My primary research interest is termite social immunity. Termites defend their colonies from disease by grooming one another and disposing of corpses through cannibalism and burial, but how and when these defences are deployed remains poorly understood. My Master’s thesis was concerned with this topic.
Despite their role as economically important pests, termites have long been neglected in social immunity research, and this has had consequences for their control. The most significant pests, the subterranean termites (e.g. Reticulitermes flavipes, the eastern subterranean termite), are controlled by applying pesticides directly to soil, thereby creating a toxic barrier under a building that termites cannot pass through. The pesticides used are often harmful to humans as well as to beneficial insects, birds, and fish, and they can leech into the wider environment: some have even been found in river sediments near urban areas.
So why don’t we have biological control? Decades ago, researchers noticed that termites die rapidly when exposed to a fungal pathogen. Their humid, crowded galleries should be the perfect environment for any pathogen to spread, and yet, field tests have consistently failed. The reason? Social immunity: termites are very good at defending their colonies from disease. If we can learn how these collective defences work, we might be able to circumvent them, and finally replace those toxic pesticides with safe, environmentally-friendly methods of control.
While my focus is on termite biology, I am also interested in other aspects of entomology. During my Bachelor’s, I worked with sawflies (primarily Diprion pini) and tobacco hornworms (Manduca sexta) as a student research assistant. My Bachelor’s thesis combined entomology with molecular biology: I identified and then validated candidate reference genes in the mealworm beetle (Tenebrio molitor).
Fernandez-Triana J, Buffam J, Beaudin M, Davis H, Fernandez-Galliano A, Griffin E, Lin S-Y, McAulay MK, Richter R, Rodriguez F, Várkonyi G (2017) An annotated and illustrated checklist of Microgastrinae wasps (Hymenoptera, Braconidae) from the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and Greenland. ZooKeys 691: 49-101. doi: 10.3897/zookeys.691.14491
Davis HE, Meconcelli S, Radek R, McMahon DP (2018) When to care and when to kill: termites shape their collective response based on stage of infection. bioRxiv 287441.