she might pursue. “I wanted to be a veterinarian and a writer and all kinds of different things,” she remembered. “That idea of having no clue of what I wanted to be was with me through college. I switched my major six or seven times.”
For her undergraduate studies, Woodard chose a nearby college, the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She started with the idea of studying English or literature. Then she got interested in history. Her parents were both history buffs, and her older brother was getting a degree in history. Later she switched to anthropology.
In her second year of college, she began reading popular-science books, including works by evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould and astrophysicist Carl Sagan. But it was a book by E.O Wilson, the world’s leading expert on ants, that marked a turning point for her. “He was the person whose work spoke to me and got me interested in social insects,” she said.
Woodard began taking biology classes. “I was really interested in how things evolve to be social, from a human to an ant to a bee,” she said. She received her bachelor’s degree in biology and anthropology in 2005.
BITTEN BY THE ENTOMOLOGY BUG
Another turning point came when Woodard read a paper titled “Sociogenomics: Social Life in Molecular Terms” by Dr. Gene Robinson, an entomologist at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“There are always things floating around in my head that I am interested in,” she said. “I read this paper, and everything clicked. I knew I wanted to work on molecular basis of social behavior in bees.” She headed to Urbana-Champaign to pursue her PhD. Robinson, known for his role in sequencing the honeybee genome, became her adviser.
Why bees? “I just really like them,” Woodard said. “There’s some sort of affinity there. I think they’re really cute.”
But beyond that, they piqued her scientific curiosity. “They have evolved sociality multiple times, whereas ants or termites have evolved sociality just one time,” she explained. “Does this evolution occur the same way each time?”
For her PhD research, Woodard analyzed genetic sequences of various bee species to look for changes that might account for their differences in social behavior.
She also experimented with live bees kept in colony boxes in the lab. “The idea was that we could compare patterns of gene expression to find out how sociality operates,” she said. “Maybe we can compare what is going on in the brain of a queen bee and a worker bee.”
At first Woodard worked with honeybees, but she found herself drawn to their wild cousins, the bumblebees.
Bumblebees differ from honeybees in several ways. Honeybees live in hives tended by human keepers. Bumblebees live mostly in the wild in much smaller colonies. We tend to think of honeybees as key pollinators, but bumblebees are important pollinators, too, for crops ranging from hothouse tomatoes to apples, berries, and cranberries.
To learn how to handle bumblebees in the lab, Woodard made the trek to Israel to study with Dr. Guy Bloch, a bumblebee expert at Hebrew University.
BEES IN TROUBLE
Woodard got her PhD in Biology in 2012 and then began a postdoctoral program with Dr. Shalene Jha, a conservation biologist at the University of Texas, Austin.
Woodard received a U.S. Department of Agriculture fellowship to study how bumblebees are responding as human activities alter the landscape. “We have turned a lot of habitat into other things, so it doesn’t provide them with the food they need,” she said. “We need to know more about what type of food they need, how much they need. . . and how we should be managing resources for bees out in the wild.”
Up to that point in her career, Woodard hadn’t thought much about the challenges facing women in science.
“When I was getting into science, all my mentors and everyone whose books I was reading and who I wanted to emulate—they were all men,” she noted. “But honestly, that never occurred to me . . . I was in a bubble because my adviser was a strong proponent of women.”
But working with Jha led Woodard to think more about the need to encourage female researchers. “She is a huge advocate for women in the field – she’s really thinking about it and talking about it,” Woodard said. “So that’s when it really clicked in my mind and I became proactive about it.”
A BEE HOTSPOT
In 2015, Woodard joined the Entomology Department at UC Riverside. She was drawn to the campus because of the strength of its entomology program, recently ranked No. 2 in the world by the Center for World University Rankings.
But beyond that, Woodard noted, the Southwest Desert is a “bee hotspot.” “There’s just a ton of weird bees that live in the desert,” she said. “It’s like a playground for bees.”
At UC Riverside, Woodard has continued her lab studies on the evolution and social behavior of bumblebees. She and her lab team also go into the field frequently to collect data on how bumblebees are responding to the warming of their environments. Her fieldwork caught the attention of The New York Times, which chronicled her expedition to Alaska in 2016 in search of the elusive Arctic bumblebee.
See WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM BEES IN EXTREME ENVIRONMENTS (below) for more on Hollis Woodard’s research.
And what about the obvious occupational hazard of Woodard’s work? She is allergic to honeybee stings, but bumblebee stings don’t faze her. “It’s not uncommon to get stung every day or every couple of days,” she said. “Everyone laughs at me because when I get stung, I say, ‘Oh, a bee stung me.’ Other people jump up and down.”
THE ART OF COMMUNICATION
Woodard’s lab group is made up mostly of women. “A lot of the female students seem really motivated,” she said. “We are a very supportive lab. We are mostly young women, and everyone is really driven.”
The lab’s website chronicles the group’s research with stunning photos and videos of bees and their habitats. Lab members also share their exploits on Twitter and Instagram. Woodard believes it’s important these days for scientists to communicate clearly about their work.
“I really want people to understand why the work we do is important,” she said. “We all feel this urge right now to communicate with people and to make things clear. Everyone in the lab is on the exact same page about it.”
Woodard’s husband is a curator of cactus and succulents at the Botanic Gardens at UC Riverside. They share their home and 1½-acre property with four Australian cattle dogs – perhaps not a surprising arrangement for a scientist fascinated by social behavior.
“I tell everyone that has just one dog that they need another one,” she said. “Now I have a pack.”
Watch a video on Hollis Woodard’s bee-hunting expedition to Alaska.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM BEES IN EXTREME ENVIRONMENTS
When Hollis Woodard began studying bees, her focus was on basic research. But these days her work is driven more by an understanding of the essential role bees play in human food security—and of the threats these key pollinators face.
“Our food production system as we know it is dependent on pollinators,” she said. “If we didn’t have bees, our diet as we know it would not exist. Bees are the main pollinators of more than 70 percent of our food crops.”
And, she added, “It’s becoming diff
icult to ignore the fact that they’re not doing so well in the wild.”
To decipher how changes in the environment are affecting bee species, Woodard and her team at UC Riverside split their time between the lab and fieldwork.
In the lab, they conduct controlled experiments such as giving different nutrients to groups of bumblebees. The researchers then flash-freeze the bees and extract RNA from their bodies for analysis. For other experiments, they extract the bees’ DNA. The lab group also is experimenting with using CRISPR, a revolutionary new gene-editing technology, in bumblebees.
“I love being in the lab,” said Woodard. “I love the control of the lab.” But, she added, “I give myself a little time out in the field to get inspiration and context, and then I put all of that stuff together.”
In 2016, Woodard and group of colleagues embarked on a bee-hunting road trip in Alaska. They started in Fairbanks and drove north on the Dalton Highway, camping along the way.
The Arctic is a focal point of scientific research because it is warming faster than any other part of Earth. Bees are the most important pollinators of Arctic plants, but little is known about the region’s bee species. Woodard and her colleagues collected specimens to help establish a baseline so scientists can assess how these bees are responding to warming conditions.
During the drive, the researchers stopped periodically to scramble through the brush and snag bees in their nets. Woodard’s brother, Bren, a former Marine, went along on the expedition. “He’s actually really good at catching bees,” she said.
The holy grail of their quest was the Arctic bumblebee, a jumbo species that lives farther north than any other pollinating bee. The researchers finally managed to snare several Arctic bumblebees to take back for cataloguing and study.
The Arctic isn’t the only far-flung bee habitat that Woodard is exploring. In the desert east of UC Riverside, she and her colleagues are gathering data on diverse bee species, including one with an odd diet: it collects oil from fuchsia flowers to feed its larvae. Meanwhile, a postdoctoral student in the lab is studying bees in Yosemite National Park, and a PhD student is investigating tropical bees.
There is a lot we can learn from focusing on bees in these extreme environments, Woodard said. “Some bees actually have quite a bit of ability to adapt to quite a bit of change in their environments,” she noted.
“Maybe they can tell us about the ability of bees to persist. We can use them to tell us something about the fate of bees in the face of global change.”