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Research_

Social Insects Lab

Focusing on whole-organism behaviour
In our lab you will find an exciting, supportive, research environment supported by excellent technical personnel (beekeepers and molecular biologists) and state-of-the-art technology.

About us

Our lab started out working predominately on bees, including the commercial honey bee (Apis mellifera), Asian bees (Apis ceranaApis floreaApis andreniformisApis dorsata) and Australian stingless bees (TetragonulaAustroplebeia). We have since incorporated other social insects, such as ants. We also study the acellular slime mould Physarum polycephalum (which is not an insect or social) and bee viruses.

Our equipment and resources include:

  • a molecular laboratory well equipped for microsatellite analysis, genomic and PCR work, cloning, allozyme analysis and sequencing
  • several PCR machines including RT-PCR
  • Two liquid-handellers for high-volume throughput
  • A microinjector
  • an Applied Biosystems 3130xl Genetic Analyser. 

We keep honey bees at the following locations:

  • the Crommelin Research Station ('Warrah')
  • our bee house at the University of Sydney.

Our research

Conflict and cooperation

Honeybees are an ideal model system to study how societies suppress selfish behaviour by its workers. We study the European honeybee Apis mellifera, a selected 'anarchistic' line in which the majority of the workers lay eggs in the presence of a queen, and the Cape honeybee (A. m. capensis) whose workers can clone themselves via thelytokous parthenogenesis.

Evolution of the dance language

In Honeybees (Apis), we argue that their dance language has evolved not to convey directional information about food sources, but for the purpose of nest site selection. The dance language was then secondarily adapted as a means to recruit foragers. To provide empirical support for this hypothesis, we compare the use of the dance language in species of Apis that differ fundamentally in their nest site requirements.

Decision-making in ants, bees and slime moulds

We study ants and honeybees to understand the mechanisms the individual insects use to achieve collective behaviour. We then use our biological knowledge to design nature-inspired optimisation algorithms that take their inspiration from the ways individual insects adapt their behaviour depending on the required outcome at the level of the collective. We also use the acellular slime mould Physarum polycephalum as a model organism. The slime mould is brainless, yet capable of making decisions about where to forage, it can trade-off risks, construct near-optimal networks and sometimes even behaves in the same way as humans.

Intra- and intergenomic conflict and epigenetics

We study two types of genomic conflict – conflict between paternal and maternal genomes and intergenomic conflict between mitochondrial and nuclear genomes. We are investigating how queens and drones may make epigenetic modifications to their genomes to manipulate the behaviour of their worker offspring. We use the slime mould Physarum polycephalum to study the effect of mixing of mitochondria from more than one individual.

Evolution of virulence

We are interested in understanding the relationship between honeybees, their viruses and parasitic Varroa mites, and how vector transmission has changed honeybee viral landscapes around the world. We are investigating the impact of viral diseases in bees, looking at virulence evolution, virus competition, replication and immune defences.

Invasion genetics

We use the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana), an invasive pest in tropical Australia, to investigate the effects of genetic bottlenecks on invasive species. In the past 50 years, Apis cerana has established invasive populations in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Far North Queensland, each arising from just one or very few founding colonies. These populations provide an excellent opportunity to understand the ways that social insect populations cope with the loss of genetic diversity, and how they adapt and change in new environments.

Do we have enough bees?

There is increasing concern that our pollinator populations are declining, which will likely have ramifications for our food production systems. We are assessing the number of honeybee colonies in Australia to quantify their role in pollination. We are also developing similar techniques for use in native Australian stingless bees.  

 

Our staff

Our students

  • Sarah Aamidor, PhD student
  • Amanda Norton, PhD student
  • Nicholas Smith, PhD student
  • Jules Smith-Ferguson, PhD student
  • Francisco Garcia Bulle Bueno, PhD student
  • Carlos Cardoso, PhD Student
  • Patsavee Utaipanon, PhD Student
  • Thomas Gillard, PhD Student
  • Thomas Hagan, Honours Student
  • Thitipan Meemongkolkiat, PhD Student
  • Caitlyn Drayton-Taylor, PhD Student
  • Yolanda Hanusch, Masters Student
  • Matthew Ludowici, Honours Student

Opportunities

For information about opportunities to work or collaborate with the Social Insects lab, visit our website or on our facebook page.

Download our current list of available honours projects.

 

Benjamin Oldroyd

Professor in Behavioural Genetics
Address
  • Room 247, Macleay Building A12 University of Sydney NSW 2006

Madeleine Beekman

Professor of Behavioural Ecology
Address
  • Room 249, Macleay Building A12 University of Sydney NSW 2006

Rosalyn Gloag

Lecturer in Evolutionary Biology
Address
  • Room 247, Macleay Building A12 University of Sydney NSW 2006

Emily Remnant

Academic Fellow
Address
  • Room 247, Macleay Building A12 University of Sydney NSW 2006