Genetics and Genomics

Bees are fantastic systems for investigating a range of questions in evolutionary genetics. For example, we use the Cape honeybee to explore the genetic basis of thelytokous parthenogenesis, a unique reproductive behaviour among honey bees.

Honey bees are also an excellent model system for understanding how invasive populations evolve and adapt in their new environments. Often such invasive populations evolve rapidly, despite severe population bottlenecks during founder events that would be expected to reduce genetic variation, increase inbreeding depression and decrease adaptive potential. For this work, we use the Asian honey bee (Apis cerana) which is invasive in Far North Queensland and other parts of the Austral-Pacific.

Genomic information can also help us to understand the evolution and biology of beneficial and pest insects. We are involved in multiple genome sequencing projects including characterising the genomes of native stingless bees, and sequencing the genomes of three invasive wasp species (Vespula spp.). These projects will contribute to our understanding of the evolution of eusociality in different social insect lineages, and also provide avenues to investigate modern genetic techniques for targeted pest control strategies.

We also apply genetic and genomic tools to understand virus evolution in bees, comparative genomics of social bees, and a range of other questions.

Conflict and Cooperation

Honeybees are an ideal model system to study how societies suppress selfish behaviour by individuals. 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. The Cape honeybee also provides us with the unique opportunity to investigate the costs and benefits of sexual reproduction as a lineage of this amazing bee has been reproducing asexually for more than 10 years.

Just as societies are rife with potential conflicts, genomes within individuals are in conflict with each other. We study two types of genomic conflict: conflict between paternal and maternal genomes and intergenomic conflict between mitochondrial and nuclear genomes.

Within an insect worker, paternal and maternal genomes can be in conflict because genes inherited from the father benefit when his daughter-worker produces her own offspring, while worker-reproduction is against the interest of the maternal genome. We have worked on how queens and drones may make epigenetic modifications to their genomes to manipulate the behaviour of their worker offspring.

Coevolution

All organisms coexist alongside an assortment of microbial hitchhikers. They span the spectrum from pathogeneic to beneficial, and contribute to the health, behaviour, reproduction and evolution of their host. We aim to understand host-parasite dynamics between honey bees, Varroa mites and viruses, and to understand the change in viral landscape that occurs when honey bees are infected with mites. We use RNA sequencing and in-hive experiments to investigate the dynamics of viral evolution, transmission, and resistance in honey bees.

We also study the coevolution of hosts and their brood parasites. Brood parasites lay their eggs in the nests of other individuals (facultative parasitism) or other species (obligate parasitism), after which the host pays the costs of parental care. We investigate the evolution and ecology of brood parasitism in both bees (e.g. egg-laying by workers in non-natal nests), and birds (e.g. cuckoos and cowbirds).

Bee Health, Bee Breeding and Bees as Pollinators

Bees are vital to Australian food security, via their role as crop pollinators. They are of course, also the source of our honey industry! We work on a range of projects that aim to benefit Australian bees and the industries that rely on them. Current projects include efforts to foster a sustainable national genetic improvement program using innovative breeding technologies, and so transform the performance of honey bees in Australia. It will focus simultaneously on traits of importance to beekeepers, horticulture and broadacre industries dependent on honey bee pollination.

We are also working on ways to: estimate the density of feral honey bee populations in Australia, improve propagation techniques for Tetragonula stingless bees, and protect Australian bees from invasive pests such as Varroa.

Publications

To see a selection of publications from the lab that highlight our research themes, please click here.

A complete list of publications for each group member can be found on our profiles.