Robert Page, M.S. ’77, Ph.D. ’80, has dedicated his life to behavioral genetics and is widely known as one of the world’s top honeybee geneticists. After a long career in the Department of Entomology, he retired from UC Davis in 2004 and was given a distinguished emeritus professor title in 2019. His latest book, The Art of the Honeybee: Shaping the Environment from Landscapes in Society (Oxford University Press, 2020), came out this month. Here, Page discussed his passion for honeybees, a lifetime of work and his writing process.
Did you always intend to pursue a career in entomology?
When I was 5 or 6 years old I wanted to be a biologist. I had a biology club with my next-door neighbor. We’d collect bugs and plants and conduct experiments that we probably shouldn’t have. For as long as I can remember, that’s what I wanted to do. I took a couple of entomology courses while I was an undergraduate at San Jose State University. My professors really inspired me to have a passion for insects. That’s when I turned from general biology to entomology, and everything else fell into place.
How did you end up at UC Davis early on?
I spent four years of active duty in the army and when I went into the army I had one year of college from Pepperdine University where I was a zoology major. After I came back, I started at San Jose State University, where one of my professors had his doctorate from UC Davis. He convinced me to consider going to Davis. My wife Michele and I visited during Picnic Day, and we fell in love.
So I completed my Ph.D. there. And then I did post-doctorate training at the University of Wisconsin and then a faculty position at Ohio State University in the entomology department. Shortly after that, UC Davis was looking for a honeybee geneticist. I was hired as a senior associate professor, and the next year I was promoted to full professor. It was a huge fast-track in my career! I felt so honored that the people who advocated for me were my own professors when I was a student, and then there I was back as a colleague. When I had been there for about 10 years, they promoted me to the department chair, which was a crowning achievement for me.
What was life like after you left UC Davis?
I retired from Davis and took a new challenge at Arizona State University. I was offered the opportunity to build a brand new school of life sciences. It was a new concept to take all of the life sciences disciplines and put them into one school. It was a great challenge to go in and build a whole new concept. I later became the dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, which I did for a few years until I became provost of the University. I was the No. 2 person in the largest public university in the country. It was a great thrill. Around this time I was offered a fellowship position from the Carl Friedrich von Siemens Foundation in Munich, which I turned down because of the provost position.
But then I was diagnosed with incurable blood cancer, and I had to step down from my provost position. I contacted the people from the foundation and after chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, I went to Munich.
How did the new book come about?
The foundation wanted a book. They had a wall full of books that their fellows had written, and if you were going to be a fellow you had to write a book. I got up every morning and worked until noon on the book. And then Michele and I would take off and tour the city. I did that every single day. And then after about nine months, I had a manuscript, and then it took about another year after I got back, working on it and revising it before it was done.
What is one of your favorite bee facts?
I’ll tell you what fascinates people most is mating behavior. The queen will mate with maybe 20 males in rapid succession as she flies through the air. And then the males, as they mate with her, they get paralyzed, their endophallus breaks off inside of the queen, and they fall to the ground dead. And then the next male comes, flips the mating sign of the previous male out and puts its own in. The queen mates with a lot of males and stores all the sperm away in an organ called the spermatheca and then she lays eggs over a period of one to three years. The males are no longer necessary.