I’ve had a week to digest the International Congress of Entomology (ICE) meeting held earlier this month in Durban, South Africa. Thousands of diverse presentations happening in 15 parallel sessions cannot easily be summed up in a single blog post, so I’ll stick to a few of my own impressions of the conference.
First, the bad. Durban was a terrible location.
Lovely beaches aside, the city was not safe. Several people were mugged outside their hotels, and there is nothing relaxing about having to watch your back when venturing off the conference grounds. The crime had a surpressive effect on the most valuable part of a conference: the after-hours socializing at the pub with colleagues and potential collaborators. The informal evening gatherings required more taxi rides and advance planning than they should and tended to segregate people into smaller, more dispersed groups. The city has put a tremendous effort into building a shiny new conference facility, but until they can mount a similar effort providing jobs for the city’s inhabitants and cleaning up the rampant crime I’d not recommend Durban.
The conference itself was excellent. The quality of talks was generally elevated above the level of the last international conference in 2004, and many of the subdisciplines of entomology have made significant advances in the intervening years, especially those related to genetics, physiology, and evolution.
We were treated to plenty of good social insect research. Riitta Savolainen provided convincing phylogenetic evidence that inquiline social parasites in ants tend to arise as intraspecific parasites, or “cheater queens”, within populations of the non-parasitic host species. Walt Tschinkel argued that the fire ant Solenopsis invicta is not really an invasive species but a disturbance specialist, and that the spread of that species in the southern United States has more to do with human-mediated disturbance than with competitive displacement of native ants. Nate Sanders presented experimental evidence from Appalachia that temperature is an important climatic factor in determining the species richness of ant communities. I can’t list all the great talks- you can read about them here.
I spent most of my time in the systematics/phylogenetics sections, learning a great deal about the state of the art in insect evolution. Let me say this: the fly people are amazing. The Diptera Tree of Life group, led by Brian Wiegmann, have assembled an ambitious and successful project to determine the relationships of the flies. In contrast, the hymenopterists quite frankly seem a little behind in their techniques, drawing from molecular tools that were widely used 10 years ago but haven’t advanced much since then. Their work is solid otherwise, especially with morphology, and it seems as though we may have to get used to some new taxonomic arrangements at the family level. Many families, including Crabronidae, Tiphiidae, Bradynobaenidae, Mutillidae, Pteromalidae, Eurytomidae, are likely paraphyletic and their composition is likely to shift about in the coming years.
The most memorable presentations are those that raise the blood pressure. Two talks in particular put me in a snit. Not because they were wrong, but that they took some expectation-raising great ideas, the sort of thing that can get really exciting, and then threw them off a cliff with illogical polemics that did not help their thesis. It’s frustrating to see excellent work sullied with the extra baggage.
The first talk was Quentin Wheeler’s. Wheeler is the director of the Institute for Species Exploration, and his talk was given by proxy as he could not attend. Wheeler argued- quite sensibly- that taxonomy should be viewed as a discipline in its own right, and not merely as an identification service provided to other fields. Absolutely true. Funding and prestige should go up. I couldn’t agree more. But then he has to go off about the supremacy of morphological characters and some odd and confrontational ideas about how population genetics is killing taxonomy. I can’t imagine anything more likely to relegate taxonomy to its stereotype as a dusty 19th century hobby than having our taxonomic leaders hurl misguided insults at the larger biological community. In any case, you can read the print version of Wheeler’s polemic here.
The second talk that ticked me off was James Hunt’s. Hunt and his colleagues have conducted some astoundingly good physiological research on how various diapause physiologies are co-opted to produce queen and worker castes. Hunt’s work goes a long way to detailing the specific mechanisms for how a solitary wasp becomes a social species. So far, so good. The problem is that Hunt claims that his work contradicts the popular kin selection hypothesis. (You can read his perspective here.) In doing so he misses the obvious complementarity of the two approaches- kin selection provides the population-level conditions that favor sociality, while the diapause hypothesis provides a mechanistic scenario to get there. There’s no need for a polemic, but we got one anyway.
Incidentally, my own talk (“An Evolutionary Context for the Argentine Ant”) is posted here. I presented as part of Tuesday afternoon’s symposium on Argentine Ants, and the talk was well-attended for being the last of the day. I was pleased with how it went. Especially since I neglected to practice it and didn’t figure out how to use the pointer until the last slide.
The next ICE will take place in South Korea in 2012. The only people happier than the Koreans about this decision were the Americans. We dodged a bullet when the organization passed over the other contender, San Diego. Where’s the fun in having an international conference in your own country?