August 2021

Dr. Maya Baharal Saar


Maya Baharal Saar

University of Florida

What got you interested in invasive ant species?

Invasive ant species are an increasing burden on local ecology and human economy. I find it interesting that sometimes, the olfactory system of supercolony-creating ant species is wired differently compared to other ant species. I believe delving into this direction of study may give us new tools to deal with invasion of ant species and its consequences. First though, one must understand the geographic scope of the invasion, its history, and if particular hotspots exist for management.

What is the main focus of your Postdoc work?

I focus on an invasive ant species that was neglected in research for the past decade – the little fire ant (Wasmannia auropunctata), its spread in Florida (USA), its social structure, and in lying first foundations to potential molecular pathways for management.

W. auropunctata affect negatively on agriculture and ecosystems in invaded areas world-wide. For example, it may spread plant disease, it cultivates Hemiptera species which harm crops, and it negatively impact natural pollination and seed-dispersal.

In Florida, W. auropunctata probably occurs in two-thirds of the state and nests in the wild in close proximity to human settlements and resources, for example, plantations and plant nurseries.  It stings agricultural workers and limits their ability to work. Human reaction to the sting varies from mild discomfort to 3 days of painful sensation and sometimes an allergic reaction. Florida is the source of introduction of W. auropunctata to Hawaii. It has since spread rapidly, with estimates of a density of >20,000 ants per m2 in plantations and has been the focus of many eradication attempts. In Israel, W. auropunctata comprises a single unicolonial population, and recent research reveals that, without control in place, it has spread dramatically throughout the country.

 My work is composed of three complementary parts:

The first is gene knockout of olfactory related genes. As communication in ants rely heavily on olfactory cues, testing mutations in genes that regulate olfaction and social behavior, and especially in a super-colony creating ant species such as W. auropunctata, may be the basis for management solutions in future.

The second is mapping   W. auropunctata’s invasion throughout Florida. Despite its ancient invasion (1924), W. auropunctata has been poorly studied in Florida. Preliminary data collected suggest the occurrence of different genetic based lineages of W. auropunctata. I seek to understand the social structure of W. auropunctata, to understand its invasion history and possibly its spread in Florida. Understanding the history and the status of W. auropunctata in Florida today, may aid in preventing future introductions to the U.S.

The third is summarizing the literature gap of W. auropunctata, that was neglected for about a decade, through an extensive review I am currently writing.

How did the Covid-19 quarantines impact your research?

Losing almost a year of experiments due to quarantine, was challenging. I had to “sacrifice” some of the molecular work that I intended to perform in the laboratory, in favour of field work, which at some point of the quarantine, was allowed. I had to be creative in finding solutions to keep progressing, while facing physical and mental challenges, at home and at work. Finding supporting collaborators and thinking of new pathways to get to similar, if not to exact goals, aided tremendously.

In addition, shortly before Covid-19 quarantine began, I joined one of the largest science communication ‘non-profit’ organizations in Israel, “Little Big Science” (in Hebrew: מדע גדול, בקטנה). Making exciting scientific knowledge accessible to the Israeli public, while bridging the language (English-Hebrew) barrier, was a most rewarding role I took upon myself. I was working with some of the brightest minds in Israeli academia and industry from a simple laptop at my home during quarantine.

I highly recommend following popular science articles by “Little Big Science” on the different social media platforms. Currently I manage recruitments for the scientific team of the organization.  If anyone reading this piece is interested, please do reach out.

What tip would you give someone just beginning a career in agricultural research?

Genetic tools have emerged and allow the analysis of the role(s) of genes in regulating social communication and behaviour. These advances open new opportunities to study communication and behavior of insect pests and increase our understanding on how to possibly control them. I highly recommend finding an open research niche that you feel strongly about and finding collaborators that share your feelings. However, finding funding for research is always difficult, at all stages of academia. Dealing with rejections is a great part in the life of a scientist. Being tenacious and believing in yourself is highly important. Please feel free to contact me for support, especially minorities (women, LGBTQ+, POC, etc.) in science.

You can read more about my work and get in touch here: