Bryan Danforth

Bryan Danforth


3124 Comstock Hall
(607) 255-3563

My work falls within the field of systematics and evolution. In particular, I am interested in the evolution of insects and how we can reconstruct the phylogeny of insects using molecular and morphological data. Given that insects comprise over 75% of the species of animals on earth, they are an extremely important group both ecologically and economically.

Research Focus

Research in my laboratory focuses on the phylogeny, evolution, population genetics, and conservation of bees. Bees comprise a monophyletic group of over 20,000 species worldwide. The genus Apis, to which the common, domesticated honey bee belongs, comprises just 8 of the 20,000 species of bees in the world. The vast majority of bees are solitary, ground- or stem-nesting, and do not produce honey. However, they are extremely important pollinators of native and, in many cases, agricultural plants. We study the phylogeny of bees at all levels from the species level to the family level with a combination of morphological and molecular data. The recent publication of the honey bee genome has allowed us to develop data sets from a large number of nuclear genes. Studies that are ongoing in the lab include understanding the root node of bees, the pattern and timing of the early diversification of bees, the relationships among the bee families, and relationships at higher levels within bee families. Such studies are essential to developing a stable classification of the bees, inferring the historical biogeography of bees, understanding the history of bee/plant co-evolution, and reconstructing patterns of bee social evolution. We are currently focusing on the long-tongued bee families Megachilidae (in collaboration with Terry Griswold and Christophe Praz). Graduate student Jessica Litman is investigating the basal phylogeny of the Megachilidae, in particular the tribe Fideliini. Fideliines are distributed in arid regions of southern Africa, Morocco, and western South America. Graduate student Sophie Cardinal is investigating the phylogeny and evolution of the Apidae. Her results are providing new (and surprising) insights into the evolution of both cleptoparasitism and eusociality. Graduate student Margarita Lopez-Uribe is studying the population genetics of native bees in agricultural landscapes in the eastern US. Her studies are providing the first empirical data on gene flow and genetic diversity in native bee pollinators. Other projects include studies of the role of native bees in apple pollination (with graduate student Mia Park). It is becoming increasingly clear that declines in honey bee populations over the past 50 years means that increased work needs to be done on the role of native bees in agricultural settings. Apples are a crop in which native bees are most likely playing a very key role in pollination, but we need more information on how to manage and conserve these important native pollinators.

Outreach and Extension Focus

My work has implications for plant pollination biology and therefore is of importance to maintaining healthy pollinator populations for native and agricultural crops in NY State.

Teaching Focus

I currently teach two classes current at Cornell. First, I teach Alien Empire: Bizarre Biology of Bugs (Entom 2010/2011). Alien Empire is an elective, non-majors class that is meant to introduce undergraduate students to the bizarre and fascinating world of insects. This course emphasizes insect evolution, behavior, natural history, and ecology, but also covers topics related to the interaction between humans and insects.... I have worked very hard in Alien Empire to captivate the students with the bizarre and interesting lives of insects. I make heavy use of color photographs to illustrate the diversity of insect form and anatomy. I use audio recordings to introduce students to the world of insect acoustic communication. I place short films (~5 mins.) throughout the lectures to show live insects in action. I also try to keep things entertaining with occasional segments from popular movies such as "Joe's Apartment" and "Bugs Life". In 2004 I developed a stand alone website for the course:

The website provides an overview of the course as well as course materials. I use the website to post handouts (as downloadable pdf files), Powerpoint presentations (as downloadable pdf files), movie clips, reading assignments, and term paper guidelines.
Alien Empire is one of my favorite courses to teach and I think the students react well to my enthusiasm. I have been told by some students that Entom 201 is the best course they have had at Cornell. Other student comments included: "I have never had a more enthusiastic instructor since I have been at Cornell," "Bryan is an enthusiastic teacher -- he loves the subject and transferred this excitement well," "I really enjoyed this class... Bugs are really neat!", "I loved this course and would recommend it to all my friends."

Second, I teach Entom 3310/3311, a graduate/undergraduate level course in insect phylogeny and evolution. I taught this class for the first time in Spring, 2007 and will teach it again in Fall, 2009. This course provides students with a broad overview of insect diversity, phylogeny, evolution and fossil history. I incorporate some discussion of methods of phylogenetic analysis (including parsimony, maximum likelihood and Bayesian methods) in order to give the students an idea of what kinds of methods people use to reconstruct phylogenies. Students give presentations at the end of the semester on independent research they have done on one group of insects. The laboratory portion of the course (Entom. 3311; 1 credit) involves field collections and identification to the family level.

Selected Publications

Journal Publications