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ASU honey bee geneticist Robert E. Page Jr. named UC Davis distinguished emeritus

Robert E. Page Jr. founded the Honey Bee Research Facility at ASU's Polytechnic campus

Robert E. Page Jr. founded the ASU Honey Bee Research Facility on the Polytechnic campus. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

January 10, 2019

Internationally acclaimed honey bee geneticist Robert E. Page Jr., emeritus provost of Arizona State University and University of California Davis alumnus, has been awarded the 2019 UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Award. 

The nominator Steve Nadler, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, praised Page as “a pioneer researcher in the field of behavioral genetics, an internationally recognized scholar, a highly respected author, a talented and innovative administrator, and a skilled teacher responsible for mentoring many of today's top bee scientists.” 

“Robert Page is arguably the most influential honey bee biologist of the past 30 years,” Nadler wrote in his letter of nomination. The award, administered by the UC Davis Emeriti Association, honors outstanding scholarship work or service performed since retirement by a UC Davis emeritus.

Page will receive the award — a plaque and a cash prize of $1,000 — at a luncheon hosted by UC Davis Chancellor Gary May on Jan. 28.  

Page received his doctorate in entomology from UC Davis in 1980, joined the faculty there in 1989 and served as the chair of the Department of Entomology from 1999 to 2004, the year he gained emeritus status.

In 2004, Page was recruited by ASU as the director of the School of Life Sciences. He organized three departments — biology, microbiology and plant sciences, comprising more than 600 faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and staff — into one unified school. As its founding director, he established the school as a platform for discovery in the biomedical, genomic and evolutionary and environmental sciences. He also established ASU's Honey Bee Research Facility and co-founded the Social Insect Research Group with colleague Bert Hoelldobler, University Professor of Life Sciences, Regents’ and Foundation Professor at ASU. Page also jumpstarted the Night of the Open Door (now ASU Open Door), an annual STEM festival that attracts more than 40,000 members of the public to the ASU campuses every February.

Page’s ASU academic career advanced to a number of titles: dean of the School of Life Sciences; vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and university provost. Today he holds the titles of provost emeritus of ASU and Regents’ Professor, as well as UC Davis department chair emeritus, professor emeritus, and now distinguished emeritus professor. He continues his research, teaching and public service now in both Arizona and California.

Page is known for his research on honey bee behavior and population genetics, particularly the evolution of complex social behavior. One of his most salient contributions to science was to construct the first genomic map of the honey bee, which sparked a variety of pioneering contributions not only to insect biology but to genetics at large.

At UC Davis, he maintained a honey bee-breeding program for 24 years, from 1989 to 2015, managed by bee breeder-geneticist Kim Fondrk at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. They discovered a link between social behavior and maternal traits in bees. Their work was featured in a cover story in the journal Nature. In all, Nature featured his work on four covers.

Page and his lab pioneered the use of modern techniques to study the genetic basis of social-behavior evolution in honey bees and other social insects. He was the first to employ molecular markers to study polyandry and patterns of sperm use in honey bees. He provided the first quantitative demonstration of low genetic relatedness in a highly eusocial species.

His work has garnered a significant impact in the scientific community through his research on the evolutionary genetics and social behavior of honey bees. He was the first to demonstrate that a significant amount of observed behavioral variation among honey bee workers is due to genotypic variation. In the 1990s he and his students and colleagues isolated, characterized and validated the complementary sex determination gene of the honey bee; considered the most important paper yet published about the genetics of Hymenoptera. The journal Cell featured their work on its cover. In subsequent studies, he and his team published further research into the regulation of honey bee foraging, defensive and alarm behavior.

In addition to his pioneering work on the first genetic map of any social insect — demonstrating that the honey bee has the highest recombination rate of any eukaryotic organism mapped to date — Page was personally involved in genome mappings of bumble bees, parasitic wasps and two species of ants. His most recent work focuses on the genetic bases to individuality in honey bees; demonstrating genetic links between pollen and nectar collection, tactile and olfactory learning characteristics, and neuroendocrine function. This work provides the most detailed understanding to date of the molecular and genetic bases to task variation in a social insect colony.

He has authored than 250 research papers, including five books: among them “The Spirit of the Hive: The Mechanisms of Social Evolution,” published by Harvard University Press in 2013. He is a highly cited author on such topics as Africanized bees, genetics and evolution of social organization, sex determination and division of labor in insect societies. His resume shows more than 18,000 citations.

Page's colleagues laud his strategic vision, his innovative leadership and his stellar contributions to science.

Hoelldobler said Page is “the leading honey bee geneticist in the world. A number of now well-known scientists in the U.S. and Europe learned the ropes of sociogenetics in Rob's laboratory.” 

James R. Carey, distinguished professor of entomology at UC Davis, who continues to work with Page on research projects, describes him as "one of the most gifted scientists, administrators and teachers I have had the privilege to know in 30 years in academia.”

Bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, former manager of the Laidlaw facility and now of Washington State University, praised Page's major contributions to the beekeeping industry, including the Page-Laidlaw Closed Population Breeding Theory. This has offered a practical system of stock improvement for honey bees, used worldwide, she said. “It's a challenge, as the queen mates in flight with numerous drones and selection is based upon complex behaviors at the colony level, influenced by the environmental.” She has applied this theory throughout her career, developing and maintaining a population of Carniolan bees, now in their 36th generation.  

Among Page's many honors:

  • Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  • Awardee of the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award (the Humboldt Prize — the highest honor given by the German government to foreign scientists).
  • Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
  • Elected to the Leopoldina — the German National Academy of Sciences (the longest continuing academy in the world).
  • Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.
  • Fellow of the Entomological Society of America.
  • Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences.
  • Elected to the Brazilian Academy of Sciences.
  • Recipient of the James W. Creasman Award of Excellence from the Arizona State University Alumni Association.
  • Fellow, Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation, Munich, Germany, September 2017-August 2018.

Kathy Keatley Garvey of UC Davis contributed to this report. 

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