Walton has always really liked bugs

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Alex Walton checking honeybee hivesPhD candidate, Alex Walton, has always been interested in insects. Recently, his mother stumbled upon a letter he wrote at ten to his future self. In the letter, he stated his hope of becoming an entomologist because “he really liked bugs.”

As an undergraduate, Walton joined a lab that focused on the division of labor in bumblebees and ants. After graduation, he went on to work with the USDA on honeybee research. Hooked on social insects, and honeybees in particular, he placed Dr. Amy Toth at the top of his list when applying to graduate school. He joined her lab in the fall of 2012.

Interested in how social insects self-organize, Walton says, "They have all these bees do these tasks, and everybody is working together, thousands of individuals know exactly what to do to make this highly successful, super organism called the hive. But there is no hierarchy of bosses, there's no management. They’re all just responding to their internal environment and their local environment. How can that type of self-organization happen? There’s a lot of very interesting questions in social insect biology that I just feel like I'm hooked in now. I can't imagine studying anything else now."

His passion recently paid off with a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant. His proposal, Does resource limitation promote cooperation: Nutrition restriction and social cohesion in social insects, will look at reproductive potential in honeybees and paper wasps.

Honeybees are an advanced social organism, with thousands of individuals in each nest. Their division of labor is chemically organized, with only the queen capable of reproduction. All other females are workers that maintain the hive. Honeybee workers are sterile, possessing small ovaries. But, some workers have larger ovaries than others. Those with larger ovaries have higher reproductive potential. This is linked to different behaviors like cooperation. Walton hypotheses that bees with greater reproductive potential are less cooperative.

Paper wasps are more primitive, with only a few dozen wasps per nest. The paper wasp queen exerts her dominance through aggression. “By comparing the paper wasp, a more primitive version, to the honeybee, a very advanced version, we can see if there is an evolutionary trend,” says Walton.

Nutrition plays a role in reproductive potential. If food is a scarce resource, ovaries will be smaller. Walton says, “The hypothesis here is that the way this sociology evolved partially is that these bees are in a constant state of nutritional stress. So their ovary development is suppressed and they’re being more cooperative.”

The NSF DDIG will aid Walton in pursuing his life-long interest in insects. According to Walton, “once you go social insects, you never go back.”