About Professor Ben Oldroyd

Bee societies have many features similar our own. I want to find the genes that make living as a society possible.

Ben works on the behavioural, evolutionary and population genetics of bees, especially questions about how bee societies evolved

In 1994 I discovered a very rare honeybee colony where the workers, and not the queen laid all the male eggs, and that this was caused by a behavioural mutation. I subsequently bred a line of bees in which workers lay eggs universally. This line provides a unique experimental system for the study of the genes that control the very essence of sociality: the genes for worker sterility. The work is showing, at the molecular level, how worker sterility is regulated.  In the lab we use genomic mapping, microarrays and real time PCR to look for the genes.  In the field we study the anarchists to see how they cheat on their society.

Another research interest is the extreme mating frequency honey bee queens.  For example, queens of the giant honey bee mate at least 20 times a night for 3 nights in a row, and then never mate again.  I suggest that the mating profligacy arises from a need to generate genetic diversity in colonies. My students and I have determined the mating frequency of 5 honey bee species. We are now trying to find out why genetically diverse colonies are better than genetically uniform ones.  For example, we showed that diverse colonies regulate temperature better, probably because the workers have slightly different thresholds for starting to ventilate their hive.  If they all had the same threshold, they’d all turn on and off at the same time, like a clunky old air conditioner.

I’ve made major contributions to our understanding of the biology of Asian honey bees including the first comparative studies of behaviour and nest morphology, general ecology and reproductive biology. Much of this work was synthesized in my 2006 book Asian honey bees (Harvard University Press).  I still love going up to Thailand and studying the bees – their dance language, their pests and diseases, where they live, their migrations, and the mega cities of the giant bees.  There is still so much left to learn.  I’m also deeply concerned with the conservation of these amazing creatures and the forests they live in.

Selected publications

  • Hughes WO, Oldroyd BP, Beekman M, Ratnieks FL. (2008) Ancestral monogamy shows kin selection is key to the evolution of eusociality. Science 320:1213-6. PMID: 18511689 A comparative analysis that shows that high relatedness was most likely essential to the evolution of sociality in the Hymenoptera.
  • Jordan LA, Allsopp MH, Oldroyd BP, Wossler TC, Beekman M (2008) Cheating honeybee workers produce royal offspring. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 275, 345-351. PMID: 18048282  First report of reproductive parasitism by workers targeting queen cells and asexual reproduction of daughter queens.
  • Oxley, PR, Thompson, GJ, Oldroyd, BP (2008) Four QTL influence worker sterility in the honey bee (Apis mellifera). Genetics 179, 1337-1343. PMID: 18562647.  First molecular evidence for ‘selfish gene’ in a social insect.
  • Oldroyd, BP, Wongsiri, S (2006) Asian honey bees: Biology, conservation and human interactions. Harvard University Press. This is the first academic treatise on Asian honey bees.
  • Nanork, P, Paar, J Chapman, NC, Wongsiri, S, Oldroyd, BP (2005) Asian honey bees parasitize the future dead. Nature 437:829. PMID: 16208359 First report of reproductive parasitism by workers from other nests.
  • Jones, J, Myerscough, M, Graham, S, Oldroyd, BP (2004) Honey bee nest thermoregulation: diversity promotes stability. Science 305:402-404. PMID: 15218093 First study to provide empirical support for the idea that genetic diversity within colonies generates different task thresholds, and that this directly leads to an improved colony-level outcome.
  • Paar, J, Oldroyd, BP, Kastberger, G (2000) Giant honeybees return to their nest sites. Nature 406: 475. PMID: 10952300 First report of honey bee migratory swarms returning to their nest sites after 6 months absence.
  • Palmer, KA, Oldroyd, BP (2000) Evolution of multiple mating in the genus Apis. Apidologie 31: 235-248. Review of polyandry in the genus (mainly of my own work) that transformed our view of mating number from around 6 to well over 20 and often many more.
  • Oldroyd, BP Smolenski, AJ, Cornuet, J-M, Crozier, RH (1994) Anarchy in the beehive. Nature 371:749. First report of reproductive parasitism within a colony of honey bees.
  • Oldroyd B. P., Allsopp M. H., Lim J. & Beekman M. (2011). A thelytokous lineage of socially parasitic honey bees has retained heterozygosity despite at least 10 years of inbreeding. Evolution 65, 860-868 This study showed how a parthenogenetic lineage persists without sex.