Our research

Our immediate areas of research relate to some age-old questions:

1. What is the merit of signing a social contract?

If the Romantic poets were right and “nature is red in tooth & claw” then why bind your fate to your intraspecific fellows?  For this question—long the province of philosophers and metaphysicians—we look to bees for answers. Megalopta females teeter on the cusp of sociality, each being capable of leading a solitary existence or being a member of a small, highly differentiated group. Our research asks: what are the physiological, genomic, hormonal, chemical, neural, and behavioral factors that shape expression of social behavior? And what are the consequences of these phenotypic differences for organismal fitness?

We work under natural conditions on Barro Colorado Island, using variation in social behavior as a natural experiment in an outdoor laboratory to test ideas about social evolution, for reasons best explained by W.C. Allee, a pioneer on BCI, in his book, The Social Life of Animals (1938).

An anecdote that is becoming classic among scientists will illustrate the point. Professor Wood, physicist of Johns Hopkins, was asked to respond to the toast “Physics and Metaphysics” at a dinner of some philosophical society. His response was somewhat as follows: The physicist gets an idea which seems to him to be good. The more he mulls over it the better the idea appears.  He goes to the library and reads on the subject and the more he reads the more truth he can see in his idea. Finally he devises an experimental test and goes to his laboratory to apply it. As a result of long and careful experimental checking he discards the idea as worthless. “Unfortunately,” Professor Wood is said to have concluded, “the metaphysician has no laboratory,

2. If we commit to a social contract, what leads to larger and more complex societies, or to their collapse? 

The spectacular diversity and dominance of social insects in the tropics can be read as a long history of research and development to solve fundamental problems of social organization.  We seek to understand how the initial bonds of a social contract can be expanded into rules that govern complex societies, such as the fungus-growing ants of the Americas.  These ants evolved innovative solutions for sustainable food supplies and waste management, logistics and traffic control, coordinating labor of all kinds—defense, public health care and safety, all according to needs—in short, can social insects inform us of solutions to some central problems facing humans today?

3. What are the general relations governing brain and behavioral evolution?

In 1959 Richard Feynman delivered the lecture, “There is Plenty of Room at the Bottom” in which he outlined the development of nanotechnology, and emphasized problems associated with information storage and retrieval. The observation of “plenty of room at the bottom” also applies to broad trends in the evolution of life on earth, especially with regards to patterns of brain and body size evolution, and miniaturization of sensors and information-processing systems (brains).

Insects and relatives represent a vast array of ways to design a neural interface (a brain and sensors) between nature and nurture, between the organism’s external world of ecology and the environment, and its internal world of gene expression, hormonal physiology, and sensory- and neuro- biology. 

A long-term collaboration with Eric Warrant and colleagues at Lund University has focused on the sensory and neural mechanisms used by Megalopta bees to see in the dark and obtain the necessary information to navigate through the tropical forest, return home, and localize their nest. How do bees detect their flowers, or how do farming ants discriminate friend from foe in their gardens?

Research facilities and equipment

The Laboratory of Behavior & Evolutionary Neurobiology occupies several rooms in STRI’s Tupper Center in Panama City. Additional space for maintaining living insects is available in Gamboa. In addition to common laboratory equipment the following equipment is available. Additional facilities, including those for molecular biology, are available at STRI’s Naos Marine Laboratories and other labs at STRI.


  • Agilent Technologies Gas Chromatograph (7890B) and Mass Spectrometer (5977D)
  • Agilent Technologies Gas Chromatograph (6890N) and Mass Spectrometer (5973 Network) coupled to a Syntech Electroantenogram recording system
  • Universal Shielding Co. RFI/EMI Shielded Enclosure
  • Sutter Instrument Co. P-97 Micropipette Puller
  • 2 Leica Micromanipulator 10 mm (MW-MM-33 R/L) each with Leica MZ12.5 stereomicroscope and fiber optic illuminator
  • ALA Scientific Huxley Wall Type Micromanipulator
  • Leica MZ12.5 stereomicroscope and fiber optic illuminator
  • Two AMPI Neurophysiological Stimulator Master 8
  • N.P.I. Stimulus Isolation Module ISO-STIM 01M
  • Tektronix Oscilloscope 4-CHAINTDS2024
  • ALA Scientific Instruments Single Electrode Clamp Amplifier SEC-10LX
  • Science Products Extracellular Amplifier / Filter Module for EPMS Systems
  • Science Products Fast data acquisition and analysis interface Power 1401
  • Data acquisition unit Micro 1401 Mk II — Science products


  • Confocal Microscope Olympus Fluoview FV1000
  • Leica EM UC6 Ultra microtome with Leica EM KMR2 Glass Knifemaker
  • Leica EM MP 15/230 V
  • Fisher Safety flow laboratory fume hood
  • Pelco BioWave Lab tissue processing system
  • Micron thick section microtome
  • Nikon Eclipse E600 Fluorescence Compound Microscope
  • Zeiss EVO 40XVP Electron Microscope
  • Cambridge Instruments GALEN III binocular microscope
  • Microscope Olympus BXG1MI, W/fluorescence motorized stage, camera Olympus PP80
  • Stereomicroscope Zeiss Stemi 305, w/camera Axiocam ERc5s


  • Agilent Technologies Gas Chromatograph (6890N) and Mass Spectrometer (5973 Network) coupled to a Syntech Electroantenogram recording system
  • Redlake Alliance High-Speed Digital Camera MotionPro X-3, with Dell Latitude notebook and two Seagate 300 Gb external hard drives
  • Various SONY digital video cameras; Canon L2 Digital 8 video camera; SONY video editing stations; Apple G5 computers with editing software; Fujifilm FinePix S3 Pro Digital camera
  • Leica Wild M10 stereomicroscope, ring illuminator, Nikon Coolpix 8700 camera, and Javelin video camera.
  • Leica MZ12.5 stereomicroscope with swing arm stand and fiber optic illuminator; additional lower magnification microscopes.
  • International Light radiometer
  • Rearing facilities (located in Gamboa)
  • Spectrometer Ocean Insight Flame-T-VIS-NIR with light
  • Incubator Percival benchtop
  • Vibrometer Polytec VGO-200