Stories of Science—Haydee Borrero

Guanahacabibes, Cuba

Guanahacabibes, Cuba

I met Haydee Borrero when I came to visit Miami in 2014. She asked me if I had ever been to the Everglades and when I said no she said “I’ll pick you up tomorrow at 5am”. Born and raised in Miami she showed me the beauty and the vastness of Everglades National Park, stopping on the way at Robert is Here in Homestead, the famous tropical fruit stand where she introduced me to more fruits than I even knew existed. We snacked on Caimito (Chrysophyllum cainito), or star apple, a sweet milky fruit that was just starting to come into season. We waded into a cypress dome and saw Tillandsia’s in bloom with their colorful tufted flowers. It was a magical morning. I am happy to call her my friend to this day. This past year we traveled to Cuba together twice since our field sites overlapped. We didn’t find ice cream in Havana as it’s a pretty hard treat to find, but she indulged me in her favorite anyways. Haydee has had an interesting path is now doing some really cool work as part of her PhD.

What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?

Goat Cheese Guava from Lulu’s Nitrogen Ice cream in Miami. Best Ice cream on earth. But when in doubt, I always go pistachio.

What inspired your love of plants?

I always loved watching National Geographic about anything. Mostly charismatic animals, but even less charming things like snails. I always wanted to be “that guy” trudging through the forest.

How did you get into research?

As an undergrad I received a USDA scholarship, so I had to work with plants and agriculture. I started studying entomology, the study of insects, and learned traits for telling bees apart. Dr. Suzanne Koptur, my mentor, gave me a net and we walked around catching bees at the nature preserve on campus. You start to learn just by the sound what kind of insect it is. I caught a non-native orchid bee, Euglossa viridisima, a Euglossine long tongued orchid bee, that is shiny green and looks like a floating emerald. This bee has a very curious movement and will approach you, which is very distinct. Trying to find out more about this curious bee was my first time doing academic research, looking through literature.

I met Dr. Hong Liu when I took her restoration ecology class. She studies tropical orchids, species trade, as well as plant-animal interactions. I told her about the orchid bees I found on campus and she didn’t believe me because they had not yet been vouchered in the area. The bees had never been found in Miami-Dade County prior, only up in north FL. She told me that I had probably seen a fly or a beetle rather than an orchid bee. I knew I didn’t, so I showed her my collections to convince her otherwise. When I did really well in her restoration ecology class she invited me to southern China to conduct fieldwork by her side. We were working in the Yachang Orchid Reservce in the Chinese province of Guangxi on her long-term survey on orchid out-plantings and translocations (Liu et al 2012). We started a mini-project at the edge of a collapsed doline (limestone mountains with underground rivers that are hollowed and collapse, creating a donut shape formation). We were conducting pollinator watches on the orchid Cymbidium cyperifolium and doing transects. We found more bees on the cliff edge than in the interior of the forest and this project was the topic of my first academic publication (Borrero et al. 2016). After I graduated I worked with the Magellanic woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus), but I decided I didn’t want to work with birds. I loved working with Hong—we had the same rhythm. I decided I liked working with plants because they are mostly sessile—and don’t move (especially when compared to birds) and to pursue my PhD with Dr. Liu as my advisor.

What is your PhD dissertation about?

I was told to choose a topic that I LOVE, because you’ll end up hating it by the end. If you start with something you dislike you won’t make it to the end. I still like my project. I may dislike some of my field sites because they have given me illnesses and scars, but I have a mountain of good stories and laughs. Fieldwork is good for that.

Part of my research is monitoring a specialized herbivore—a gross little fly—that burrows through the flower stalks of an endangered orchid species. This fly has only ever been found in these stalks. I look at how many plants have been damaged by this fly and how many flowers and fruits (if any) have been produced. About 97% attack rates have been found during a 3-year time period in the one and only South Florida population. We rarely find fruits, so there’s a possibility that the populations could be declining because there’s no reproductive opportunity. Now I’m working in Cuba to see if the same plant has the fly there. We’ve found the fly in every population in Cuba, but the herbivory rate is different, less than in South Florida (Borrero et al. 2018).

What do you like about fieldwork in Cuba?

I love the complexity of being Cuban-American. Most pre- and post-revolution emigrants (my family included) left to avoid the regime and won’t even think about revisiting their motherland. Coming back gave me the opportunity to re-connect with my roots. I’m so happy my work led me back here.

I’m personally happy that it led us to Cuba together; Haydee is an excellent colleague, field assistant, and awesome friend!



Borrero, H., P. Nunez, H. Liu. 2016. Living life on the edge gets more sex. Orchids Vol.85 No.1:69-73.
Borrero, H., J. C. Alvarez, R. O. Prieto, H. Liu. 2018. Specialized herbivory on inflorescence stalks of Trichocentrum undulatum (Orchidaceae) by Melanagromyza sp. (Diptera: Agromyzidae) in Cuba. Lankesteriana.
Early View.
Liu, H., C. –L. Feng, B. –S. Chen, Z. –S. Wang, X. –Q. Xie, et al. 2012. Overcoming extreme weather events: successful but variable assisted translocations of wild orchids in southwestern China. Biological Conservation
150: 68-75.