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The ageing bee: how does sociality affect ageing in social animals? (BOURKEUBIO21ARIES)

School of Biological Sciences

About the Project

Scientific Background:
Explaining patterns of ageing in organisms is essential for both our understanding of the diversity of life histories and our ability to manipulate them in beneficial ways. Yet, despite the overall success of the evolutionary theory of ageing, substantial gaps in our understanding remain. How ageing interacts with sociality is unclear and, specifically, in social animals, it remains unknown whether longevity and ageing depend primarily on properties of the individual or group, at either phenotypic or genetic levels. This project’s main aim is to resolve these fundamental questions using experimental and genetic approaches in the bumble bee Bombus terrestris -- a model eusocial organism and a key pollinator.

We have found that B. terrestris workers produced early in the colony cycle have significantly greater longevities than later-produced workers (Holland and Bourke 2015). The project’s specific objectives will therefore be to discriminate between individual- and group-level hypotheses for this difference using experiments to measure the longevities and gene expression levels of workers as a function of individual and social factors.
Research Methodology:
Working with B. terrestris colonies in the laboratory at UEA, the candidate will design and perform experiments to separate out individual and social influences on longevity. For example, experiments will test whether young workers transferred from early-stage colonies into late-stage colonies live longer or shorter lives (Objective 1). In similar experiments, the candidate will use quantitative PCR (qPCR) to determine whether genes in ageing-associated pathways change their expression levels in response to such manipulations (Objective 2).

Training and Person Specification:
Alongside training opportunities provided by the DTP, the candidate will receive research training and generic, transferable training within the supervisors’ research groups. Research training will provide expertise in bee ecology, evolutionary theory and pollinator biology plus advanced skills in insect husbandry, experimental design, molecular techniques (RNA extraction, qPCR) and data analysis. Generic, transferable training will cover project management, written and oral communication and career development. The candidate will be encouraged to shape the project’s direction as it develops. We welcome applications from motivated individuals with a degree in Biology, Ecology, Genetics or Zoology.

Funding Notes

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the ARIES NERC DTP.

Successful candidates who meet UKRI’s eligibility criteria are awarded a NERC studentship covering fees, stipend (£15,285 p.a., 2020-21) and research funding. International applicants (EU/non-EU) are eligible for fully-funded studentships. Please note ARIES funding does not cover visa costs (including immigration health surcharge) or other additional costs associated with relocation to the UK.

Excellent applicants from quantitative disciplines with limited experience in environmental sciences may be considered for an additional 3-month stipend to take advanced-level courses.

ARIES is committed to equality, diversity, widening participation and inclusion in all areas of its operation. We encourage enquiries and applications from all sections of the community regardless of gender, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation and transgender status. Academic qualifications are considered alongside significant relevant non-academic experience.

For further information, please visit

For more information on the supervisor for this project, please go here

The type of programme is a PHD

The start date of the project is 1st October 2021

The mode of study is full or part time (visa restrictions may apply)

Studentship length is 3.5 years

Funding Notes

Entry Requirements:
Acceptable first degree in Biology, Ecology, Genetics or Zoology


1. Almond EJ, Huggins TJ, Crowther LP, Parker JD, Bourke AFG (2019) Queen longevity and fecundity affect conflict with workers over resource inheritance in a social insect. American Naturalist 193: 256-266.
2. 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.
3. Lockett GA, Almond EJ, Huggins TJ, Parker JD, Bourke AFG (2016) Gene expression differences in relation to age and social environment in queen and worker bumble bees. Experimental Gerontology 77: 52-61.
4. Holland JG, Bourke AFG (2015) Colony and individual life-history responses to temperature in a social insect pollinator. Functional Ecology 29: 1209-1217.
5. Maklakov AA, Immler S (2016) The expensive germline and the evolution of ageing. Current Biology 26: R577-R586.

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