New paper: Experimentally induced alloparental care in a solitary carpenter bee


New paper by former MSc student,Vern Lewis, now a PhD student at the University of Guelph. The link allows free downloads until 24 January.

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Another major accomplishment for the Bee Lab:  Winner of the departmental ugly Christmas sweater contest

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First impressions from an academic member of the Board of Trustees

Last spring, I was elected to the Senate of my University, and then was selected as a Senate representative on the Board of Trustees.  Being on both Senate and the Board is quite interesting, because Senates and Boards represent different sides of the same coin.  Like most universities in Canada, Brock University has a bicameral system of governance. Bicameral governance divvies up responsibilities roughly according to the type of activity.  Senate is responsible for academic matters, namely teaching and research activities, so many professors eventually serve as Senators, sometime during their career.  The Board of Trustees (or Governors, at higher-falutin’ uni’s) is responsible for operations, finance, and generally keeping an eye on management, i.e. the President (or equivalent) and top-level Vice Presidents.  The Board is much smaller than Senate and has only 3 faculty members, so far fewer professors ever serve on University Boards.  Most Brock trustees come from outside the University, often having run successful businesses or non-profit organisations, and serving on boards of various service and charitable organisations.  Almost half are women.  Brock meetings of the Board of Trustees are mostly open, which means visitors can observe the meetings.  Only rarely are matters discussed in camera.

This post is about my first impressions of the Board.  In later posts, I will probably write about the content of Board meetings, but here I just want to tell you a little about them, because they really are an unknown quantity to most of the University.  The Board meets about 4 times per year, with each meeting “cycle” lasting two days (yes, two solid days of meetings for senior Board members!).  The Board has subcommittees that meet first (in sequence), followed by a meeting of the whole Board.  The second cycle of meetings began today and will finish tomorrow.  Some senior Board members also spend a lot of time in meetings in between cycles.  They do this as volunteers, and although it is pretty interesting and very useful, it can also be a thankless task when things go wrong.  More of that in another post, but if you follow university politics at all, you’ll know that our University has had some issues recently.

Halfway through my second cycle of meetings, I am beginning to understand how the Board works.  Board members exemplify the dictum that if you want to get something done, ask a busy person.  They certainly know a thing or two about running and building organisations.  They take very seriously their responsibilities to the University.  They have no interest in managing the University, because their job is make sure that sustainable financial underpinnings allow the University to fulfill its academic mission.   They pay very close attention to numbers – financial and enrolment numbers especially.  To prepare for meetings, they read mountains of documents very carefully, and judging by the questions they ask, they all read everything (and some of it is pretty deadly).  They definitely see the University differently than Senators do, partly because their job is different from Senate’s.  I think they also see the University differently because they are mostly not part of the academic world, which means that their views of the University are probably more representative of a generally positive slice of public opinion.  While some  University Boards seem to include members who have negative views of academe (why in the world would they join a university board, then?), Brock’s Board are clearly positive to universities in general and Brock in particular.

I was a bit skeptical about this whole Trustee gig when I started – Senate is a more natural environment for many professors, just as the Board is a more natural environment, I suspect, for some of the University’s administration. I’ve already adjusted many of my assumptions about the Board and I hope that my occasional blog posts will bring some of that new perspective to my still (understandably) skeptical colleagues.

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One last meal before winter

Southern Ontario is the northern edge of the geographic range of the eastern carpenter bee, Xylocopa virginica.  Young bees emerge as adults in late summer,  and they need to feed before hibernation.  This likely limits how far north they can range – if summers are too short, young bees may not reach adulthood while there are still flowers to feed on in the fall.  Although young bees can feed themselves, in autumn we most often see old females frantically gathering nectar on flowers like these sedums in my garden.  Notice their worn wings, which indicate that these females are old foragers.  They may be feeding themselves in preparation for winter, or perhaps they are gathering nectar to feed to their offspring.


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Interview with a social insect scientist: Miriam Richards — insectessociaux

IS: Who are you and what do you do? MR: Miriam Richards – I am a professor at Brock University, in the Niagara Region of southern Ontario, Canada. I teach courses in Animal Behaviour, Ecology, and Evolution. I do research on the social behaviour, ecology and evolution of carpenter and sweat bees, and on restoration […]

via Interview with a social insect scientist: Miriam Richards — insectessociaux

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Grad student awarded OGS / NSERC

A few months ago, someone in our lab was the lucky recipient of one of those helium-filled balloons that you can buy in supermarkets.  The balloon now moves from lab bench to bench to celebrate good news, like PCR reactions that work the way they are supposed to, acceptance into grad programs, and awards.  Today the balloon floated over Lyndon’s desk to celebrate winning an Ontario Graduate Scholarship for 2016-2017.  Here’s Lyndon checking  flies and honeybees on yellow aconites, the first blossoms on campus, and a sure sign that spring field work is coming soon.

Update:  last week Lyndon also got an NSERC MSc scholarship!

1-Lyndon March 2016 IMG_20160308_164452

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I’m posting manuscript reviews

There’s a lot of comment floating around about the peer review process. For readers who aren’t academics (I hope that there are some!), peer review is the process whereby researchers submit their work to scholarly journals, which then send it to scholars in the field to evaluate, before a decision is made on whether or not to publish.  Reviewing other researchers’ work is part of our service to the whole research enterprise – almost all scientists review other people’s work, as well as having their own research reviewed. Reviewing can be rewarding, but it is also often challenging.  Being reviewed is always a bit stressful, because one is being judged and the criteria for judgement are not always obvious.  Owing to a general lack of clarity about the purposes of review (is the aim to improve the work or to keep “bad” science from getting published?), and lack of information about how an editor will use reviews to make editorial decisions (do we have to do exactly what the reviewers say to get the paper published?  are the reviewers making the decision or the editor?), many people are not very happy with the peer review process (although I suspect most researchers are less unhappy about how they review other people’s work than how other people review their work).  I’m not going to rehash this argument because I just read a really great post on the topic over at Small Pond Science – check it out.

I suspect that one reason many of us don’t think the peer review process is working well is that we get most of our information about it from our own experience.  It’s difficult to assess how knowledgeably or fairly your papers are being reviewed when you only ever see reviews of your own work or hear complaints from others about how their work was revealed.  As an editor, I do get to see mostly constructive reviews, but I suspect the authors’ reactions are more negative than mine, especially their initial responses (I don’t think anyone can respond happily to criticism of their work, no matter how justified or gently phrased).  I do try very hard to be fair and to word my comments positively.  Unfortunately, it is certainly true that reviewers are sometimes harsh, rude, or unfair in their criticisms.  This is especially hard on student authors.  About 5 years ago, a review came back on the first paper ever submitted by one of my students.  It started out by noting that our study species, Xylocopa virginica, is indeed fascinating, more research on carpenter bees  is needed,  etc., which was very nice.  The next comment definitely wasn’t: the reviewer described us as “incompetent”, the evidence for this being that we had done our observations in June rather than February.   Apparently the reviewer was unaware that in eastern Canada, carpenter bees (or almost any insects for that matter) do not fly in conditions more commonly associated with ice skating and hypothermia than with pollination and brood-rearing.   The grad student who wrote the paper was stunned and justifiably upset, and I was pretty mad.  It was the first and only time that I have challenged an editorial decision – eventually the paper was resubmitted and published, with an extra figure demonstrating that in southern Ontario, spring bee emergence begins in April or May.  I wish I could find that review and post it, together with a scathing rebuttal.

So instead, I’ve decided to emulate some other scientists in posting the reviews of my papers, together with my responses to the reviewers.  I hope that my students and others will learn from them.  I hope some of our undergraduates read these comments and realize that even professors are subject to critique and revision (lots and lots of revision!).  I really think that the more open the review process is, the more constructive (and less prescriptive) it is likely to be.  I think it is also time that I start signing my reviews.

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