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


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


Project Description


Prof Andrew Bourke (UEA Biological Sciences)

Dr Alexei Maklakov (UEA)

Prof Tracey Chapman (UEA)

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 organisms, 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 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- v. group-level hypotheses for this difference in experiments measuring (1) workers’ longevities and (2) expression levels of ageing-associated genes, as a function of individual and social factors.

Research methodology

The student will maintain B. terrestris colonies in the laboratory at UEA. For Objective 1, he/she will perform a factorial experiment assessing longevity of workers from early- v. late-stage source colonies introduced into early- v. late-stage receiving colonies (i.e. testing whether early workers have intrinsically greater longevity v. workers’ longevity is determined by colony stage). For Objective 2, in similar experiments, the student will use qPCR to determine expression differences in ageing-associated genes in workers after introduction to receiving colonies.

Training and person specification

Alongside training opportunities provided by the DTP, the student will receive research training and generic, transferable training within a well-supported research group. Research training will provide expertise in bee ecology and evolutionary theory plus advanced skills in insect husbandry, designing experiments, laboratory molecular genetics (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. This studentship would suit a motivated individual with a BSc or MSc in Biology, Ecology, Genetics or Zoology.


  • 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.
  • Duxbury E, Rostant WR, Chapman T (2017) Manipulation of feeding regime alters sexual dimorphism for lifespan and reduces sexual conflict in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284: 20170391.

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