Rob Page: Honey Bees' Social Behavior Rivals Our Own

Nov 19, 2019

We humans exhibit complex social behavior.

So do honey bees.

“Honey bees exhibit complex social behavior that rivals our own,” internationally recognized honey bee geneticist Robert E. Page Jr., recipient of the 2019 UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Professor Award told the crowd at his BrainFood Seminar Nov. 14 in the Walter A. Buehler Alumni Center.

Speaking on “The Social Contract: How Complex Social Behavior Evolve," Page said that it is "fundamentally bound within a social contract much like ours that makes the basic social structure inescapable, a consequence of living together in family groups. Social structures evolve by natural selection operating on the final product, the colony as a reproductive unit. The structures themselves are reverse engineered.”

In his talk, Page showed how selection on the economy of the colony shapes structures from nest and social architecture to gene networks. UC Davis Emeriti Association and the UC Davis Retirees' Association sponsored the program.

"It is likely that this was the first talk ever to link the U.S. Constitution's  'We the People' to the theory of social evolution in insects," said colleague UC Davis distinguished professor James R. Carey of the Department of Entomology and Nematology.

Page is known for his research on honey bee behavior and population genetics, particularly the evolution of complex social behavior. One of his most salient contributions to science was to construct the first genomic map of the honey bee, which sparked a variety of pioneering contributions not only to insect biology but to genetics at large.

Page is not only a UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Professor, but a Arizona State University (ASU) Regents Professor Emeritus and ASU University Provost Emeritus. Page chaired the Department of Entomology from 1999 to 2004, when Arizona State University recruited him to be the founding director of the School of Life Sciences of Arizona State University (ASU). His ASU career advanced to dean of Life Sciences; vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and university provost.

Born and reared in Bakersfield, Kern County, Rob received his bachelor's degree in entomology, with a minor in chemistry, from San Jose State University in 1976. After obtaining his doctorate from UC Davis in 1980, he served as assistant professor at The Ohio State University before joining the UC Davis entomology faculty in 1989 as an associate professor. He began working closely with Harry H. Laidlaw Jr., (the father of honey bee genetics) for whom the university's bee facility is named. Together they published many significant research papers.

At UC Davis, he maintained a honey bee-breeding program for 24 years, from 1989 to 2015, managed by bee breeder-geneticist Kim Fondrk at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. They discovered a link between social behavior and maternal traits in bees. Their work was featured in a cover story in the journal Nature. In all, Nature featured his work on four covers from work mostly done at UC Davis.

Page and his lab pioneered the use of modern techniques to study the genetic basis of social behavior evolution in honey bees and other social insects. He was the first to employ molecular markers to study polyandry and patterns of sperm use in honey bees. He provided the first quantitative demonstration of low genetic relatedness in a highly eusocial species.

His work has garnered a significant impact in the scientific community through his research on the evolutionary genetics and social behavior of honey bees. He was the first to demonstrate that a significant amount of observed behavioral variation among honey bee workers is due to genotypic variation. In the 1990s, he and his students and colleagues isolated, characterized and validated the complementary sex determination gene of the honey bee; considered the most important paper yet published about the genetics of Hymenoptera. The journal Cell featured their work on its cover. In subsequent studies, he and his team published further research into the regulation of honey bee foraging, defensive and alarm behavior.

Page has authored than 250 research papers, including five books: among them “The Spirit of the Hive: The Mechanisms of Social Evolution,” published by Harvard University Press in 2013. He is a highly cited author on such topics as Africanized bees, genetics and evolution of social organization, sex determination, and division of labor in insect societies. His resume shows more than 18,000 citations.

Highly honored by his peers, Page is a fellow of a number of organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the California Academy of Sciences, the Entomological Society of America, and organizations in Germany and Brazil. He received the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award, known at the Humboldt Prize, the highest honor given by the German government to foreign scientists. He received the 2018 Thomas and Nina Leigh Distinguished Alumni Award from UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.        

Page is the second bee specialist from the Department of Entomology to receive the prestigious Distinguished Emeritus Professor award. Native pollinator specialist Robbin Thorp (1933-2019) received the UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Professor Award in 2015. A global authority on bees known for his research, teaching, mentoring and public service, Thorp co-authored Bumble Bees of California: An Identification Guide (2014, Princeton University Press)  and California Bees and Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists (2014, Heyday Books).