The Cognitive Lives Of Bees

Dec 13, 2017

 

Felicity Muth is a biology postdoctoral fellow at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Credit L’Oréal USA

Women make up about 24 percent of workers in careers that focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math or STEM. In 2017, the L’Oréal USA For Women in Science Fellowship selected five postdoctoral researchers to support their work. One of the recipients is a researcher based at the University of Nevada, Reno. Our reporter Anh Gray visits Felicity Muth at her lab, where she’s studying how bumblebees learn. 

Muth studies animal behavior and cognition. She says bumblebees, in particular, have impressive brain power enabling them to perform complex tasks. Through a glass enclosure, Muth observes a few hundred bumblebees. She has designed an experiment to observe their behavior. 

 

“So, I do that by putting out artificial flowers and I can tag an individual bee,” Muth explains. “I stick a number on the back of the bee and I can tightly control the bee’s experience and based on its experience, I can see how it learns and how it makes decisions.” 

 

Currently, Muth’s research focuses on how neonicotinoids, which are commonly-used pesticides, are affecting the foraging and pollinating behaviors of bumblebees. 

 

Felicity Muth observes the behaviors of bumblebees in her lab at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The L’Oréal fellowship has been awarded to only 70 postdoctoral women in the last 14 years. Muth received a $60,000 grant to advance her research. 

 

“Having that kind of money in research,” Muth explains, “it’s really helpful because especially in animal behavior research, there isn’t a ton of funding.” 

 

Muth will use the fellowship funding to hire a research assistant and purchase equipment. She’ll also use the funding to collaborate with local organizations like the Girl Scouts of the Sierra Nevada and Nevada Bugs and Butterflies to provide outreach to young girls in the community. 

 

Men disproportionally make up the professionals in STEM fields. Muth says it’s vital to pique the interest of girls in math and science early. She says some challenges include overcoming stereotypes about the abilities of girls. 

“There are certain kinds of stereotypes that we have that say that it’s more okay for a ten-year-old boy to be excellent at math than it is for a ten-year-old girl,” Muth says. 

 

A colony of bumblebees that's used in Felicity Muth's research to understand their cognitive behaviors.

 

She explains that the images that are portrayed of what a scientist looks can be limiting. 

 

“Even just in the media, the kinds of cartoons and television that people watch about scientists,” Muth says, “they’re always old men in white lab coats, and that’s just not representative of who scientists are.” 

 

Overall, Muth says women scientist have made some strides. 

 

“I think that like in a lot of other fields, there are still problems that need to be overcome,” Muth says. “It’s gotten better than it was, but there is still a discrepancy in the number of women who stay on to more senior positions in science.” 

 

According to the National Girls Collaborative Project, women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce. The greatest disparities are in the fields of engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences.