The Surprising World of Wasps: A Conversation with Seirian Sumner


Welcome to The Academic Life! In this episode you’ll hear about:

  • What inspired Professor Sumner to study wasps.
  • That time she ate a slug.
  • Her grad school research trip to study wasps in the Malaysian rainforest.
  • The complex and varied roles wasps play in the natural world.
  • The importance of approaching the natural world with endless curiosity.

Today’s book is: Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps, which explores these much-maligned insects’ secret world, their incredible diversity and complex social lives, and reveals how they hold our fragile ecosystem in balance. Everyone worries about the collapse of bee populations. But what about wasps? Deemed the gangsters of the insect world, wasps are winged assassins with formidable stings. But do wasps deserve this reputation? Wasps are nature’s most misunderstood insect: as predators and pollinators, they keep the planet’s ecological balance in check. They are nature’s pest controllers; a world without wasps would be just as ecologically devastating as losing the bees, or beetles, or butterflies. 

Our guest is: Seirian Sumner, who is a professor of behavioral ecology at University College London, where she studies the ecology and evolution of social insects. She has published over seventy papers in scientific journals and has received numerous awards for her work, including a L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Award, a Points of Light Award from the UK prime minister, and a Silver Medal from the Zoological Society of London. She is a fellow and trustee of the Royal Entomological Society and cofounder of the citizen science initiative Big Wasp Survey. Sumner lives in Oxfordshire, England, with her husband and three children. She is the author of Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps (HarperCollins, 2022).

Our host is: Dr. Christina Gessler, who is the co-producer of the Academic Life.

Listeners to this episode may also be interested in:

  • Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains by Bethany Brookshire
  • Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • City of Sinners by A. A. Dhand
  • S. Sumner et al, “Why We Love Bees and Hate Wasps,” in Ecological Entomology 43 (6): 836-45.
  • Natural History and the Evolution of Paper-Wasps, ed by Stefano Turillazzi and Mary Jane West-Eberhard

    You are smart and capable, but you aren’t an island, and neither are we. We reach across our mentor network to bring you podcasts on everything from how to finish that project to how to take care of your beautiful mind. Here on the Academic Life channel, we embrace a broad definition of what it means to be an academic and to lead an academic life. We view education as a transformative human endeavor and are inspired by today’s knowledge-producers working inside and outside the academy. Wish we’d bring on an expert about something? DMs us on Twitter: @AcademicLifeNBN.

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    Christina Gessler

    Dr. Christina Gessler is the creator, show host, and producer of the Academic Life podcast. She holds a PhD in U.S. history.
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