Reading a story by Susan Milius is like going for a ramble in the woods. You set out expecting to see the same old trees and squirrels, only to be surprised by the orange flash of a fox, get lured off-trail by morels poking up through the duff, and then delight in an unexpected carpet of bluebells. This issue’s cover story, “Insects’ extreme farming methods offer us lessons to learn and oddities to avoid”, is no exception.
I was unaware that certain insects qualify as farmers by our snobby human standards, or that those insects have been tending specialized crops for millions of years. Milius, Science News’ life sciences writer, leads us through the strange realms of ants, beetles and termites that farm, and introduces us to the scientists who are thinking about what we humans can learn from the insects. We even embark on an ant-sized expedition, joining Milius as she watches leaf-cutter ants trudge across the University of Texas at Austin’s Brackenridge Field Laboratory, bearing home minuscule snippets of leaves. “It’s like looking down at a few cupcake sprinkles on the floor, each giving just the tiniest jiggle per ant step,” Milius writes.
It’s safe to say that most children don’t dream of covering organismal and evolutionary biology when they grow up. Milius came to that fate by a route almost as long, comparatively, as that of the leaf-cutter ants. But there were early hints at the destination. Milius recalls her mother taking her on long walks near their home in rural Virginia, teaching little Susan how to identify flowers along the way. “I learned my first Latin names of wild flowers before I could read,” Milius says.
Her love of writing led her to journalism, including a stint as a magazine lifestyle editor. One day, at a barbecue symposium, the lifestyle editor suddenly realized that chronicling rubs and marinades was not her destiny. In her purse, she had a number to call about a science-writing job. She stood up, walked out and made the call.
At Science News, Milius has enlightened and charmed readers on the astonishing variety and ingenuity of nonhuman life. Memorable headlines include “How these tiny insect larvae leap without legs,” “The flowers that give us chocolate are ridiculously hard to pollinate” and “It’s official: Termites are just cockroaches with a fancy social life.” As features editor Cori Vanchieri puts it: “The wonder that Susan finds in the natural world moves all of us editors to be adventurous in our use of language and to inject more fun into stories.”
Milius claims that she’s not a great naturalist, but she does carry a little 10x magnifier with her “in hopes of finding something fun.” Social distancing has postponed forays with the local mushroom club, but she’s glad she brought home a beginners guide to grasses when we made the shift to remote work in March. “I find them just about impossible to ID, so it seemed a good project for a long-haul shutdown.”
Milius has never regretted ditching the barbecue beat for evolutionary biology. “What has evolved is so much more peculiar and surprising than what I can imagine,” Milius tells me. We’re all the better for that career change.