In Praise of a Honey Bee Geneticist

Accolades flowed when honey bee geneticist Robert E. Page Jr., received the 2019 UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Professor Award at the annual Academic Retiree and Emeriti Award Luncheon, held Jan. 28 in the UC Davis Conference Center.

The award, administered by the UC Davis Emeriti Association, honors outstanding scholarship work or service performed since retirement by a UC Davis emeritus.

Distinguished professor emerita M. R. C. Greenwood, chair of the UC Davis Emeriti Association Awards and Recognition Committee, described him as a “pioneer researcher in the field of behavioral genetics, an internationally recognized scholar, a talented and innovative administrator, and a skilled teacher responsible for mentoring many of today's top bee scientists.”

Page's work on bee behavior “has set the standard nationally and internationally,” Greenwood said, adding “and many people in this room will know how important that research is to health and well being of our bees today.”

Page retired from UC Davis in 2004 after serving as chair of the Entomology Department (now the Department of Entomology and Nematology). “Then he was recruited to be the founding director of the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University,” she said. “Today Dr. Page continues to work on how reproductive regulatory networks are altered by natural selection for division of labor in honor bees. As the 2019 UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Professor, he does our university proud.”

Page received a $1000 check, and a plaque is forthcoming. He will deliver a presentation on his research at the November UC Davis Brainfood Talk.

In accepting the award, Page called it “a great and distinct honor.”

“I have multiple attachments to UC Davis,” he said. “I was a graduate student here (doctorate in entomology in 1980) and my wife was an undergraduate who graduated from here.”

Page said he met and recognized many people at the emeriti luncheon. “I've walked around and my Damaged Facial Recognition Software was just kind of spinning around,” he quipped. “But at any rate, a number of you I definitely remember and recognize and some of you, I almost remember and recognize.”

UC Davis Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph Hexter welcomed the crowd. Chancellor Gary S. May chronicled some of the UC Davis national and international achievements,  and thanked the academic retirees for “your dedicated service. And I wish you luck navigating this new chapter in your lives. So go boldly and Go Ags!” (UC Davis' strategic plan, “To Boldly Go,” outlines the aspirations and methods for guiding the university to new heights of distinction over the next 10 years.)

Greenwood announced the recipients of the 2019 Edward A. Dickson Emeriti Professorship Awards, memorializing the former UC Regent. They are Caroline Chantry and Anthony Philipps, both emeriti professors in the Department of Pediatrics, UC Davis School of Medicine. Chantry received the award for her ongoing project, “Strengthening Babies Through Mobile Health,” while Philipps is pursuing “Pediatric Heart Disease Training in Haiti.”

“Unfortunately, neither of our rewardees—since they are extremely busy in their retirement doing research—are able to be here today,” Greenwood told the crowd.

In his nomination letter, Steve Nadler, professor and chair of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, wrote that “Robert Page is arguably the most influential honey bee biologist of the past 30 years,”

Born and reared in Bakersfield, Kern County, Rob received his bachelor's degree in entomology, with a minor in chemistry, from San Jose State University in 1976. After receiving his doctorate from UC Davis in 1980, he served as assistant professor at The Ohio State University before joining the UC Davis entomology faculty in 1989 as an associate professor. He began working closely with Harry H. Laidlaw Jr., (the father of honey bee genetics) for whom the university's bee facility is named. Together they published many significant research papers.

Page chaired the Department of Entomology from 1999 to 2004, when Arizona State University recruited him to be the founding director of the School of Life Sciences of Arizona State University (ASU). His ASU career advanced to dean of Life Sciences; vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; and university provost.

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 from work mostly done at UC Davis.

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.

Page 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.

Highly honored by his peers, Page is a fellow of a number of organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the California Academy of Sciences, the Entomological Society of America, and organizations in Germany and Brazil. He received the Alexander von Humboldt Senior Scientist Award, known at the Humboldt Prize, the highest honor given by the German government to foreign scientists. He most recently received the Thomas and Nina Leigh Distinguished Alumni Award from UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.