Prof Robin Crewe receives Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship to continue research on the African Honeybee

Posted on June 06, 2013

The Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Awards were initiated in 2001 to commemorate efforts to support human and intellectual development, advance scholarship and encourage ideas. The Fellowship has a monetary value of R1 million and is considered a special investment to encourage and acknowledge excellence in scholarship in all its forms. Candidates from all disciplines compete annually for the Award and it is granted to scholars of the highest calibre who are engaged in cutting-edge, internationally significant work that has particular application to the advancement of knowledge, teaching, research and development in South Africa.

Prof Crewe, a NRF-rated scientist, is a founder member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, the Royal Entomological Society of London and the World Academy of Science and also serves as a council member of the Academy of Science of the Developing World and chairs the Board of the Network of African Science Academies. He will retire from his position as the acting Senior Vice-Principal at the end of June 2013 to return to work on honeybee research and direct the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at UP.

The Award will enable Professor Crewe to produce a monograph on the life history of the honeybee Apis mellifera in collaboration with Professor Robin Moritz of the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

Prof Crewe commented: “Although this goal may look somewhat quixotic at first sight in view of the fact that there are a series of excellent monographs on this topic that have been produced over the past decades, we feel that these volumes have a bias that is too strongly focused on the harmony and the perfection of cooperation in the colony. Yet as with any complex social system, honeybee societies are prone to error, robbery, cheating and social parasitism. The honeybee colony is thus far from being a harmonious, cooperative whole. It is full of individual mistakes, obvious maladaptation and evolutionary dead ends. There is conflict, cheating, worker inefficiency, maladapted reproduction strategies. Thus the perfection that is perceived to exist in their social organisation is a function of a particular experimental focus.

“Nevertheless, honeybee colonies get by remarkably well in spite of many seemingly odd biological features that are often regarded as aberrations and it is these “aberrations” that we would like to address in our monograph. Since both of us have worked for more than two decades on the chemical ecology, the genetics and the evolution of parasitic honeybee workers, we feel it is now overdue to report on the



plasticity of social organisation in the honeybee colony with a view to achieving a more nuanced understanding of honeybee social organisation.

The work that we are proposing is not designed to suggest that the work of our colleagues and our previous work requires revision or reconsideration, but will provide a richer understanding of the real life of a honeybee in the colony. Our work will thus focus on the role of the individual within the colony rather than studying the colony as a biological entity (super organism). We will try to dissect the various careers a male and a female honeybee can have and their roles in colony organisation.

“In addition, the Social Insect Research Group at the University of Pretoria will continue with its research on social parasitism in southern African honeybees with a view to resolving a persistent problem in the apicultural industry.

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