Page last updated at 13:10 GMT, Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Bee study examines ageing process

Bumble bee
The study of 100 hives will last for three years and starts in the autumn

The behaviour of bumble bees is being studied by two universities exploring the ageing process of animals.

In a joint project, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the University of Southampton will uncover what happens to colonies as queen bees age.

Scientists hope how the colonies react to the ageing queen when her daughters take over will help explain how other animals age and social make-up changes.

The three-year study, which begins in autumn, will study around 100 hives.

'Accelerating ageing'

Prof Andrew Bourke of UEA's School of Biological Sciences said: "As queen bees age, they produce fewer offspring, which provokes conflict over the inheritance of resources.

"As the social make-up of the hive changes, a tipping point occurs when queens should die and pass on the hive to her worker daughters.

"However, from the daughters' perspective, that point occurs earlier, creating a conflict over the inheritance of the resource.

"We think this will accelerate the queen's ageing and is also why workers sometimes kill their mother queen."

Dr Joel Parker Parker of the University of Southampton will carry out laboratory investigations into how genes in the bees are switched on or off as family relations within the hive deteriorate.

He said: "Theoretical models already exist of this process but our research will be the first to test how social conflicts affect ageing.

"Simultaneously exploring the behaviour, biochemistry, and genetics of these social insects can provide useful information on the ageing process in any animal that passes on resources to offspring, including humans."

The project was funded by a £500,000 grant from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

The bumble bees to be used for the study will be bought from commercial suppliers.

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