Seirian Sumner
Author: Justin Griffiths-Williams

Seirian Sumner

Behavioural Ecologist

Wasp love

meet seirian

Seirian is a British Professor of Behavioral Ecology at University College London. She explores the behavior, ecology, evolution, and ecological roles of social insects, focusing on wasps, bees, and ants. Throughout her career, she has traveled the world to observe these insects. With a particular fondness for wasps, she is actively working to improve their public image. As part of this initiative, she co-founded the Big Wasp Survey in 2017—a citizen science project designed to involve the public in studying wasps in their own backyards. In May 2022, her book Endless Forms: Why You Should Love Wasps was published, providing everyone with reasons to better appreciate wasps. Seirian has received multiple awards for her dedication to promoting women in science, notably as the co-founder of Soapbox Science.

Wasp love
Nominated by: Milbry Polk, MED' 95
Class of 2024 Location England
Follow seirian's work:
Seirian doing field work in Trinidad, 5 months pregnant
Seirian doing field work in Trinidad, 5 months pregnant

As a behavioral ecologist, I am interested in deciphering how the natural world works, through the actions of its inhabitants as evolved adaptations to their environment. At the core of my work is natural history–the original science. Our greatest scientists made sense of the world by observing nature: Aristotle watched how honeybees coordinate their societies; Darwin observed bird and barnacles to devise his theory of evolution by natural selection. Observing and understanding how the natural world works is essential to bring it back from the brink of extinction. My research is driven by the power of observation and natural history – the bedrock of science across time.

I watch the natural world through the behaviors of organisms and the genes that underpin these behaviors. Recent advances in sequence technology allow us to interrogate the natural history of any organism at the genetic level. This wasn’t possible in Aristotle’s or Darwin’s time. I unite a Darwinian-style field naturalist approach with modern genomics to explore how the diversity of insect life evolves and is maintained. I’m especially fascinated by social behavior and rather partial to wasps; I’ve watched wasps across the world, from Panama to Malaysia, and Brazil to Zambia. I’ve discovered why wasps sometimes misbehave, fight or help depending on their environment; how genes are shuffled around the genomes to generate innovations in life-history and behavior; how gene families explode in size to make it possible for a wasp to hunt a particular kind of prey.

“Observing and understanding how the natural world works is essential to bring it back from the brink of extinction.”

- Seirian Sumner
Seirian checking out a wasp box in Panama
Seirian checking out a wasp box in Panama Author: Nick Isaac

Over twenty five years, I discovered that the primary reason people don’t like wasps is because they have no reason to value them. I’m doing my best to put a value on wasps. I’ve shown wasps to be effective pest-controllers of insect crop pests. I believe there is a promising relationship to be forged, between humans and wasps: we can harness their natural predatory power for sustainable, pesticide-free farming. I believe these approaches hold particular promise for subsistence farmers in developing countries. Working with wasps rather than against them is the future.

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