Rob Page: The Student, The Professor, The Scientist, The Administrator, The Legend

Internationally known honey bee geneticist Robert E. Page, Jr. is spotlighted in the current issue of American Entomologist in Marlin E. Rice's popular Legends feature.

Titled "Robert E. Page, Jr.: The Spirit of the Bee," it's a great article chronicling his life, his love of bees, and his massive number of achievements. Rice captured it well.

Rob, a native of Bakersfield and now 74, received his doctorate in 1980 from UC Davis, studying with major professor Norman Gary and doctoral research mentor Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. He advanced to professor and chair of the Department of Entomology (now the Department of Entomology and Nematology). A second career emerged when Arizona State University (ASU) recruited him.

Today Page holds the titles of ASU University Provost Emeritus and Regents Professor Emeritus as well as UC Davis Distinguished Emeritus Professor and Emeritus Chair of the UC Davis Entomology Department. 

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.

Page 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.

He is "arguably the most influential honey bee biologist of the past 30 years," his peers say.

At UC Davis, Page worked closely with Laidlaw. Together they published many significant research papers and the landmark book, “Queen Rearing and Bee Breeding” (Wicwas Press, 1998), considered the most important resource book for honey bee genetics, breeding, and queen rearing.

For 24 years, from 1989 to 2015, Page maintained a UC Davis honey bee-breeding program, managed by bee breeder-geneticist Kim Fondrk. Their contributions include discovering 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 authored two books:  The Spirit of the Hive: The Mechanisms of Social Evolution (Harvard University Press, 2013) and the Art of the Bee: Shaping the Environment from Landscapes to Societies (Oxford University Press, 2020).  In 2023, he launched a publicly accessible YouTube Channel,

In the Legends' piece, Page described his major professor, UC Davis Professor Emeritus Norm Gary as "an excellent" bee behaviorist.  "I got assigned to the bee lab with Norm Gary, an excellent bee behaviorist. I was out in the field one day and met Harry Laidlaw. He had just retired. I told him I was really interested in genetics and breeding, and how can I learn it. He gave me things to read. He showed me how to do artificial insemination. We did projects together. I did some breeding theory, and he was writing a new book on queen rearing and wanted to make recommendations about breeding, but he had no theory to back it, so I did the theory because I was interested in population genetics. Harry became a mentor whereas Norm Gary was my major professor."

When Rice asked Page "Who was the most influential person in your education," Page replied: "Today, all my research approaches, the way I thought about things, everything I did I can point back to four people. Norm Gary taught me the importance of knowing behavior and having good behavioral assays. He was superb at it. Nobody knows better what bees will do than Norm Gary, but he doesn't care much about why they do it. Which then brings me to my training in evolution from Tim Prout, who was an evolutionary biologist and population geneticist. He taught me population genetics, which I use to develop a population way of thinking about the work that I do. Harry Laidlaw taught me the value of breeding and the value of attention to detail. When we wrote papers together, we went over every word. Harry believed that every word had to be there for a reason. Every word had to be right. Robert A. Metcalf, an incredible guy, really turned me on to social insects, and got me interested in using molecular and biochemical markers. Everything I did for the rest of my career came from those four people."

This week we asked Gary, now 90, what it was like to have Rob as his graduate student.

In a June 17th email, Gary wrote: “When I first met Rob Page at the beginning of his graduate studies, I was immediately impressed that he was a very exceptional student in all respects!  He was enthusiastic about insect behavior, especially honey bee behavior.  I became his major professor.  His fascination with behavior soon evolved into behavioral genetics.  Consequently, I encouraged him to conduct his graduate research under the direction of Harry Laidlaw whose research program focused on honey bee genetics."

"Rob and I shared several bee research projects, one of which involved research on honey bees to determine if insects would be adversely affected by exposure to microwaves from solar power satellites that were under consideration as a future source of energy for mankind.  Rob excelled in all activities.  His enthusiasm was contagious!  He richly deserves the many rewards he has received during his career, especially for his superior skills in research, teaching, and leadership in every facet of the academic world.”

You may know Norm Gary as not only a professor, scientist, musician, and author but one of the world's most incredible professional bee wranglers. He used to wear full-body bee suits and play the b-flat clarinet. (See Bug Squad blog of Nov. 30, 2016). He once trained bees to fly into his mouth to collect food from a small sponge saturated with his patented artificial nectar.  He holds the Guinness World record (109 bees inside his closed mouth for 10 seconds) for the stunt.

It's all about The Bees for Rob Page and Norm Gary.

It's always been about The Bees.