What do you do?
In my research, I’m interested in two broad topics: the evolution of social behaviour in animals, which I study mainly in bumblebees, and, in view of this work and the ongoing pollinator crisis, I’ve also become interested in the conservation of wild bees. The evolution of sociality is a large, important area because it raises fundamental questions about how natural selection works and about how the biological hierarchy we see around us is constructed. I work on the social insects, which are mainly the ants, bees, wasps and termites. This is because they are very diverse and you can study their societies in the lab and so watch them working in detail. I’m most interested in the tension created by the difference between individual and group interests. For example, in the bumblebees that I work on, the queen’s worker daughters help her raise her new offspring. However, at some point in the colony cycle the workers begin to lay their own eggs, which the queen is selected to oppose, and so fighting breaks out. Sometimes the workers can even kill the queen. This creates a microcosm for the core problem of social evolution, which is how does evolution find a compromise between a selfish group member’s interest and the community interest.
I started working on bumblebees because their colonies don’t live very long, so you can see their whole life-cycle play out in the lab over a few months. Through this I became interested in their conservation, which is a pressing problem because bumblebees are pollinators of many wild-flowers and crops, including species that are not very effectively pollinated by honey bees, yet many bumblebee species are declining. My work is this area has mainly involved helping develop and implement genetic techniques to measure basic ecological parameters of wild bee populations in the field. For example, we didn’t know until recently how far, on average, bumblebee workers fly from their nest to forage. By taking DNA non-lethally from foraging workers and genotyping it, you can tell which bees are related to each other and make an estimate as to how far they have flown from their common nest. If you don’t know these things you can’t begin to protect wild bees and take the right steps to conserve them for the longer term.
What can I see?
We do our research on the social behaviour of bumblebees in a Controlled Environment Facility next to the BIO building at UEA. It’s a set of controlled temperature rooms and contains an insectary and an aquarium. We keep the bees in boxes so that we’re able to observe the behaviour of marked individuals in the nest in great detail. In nature these bees would nest underground, making them sensitive to daylight when inside the colony. So we have to observe them under red light — they can’t see red light so to them it looks dark, but we can still see them!
When I’m not doing science I…
… am spending time observing nature, as I’m very keen on natural history. So when I’m not doing formal academic work I’m very often bird-watching. I also like trying to do macrophotography of insects. Norfolk is a fantastic area if you’re interested in natural history — not just for birds but also for insects and wild-flowers. There are wetlands, heathlands, the north Norfolk coast and Thetford Forest. I like visiting all of these places with whatever members of my family will come with me. We’ve also recently got into fossil collecting – or are trying to!