COSTS OF REPRODUCTION AND THE FECUNDITY-LONGEVITY TRADE-OFF: Congratulations to Pierre Blacher and Tim Huggins, whose recent paper in Proceedings B reveals some intriguing patterns in the relationship between fecundity and longevity in eusocial insects. Essentially, our experiments have shown that workers of the bumble bee Bombus terrestris exhibit a positive fecundity-longevity association when they have a choice over whether or not to reproduce, but a negative one when they are randomly forced to make the choice. This suggests that workers experience costs of reproduction but that this is masked in whole colonies because in these colonies only high-quality workers able to overcome such costs choose to reproduce. So the hypothesis that eusocial insects lack costs of reproduction may require another look.
The paper is: 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. View article
BUMBLE BEE CONSERVATION: In a new paper in Nature by a team led by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and including myself at UEA and other collaborators at the Institute of Zoology and UCL, we have shown that bumble bee colonies nesting within 250 - 1,000 metres of high-quality floral resources within an agricultural landscape are significantly more likely to have daughter queens surviving to the following spring. Our findings both confirm the value of agri-environment interventions designed to boost the persistence of bumble bee populations and indicate the spatial and temporal scale of the floral resources required for such interventions to be effective. Our paper is: Carvell C, Bourke AFG, Dreier S, Freeman SN, Hulmes S, Jordan WC, Redhead JW, Sumner S, Wang J, Heard MS (2017) Bumblebee family lineage survival is enhanced in high quality landscapes. Nature 543: 547-549.
Social evolution is a fundamental topic in evolutionary biology and behavioural ecology because it shows how natural selection acting on selfish genes can lead to cooperative behaviour. In addition, by explaining why individuals group together to form new levels of organization (such as genomes within cells, cells within organisms and organisms within societies), social evolution lies at the heart of our understanding of the major transitions in evolution.
The social insects such as the ants, bees and wasps represent perfect subjects for the study of social evolution because of the rich diversity of their social systems and the extreme nature of some of their social behaviour. Social insects also play a crucial role in delivering ecosystem services such as pollination, making the continued health of social insect populations a top priority.
Accordingly, my research interests fall into two main areas:
I am interested in the evolutionary, ecological, behavioural and genetic basis of social behaviour. In particular, using ants and the bumble bee Bombus terrestris, I conduct empirical studies to test hypotheses from inclusive fitness (kin selection) theory. I am also interested in conceptual, synthetic and empirical studies that apply insights from the study of social evolution to related domains, examples being the evolution of ageing and the major transitions in evolution.
I conduct applied research (much of it with external collaborators) in social insect conservation biology, including such topics as the assessment of agri-environment schemes for bumble bees and the conservation genetics of scarce or declining social insects. A particular focus is on developing genetic methods for censusing wild populations of bees with a view to aiding conservation initiatives for these threatened pollinators.