Research Areas


Comparative Genomics and Social Evolution in Bees and Wasps

The evolution of eusociality from solitary life is considered one of the major transitions in evolution.  By studying how this transition occurred using genomic approaches, we hope to uncover: 1) What types of genetic changes accompany a major transition in evolution—changes in gene number, gene sequence, or gene regulation?  2) Are these changes relatively minor or large-scale?  3) Are there shared, core sets of genes (i.e. a “genetic toolkit”) that organize multiple origins of sociality, or are there many genetic avenues to eusocial life?

Multiple origins of sociality (Eu=x) and small genome size in the insects make them an especially good model for comparative genomics. 

We have recently sequenced the first social wasp genome Polistes dominulus, and are conducting comparative analysis to other social insect genomes, in collaboration with the laboratory of Volker Brendel (Indiana University).

Paper wasps as a Neurogenomic Model for Complex Behavior

Animal behavior stems from genetic and environmental influences over the lifetime of an organism.   Paper wasps in the genus Polistes are an especially attractive model for studying the roles of genetics, epigenetics, and the social environment in shaping behavior.  These insects are eusocial, but retain some characters in common with solitary ancestors, such as well-developed maternal behavior, making them a promising model for understanding the evolution of several fascinating, complex behaviors such as maternal care, cooperation, aggression, and individual recognition.


Comparative transcriptomic

analyses (using microarrays) of genes related to foraging behavior in honey bees and Polistes metricus wasps revealed a combination of shared genes and unique, lineage specific pathways are associated with social organization across taxa.

Estimates suggest Polistes paper wasps have among the highest genome-wide DNA methylation levels of any insect yet studied.

Preliminary results suggest DNA methylation may play a role in determining whether a larva becomes a queen or a worker.

We are now untangling the epigenetic influences of both nutrition and maternal behavior during development, in collaboration with Bob Jeanne (University of Wisconsin).  ** See video on Photos/Videos page!**

Polistes fuscatus (left) shows variation in facial color patterns, P. metricus (right) does not.  Unusual interspecies nest-sharing photo by Jenny Jandt.

Polistes wasps are the only insects, and one of the few animals, known to possess individual facial recognition. 

We are using a combined candidate gene and transcriptomic approach (using RNA-sequencing), and manipulations of gene expression (using RNA-interference) to provide the first studies of the molecular underpinnings of facial recognition in any animal.  In collaboration with Elizabeth Tibbetts (University of Michigan).

Integrative Ecological, Physiological, and Genomic Analyses of Bee Health

Both managed honey bees and wild native bees are beneficial insects with a critical role in agricultural pollination.  There have been startling declines in bee populations in recent years, especially with the emergence of honey bee “Colony Collapse Disorder”.  These declines have been linked to changes in land use and the availability of adequate floral resources.  We are interested in understanding the role of bee nutrition on bees’ susceptibility to pathogens, abundance in different habitats, and overall health.

We will test a new hypothesis for Colony Collapse Disorder in honey bees: that a combination of nutritional stress and infection with multiple viruses leads to colony abandonment by worker bees. 

In collaboration with Bryony Bonning and Allen Miller (Iowa State University), we will test this idea using an integrative approach combining virology, physiology, genomics, and behavioral studies.


In collaboration with Diane Debinski (Iowa State University), we are investigating how grassland habitat and vegetation affect bee abundance and nutrition.  Bees foraging in Iowa grasslands under different management practices (BRN= burned, GRZ= grazed,  PBG= patch-burn grazed) show differences in their relative abundances.

Preliminary data suggest that bee abundances correlate with differences in the nutritional state of bees, suggesting floral resource availability could affect bee nutrition and health.

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