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The University of Southampton

New study investigates life and death in the beehive

Published: 25 March 2009

Scientists from the Universities of Southampton and East Anglia are set to begin a unique study that will explore the behaviour of bees to help understand the process of ageing in animals, including humans.

Professor Andrew Bourke of the School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia, and Dr Joel Parker of the School of Biological Sciences, University of Southampton have been successful in obtaining a £503,000 grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (Nerc) to investigate what happens in bumble bee colonies as queens age.

The research on kin-selected conflict over the evolution of lifespan and ageing is led by Professor Andrew Bourke, whose team will study the bees' behaviour in around 100 hives over the three-year project, which will start this autumn.

Dr Parker and a post-doctoral researcher will contribute to the study by carrying out laboratory investigations into how genes in the bees are switched on or off as family relations within the hive deteriorate. Professor Bourke says: “As queen bees age, they produce fewer offspring, which provokes conflict over the inheritance of resources.

New study investigates life and death in the beehive
Bombus terrestris queen and workers in artificial nest

“As the social make-up of the hive changes, a tipping point occurs where queens should die and pass on the hive to her worker daughters. However, from the daughters’ perspective, that point occurs earlier creating a conflict over the inheritance of the resource. We think this will accelerate the queen's ageing and is also why workers sometimes kill their mother queen.”

Dr Parker adds: “Theoretical models already exist of this process but this research will be the first to test how social conflicts affect ageing. Simultaneously exploring the behaviour, biochemistry and genetics of these social insects can provide useful information on the ageing process in any animal that passes on resources to offspring, including humans.”

Bumble bees are widely used by commercial nurseries to pollinate crops. The insects to be used for this study will be purchased from commercial suppliers.

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