Zoology and Entomology lecturer Dr Tom Rhys Bishop (29) tells Tukkievaria why ants are “the little things that run the world”.

Posted on June 19, 2020

“Follow your passion first; follow the money second,” says Dr Tom Rhys Bishop (29) who offers his thoughts on building a better SA and why research such as his into insect diversity is vital in the face of global warming.                                                                                                     

Dr Tom Rhys Bishop, extraordinary lecturer in Zoology and Entomology at the University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences, says “everyone needs to listen to one another a little more, especially when we disagree”.

This is his view on how young people can help to build a stronger South Africa. He says that “actively listening to other people’s opinions and understanding why they may hold them” is the solution to some problems. He also advises youth to “follow your passion first; follow the money second”.

Dr Bishop, who holds a PhD in Ecology from the University of Liverpool in the UK, teaches field courses and lectures third-year students on insect diversity, ecological sampling methods and community ecology at UP. He was a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow at UP from 2016 to 2018, and was presented with the Ecological Entomology Award 2016/17 for Best Paper.

Currently a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool, Dr Bishop is interested in using morphology and physiology to understand the distribution of biological diversity. His specific interest is the study of ants, and his research focuses on how ants respond to temperatures and what this might mean in the face of climate change. This interest in social insects was sparked when as an undergraduate he learnt about the diversity and biomass of insects.

“Terrestrial arthropods (insects and related groups like crustaceans), for example, outweigh wild mammals by about 143 times! In addition, insects make up around 70% of all described species. After learning these facts, I was hooked!”

Ants make up only a small fraction of the total number of insect species – there are about 15 000 described ant species, which is not very many when compared to other insect groups, explains Dr Bishop. “Ants make up at least 50% of the insect biomass though. Combined, they probably weigh more than all humans. This made me home in on ants as my study group initially.”

Ants have a vast range of behaviours and lifestyles: some are “farmers”, or “pastoralists” who tend insect “cattle”; some are nomadic, while others live in massive permanent nests; there are those that live purely in the canopies of rainforests, while others live underground and never see the earth’s surface, explains Dr Bishop.

He says ants have been described as “the little things that run the world” – they are critical for the proper functioning of our ecosystems. They consume plant material, are the primary food source for many birds and mammals. They also aerate and fertilise the soil, pollinate plants and recycle dead material.

“For this reason, understanding where insects are and what they are doing is really important. If they disappeared, terrestrial ecosystems would simply collapse. In the face of global heating it is becoming ever more important to understand where insects are and where they are likely to move to as the world gets warmer. This is why studying insect diversity is so important.”

His favourite course at UP is a field course run by the Department of Zoology and Entomology, which takes about 50 students to the Sani Pass in the Drakensberg. “This course is great as we introduce students to our own long-term monitoring and research projects.”

Dr Bishop says he has chosen a career as an academic because it is fun. “I love finding out about the natural world and helping others to do the same. I also feel a sense of urgency to find out about species and their ecosystems before they irreparably change.”

Being an academic is a two-fold experience for Dr Bishop: “Sometimes it’s really great: being in the mountains catching insects or finding an interesting result in your data. But sometimes it can be dull – sitting at a microscope for hours and days on end is not always that fun.”

He finds lecturing rewarding. “It is essentially an excuse to talk about my main hobby: ants and insects. I love sharing cool knowledge about these topics. I fear that many institutions around the world do not teach university students about insects in depth, and it is awesome that Pretoria has such a great set of entomology specialists that can provide this teaching.”


- Author Primarashni Gower

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