The ageing bee: how does sociality affect ageing in social animals?


The ageing bee: how does sociality affect ageing in social animals?


Project Description


Prof Andrew Bourke, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

Prof Alexei Maklakov, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia

Prof Tracey Chapman, School of Biological Sciences, University of East Anglia


Scientific background:

Explaining patterns of ageing in organisms is essential for both our scientific understanding of the diversity of life histories and our ability to manipulate them in beneficial ways. Yet, despite the overall success of the evolutionary theory of ageing, substantial gaps in our understanding remain. Specifically, in social animals, it remains unknown whether longevity and ageing depend primarily on properties of the individual or group. Likewise, it is unknown whether the expression of genes in ageing-associated pathways depends on individual or social factors. This project’s main aim is to resolve these fundamental questions using experimental and genetic approaches in the eusocial bumble bee Bombus terrestris.

We recently found that B. terrestris workers produced early in the colony cycle have significantly greater longevities than later-produced workers (Holland and Bourke 2015). The project’s specific objectives will therefore be to discriminate between the individual- and group-level hypotheses for this difference using experiments to measure the longevities and gene expression levels of workers as a function of individual and social factors.

Research methodology:

Working with B. terrestris colonies in the laboratory at UEA, the student will design and perform experiments to separate out individual and social influences on longevity (Objective 1). For example, experiments will test whether young workers transferred from early-stage colonies into late-stage colonies live longer or shorter lives. In similar experiments, the student will also use quantitative PCR (qPCR) to measure how or whether genes in ageing-associated pathways change their expression levels in response to such manipulations (Objective 2) .

Training and person specification:

Alongside training opportunities provided by the DTP, the student will receive research training and generic, transferable training within the supervisors’ well-supported research groups. Research training will provide expertise in bee ecology and evolutionary theory plus advanced skills in insect husbandry, designing experiments, molecular techniques (RNA extraction, qPCR) and data analysis. Generic, transferable training will cover project management, written and oral communication and career development. The student will be encouraged to shape the project’s direction as it develops.

Person Specification

This studentship would suit a motivated individual with a BSc or MSc in Biology, Ecology, Genetics or Zoology.


  • Almond EJ, Huggins TJ, Crowther LP, Parker JD, Bourke AFG (2019) Queen longevity and fecundity affect conflict with workers over resource inheritance in a social insect. American Naturalist 193: 256-266.
  • Blacher P, Huggins TJ, Bourke AFG (2017) Evolution of ageing, costs of reproduction and the fecundity-longevity trade-off in eusocial insects. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284: 20170380.
  • Lockett GA, Almond EJ, Huggins TJ, Parker JD, Bourke AFG (2016) Gene expression differences in relation to age and social environment in queen and worker bumble bees. Experimental Gerontology 77: 52-61.
  • Holland JG, Bourke AFG (2015) Colony and individual life-history responses to temperature in a social insect pollinator. Functional Ecology 29: 1209-1217.
  • Maklakov AA, Immler S (2016) The expensive germline and the evolution of ageing. Current Biology 26: R577-R586.

Key Information

  • This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, and will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.
  • Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award.
  • Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses in the subject area (see
  • This studentship will start on 1st October 2020, and the closing date for applications is 23:59 on 15th January 2020.
  • Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 18/19 February 2020.
  • For further information, please contact the supervisor.
  • Please note that the joint NERC-ESRC ARIES-SeNSS studentship projects have different deadlines and funding arrangements. For full details please visit, or contact

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