WHAT WE DO
Our lab studies the behavioral ecology of insect societies, with a primary focus on the proximate and ultimate mechanisms of honey bee queen behavior and reproduction. In doing so, we attempt to address questions of basic science that have practical relevance. Our philosophy is to integrate a general understanding of bee biology to help improve overall colony health and productivity; in an era when the honey bee population is being severely impacted by any number of factors, we feel that it is incumbent upon the honey bee scientific community to become more proactive in asking questions that address not just basic (long-term) or applied (short-term) questions, but both.
Polyandry and Genetic Diversity
Our lab has a protracted history of investigations into the adaptive benefits of intracolony genetic diversity. Specifically, we have investigated the fitness advantages of queen polyandry (mating with multiple males) and its consequences on colony phenotype. We also investigate the regulation of honey bee reproduction by looking at the genomic and physiological changes in queen bees during mating. We have used techniques such as gene-expression, classical behavioral observation, and GC-MS to determine how virgin queens (who are receptive to mating) transition to laying queens (who never mate again in their entire lifetimes).
Molecular and Pollinator Ecology
Insect pollinators face numerous threats—including pathogens, agrochemical exposure, and reduced habitat—which put food crops at risk. Our collaborative work on pollinator diversity and efficiency in commercial blueberry production has developed interdisciplinary methods that integrate risk assessment into pollination management strategies. Moreover, urbanization is one of the greatest forces of environmental change affecting the world today and is seen as a driving force of climate change. By measuring the disease presence and physiology of different pollinators in urban, suburban, agricultural, and natural ecosystems, we have provided insights into the relative effects of environment on several important factors that influence their productivity and health. We are also investigating the status of feral honey bee populations in the U.S. by re-sampling non-managed honey bee populations in the southeastern United States to determine its genetic composition and to finally address whether feral populations are true “survivor stock” or simply recent “escaped swarms”.
Oxidative Stress and Social Immunity
Stress resistance is an important trait for honey bee health and performance that needs to be evaluated and selected to sustain honey bees for an increasingly managed, industrial lifestyle. The oxidative damage and its consequences are a function of the exposure and the internal defenses against oxidative stress. Our research has attempted to quantify variability in oxidative stress and lifespan within and among honey bee colonies. Similarly, we also examine the social context of stress- and parasite-resistance mechanisms to better understand the evolution of physiological and behavioral immunity in social systems. These group-level defenses—known as social immunity—emerge from collective behaviors of individuals that arise to resist persistence of infection at the colony level. Our research takes an integrative approach to understand individual immunity, genetic diversity, and social immune defenses on group-level fitness.
Parasite and Pathogen IPM
Integrated pest management (IPM) is a central tenet of agricultural and apicultural practice. Implementing an IPM strategy for economically important pests, most notably varroa mites (Varroa destructor), is therefore critical for beekeeping to be sustainable. We have investigated the Russian stock for their efficacy at lowering mite levels across different habitats in North Carolina and management practices. We are also investigating various biopesticides on the control of the damaging larval phase of Small Hive Beetles (SHB). Finally, as participating members of the Bee Informed Partnership, we have been working with beekeepers and BIP tech-transfer teams to quantify baseline levels of economically important viruses to determine their effects on colony health.
Queen Reproductive Quality
There is both anecdotal and empirical evidence to suggest that many queens produced in the U.S. fail prematurely. The reproductive quality of queen bees has long been recognized as being central to colony productivity. Our integrative research program is identifying causative factors affecting honey bee queen quality and production in an effort to increase both. Consequently, we investigate the "mating health" of honey bee queens by looking at the physical quality, insemination success, and mating numbers of queen bees. We also manipulate queen quality by rearing older worker larvae, which has provided insights into the link between queen quality and colony productivity, mating success, and larval development. Further, we hypothesize that natural selection has not optimized queen quality and production traits due to underlying trade-offs. For example, natural selection at the colony level has apparently strongly shaped certain queen traits (e.g., fast development rate) that do not presumably maximize queen quality at the individual level (e.g., fecundity). Our overall goal is to characterize the causative genes underlying this variation and use artificial selection to produce strains with increased queen reproductive quality. We also have an extended interest in the dramatic worker-queen interactions during queen production in honey bee colonies. When honey bee colonies rear new queens, they raise many but then leave the queens fight to the death for only one to reclaim the nest. The fitness discrepancy between "winning" and "losing" queens cannot be greater: losing queens die (i.e., zero fitness), whereas winning queens not only survive, they inherit a well established nest with all the workers and inherent resources.