New faculty profile: James Crall studies how environmental changes impact bees and other pollinators

James Crall joined the UW–Madison faculty in January 2021 as an assistant professor in the Department of Entomology.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio. Then after four years of college outside Philadelphia, I lived in Boston for a little over a decade before coming to Madison.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I earned my undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College with majors in biology and sociology and anthropology, and my Ph.D. in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University. And before coming to UW–Madison, I was a Rockefeller Foundation Planetary Health Alliance Fellow and a USDA-NIFA Postdoctoral Fellow at Harvard University.

How did you get into your field of research?
I was trained as an organismal biologist and started my research career trying to understand the biomechanics of how insects fly. But over time I just became completely fascinated with the social life of bees and got completely sucked into studying their behavior and ecology, which has been the main focus of my research since.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
The main goals of my research program are to better understand how global environmental change (including altered weather conditions, exposure to pesticides and other agrochemicals, shifting landscape use, etc.) are impacting bees and other pollinators, and to develop better tools to monitor and promote the health of pollinating insects and the ecosystem services they provide in agroecosystems. To achieve the latter, I’m especially interested in applying emerging tools in data science, computer vision, and artificial intelligence to studying the behavior and ecology of insects, and especially bees. In practice, this means I spend an inordinate amount of time gluing small things to bumble bees.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
The fantastic colleagues and highly collaborative, interdisciplinary ethos of the university were very attractive to me, as well as getting to work at a mission-driven, public university.

What was your first visit to campus like?
My first visit was in March 2020, just a couple weeks before COVID-19 shut things down. So I remember being thoroughly impressed by Madison’s great restaurants, bars, and coffee shops, which left a strong impression since they were some of the last meals out I’ve had since! And I was really struck by the beauty of campus, especially walking along a frozen Lake Mendota.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I hope students will come away with greater curiosity for the natural world and especially for the tiny but amazing insects, and a greater appreciation for how important they are for conservation, ecosystem function, and food production across the globe.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I mainly use Twitter to share my science, where you can find me at @jamesdcrall.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
The Wisconsin Idea resonates very strongly for me, and a central goal of my work is not just to better understand the natural world, but to use that information to better people’s lives. For my work, that means trying to focus on questions that I not only find fascinating, but that can also contribute to conservation, more sustainable food production, and improving the health of both humans and ecosystems.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
There are 20,000 species of bees on the planet, just about twice the number of bird species. Also, individual bees have “personalities,” with some preferring to do specific tasks within the colony or staying in their own particular corner of the nest – in many ways just like us!

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I play guitar and banjo, which during the pandemic has mainly meant singing songs from the Frozen soundtrack to the two young kids in our house. I also love to hike, bike, build things, and rock climb, and am working on my skiing.