UNCG Research

Researching the complex lifestyle of social insects, Dr. Olav Rueppell and Honeybees [Faculty]

Posted on Monday, May 27th, 2013 by UNCG Research.

Repost from the Spring 2010 UNCG Research Magazine, “The bee’s keeper”

First Things First: I was born and raised in Germany. I got my doctorate from the University of Wuerzburg. For my postdoctoral research, I decided to go to the University of California, Davis. That was partly a career decision and partly a family decision because I had just married my wife, Dr. Matina Kalcounis-Rüppell, who was a postdoc at UC Berkeley. She is also a biologist in the biology department here.

Social Work: In my research, I try to explain through what mechanisms honeybees have evolved sociality. Compared to other animals, they have an added layer of complexity to cooperate and share a common goal in the colony. But they do different tasks. So there’s a division of labor, not only between the queen and the workers, but some workers do one task and others do another task. How is it that one worker does one task and another worker does another task? Those are the questions I am trying to answer at the genetic, genomic and individual level.

The Aging Process: And I am interested in the consequences that social evolution has for life history. How does living in a group affect how an organism ages? We know an individual’s schedule for reproduction shapes its mortality schedule in solitary species. In individual bees that don’t reproduce, some other forces of natural selection optimize their life history. They can either live longer or shorter. In contrast, the queen reproduces, but she only reproduces. So that’s also a unique set of parameters or predictions that we can think about that are exceptions to the general rules and patterns of aging.

Colony Collapse Disorder: Lately, my research has taken a turn toward the applied side as well. Honeybees have been declining since 1940 — by around 50 percent — but the very rapid, recent decline of honeybees is being termed Colony Collapse Disorder. So I’ve tried to look at some health issues more recently such as sublethal effects of pesticides on intestinal stem cells. These are cell populations in the guts of honeybees that actively replicate. We are trying to see the effects pesticides have on those replicating stem cells that are not apparent in immediately dying honeybees but still affect their health.

Thai Bees:  I am addressing another health issue and that’s a parasitic mite, Varroa, which serves as a vector for a lot of diseases. In Thailand we are studying native honeybees to investigate the evolution of their natural resistance mechanisms against Varroa mites, one of the principal causes of the ongoing health problems of our American honeybees. The Thai bees are uniquely suited for this study because they have co-existed with these mites for many thousands of years and therefore evolved to resist them.

Field Work:  The specific goal of this year’s research was to investigate whether the postulated local resistances existed, so we transferred mites from the south of Thailand to the north of Thailand and exchanged brood and mites between these colonies. The evaluation of the results from that is ongoing. If we find what we predicted, then we will use the next two years to follow up with a genetic investigation into the mechanisms of this resistance. This is a USDA-funded, collaborative project with me as the principal investigator and a co-PI from the University of Kansas, and several Thai colleagues from multiple universities.

Come Together: I am very much of a collaborative person, also in my research. I think when people come together from different backgrounds there’s the most progress. A lot of contemporary science is collaborative in nature, especially at the genomic scale. But we should move forward in whatever way is suitable to give us insight into this wonderful world of ours.


Dr. Olav Rueppell, Associate Professor, Biology

Dr. Olav Rueppell is fascinated with social insects — especially honeybees — because of the complexity and orderliness of their societies. He researches the life history of honeybees to understand the evolution of behavioral development, reproductive traits and the aging process. With the recent decimation of bee populations, he also examines potential health factors contributing to this disorder. He joined the faculty in 2003 and is an associate professor in the Department of Biology.