Professor Robin Crewe is an internationally-renowned researcher, educator and innovator for the work he has done on social insects, particularly honeybees. His work into these remarkable insects has provided significant insights into their communication systems and social organisation. In addition to this research, he has taught and mentored students, taken on numerous roles as the head of an academic department, and he’s been the leader of two research groups, the dean of natural science at two universities, and the vice-principal for research and postgraduate studies at the University of Pretoria.
Crewe has also contributed to the development of professional societies, academies and statutory bodies both locally and abroad. For many, he is known as the “complete bee person — a legend of South African science”. His career started in 1963 when, after matriculating from Kearsney College, he went on to complete his undergraduate studies at the University of Natal. Majoring in chemistry and biochemistry, Crewe got his BSc (agric) degree in 1968 and received his MSc (agric) cum laude in 1969. He then moved to Athens, Georgia, in the United States, where he worked as a research and teaching assistant while furthering his entomological studies.
He developed a keen interest in the chemical communication and social organisation of social insects — particularly honeybees and ants — while living in the US, and the work that he did on this in his PhD was well received. He was awarded his doctorate with distinction in 1971 and returned to South Africa to take on the role of lecturer in the entomology department at the University of Natal.
Crewe remained at his alma mater until 1976, when he was offered the role of senior lecturer in the department of zoology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). He soon distinguished himself and was promoted to Professor of zoology in 1984, and became head of the department in 1985. By 1986, Crewe was deputy dean of the faculty of science while also serving as the chairperson of the school of biology. In 1994, he became the dean of the faculty of science and served on the council of the university.
While working at Wits, Crew oversaw the communication biology research group from 1986 to 1996. The group studied the chemical communication systems of honeybees; one of the primary areas of research undertaken was the investigation of pheromonal communication in bees.
“During the course of my career I had the opportunity to start two research groups,” says Crewe. “One was the communication biology research group and the second was the social insects research group at the University of Pretoria, which is still going. For me, one of the things that I find the most significant about establishing these groups is the large number of postgraduate students produced by them, many of whom have gone on to develop their own careers.”
The groups have been instrumental in supporting the growth and development of numerous students and has allowed for in-depth research into the understanding of communication and social behaviour of a number of organisms in South Africa.
“It is proof that it is actually possible to establish highly successful research groups that focus their research on problems that relate to local issues and have an international impact,” adds Crewe.
When Crewe’s term as dean at Wits ended in 1997, he moved to the University of Pretoria (UP) where he took up the role of dean of the faculty of biological and agricultural sciences. He served in this capacity for six years and was promoted to the role of vice-principal of research and postgraduate studies. In this position, he was responsible for the faculty of engineering, the built environment and information technology, the faculty of natural and agricultural sciences, as well as the Gordon Institute of Business. He had oversight of all postgraduate studies and research activities undertaken at the university, the international offices, library services and the research support office.
“I think one of the highlights of my career was being involved in the administration of different universities for a number of years,” says Crewe. “I could really make a significant contribution in my role as the vice-principal of research and postgraduate studies, increasing research impact and fostering research activities at the university. It has resulted in UP being recognised as one of the most research-intensive universities on the continent.”
But Crewe’s work didn’t stop there. He was also the Southern Education and Research Alliance representative for UP, where he was a member of both the feasibility group and the strategic management team. He was the joint co-ordinator of numerous working groups that included the forestry and forest products, biotechnology, food and food technology, molecular modelling, sustainable rural development and water research.
“I have been involved with numerous institutions outside of the university and I had the opportunity to be the president of the academy of science when it was really growing,” adds Crewe. “I really value the impact it had on advising government in a number of different areas. This really is one of the highlights of my career.”
In addition to all this activity, Crewe still developed an impressive and distinguished career as an entomologist, dedicating his career to the study of social insects, particularly ants and honeybees. His field of expertise in behavioural ecology relates to the social structures and chemical communication prevalent in these insect colonies. He has also undertaken research into indigenous populations of honeybees to determine the impact of honeybee diseases.
“Most of our work has been focused on the communication systems that the queens use to regulate the reproduction of the worker bees,” says Crewe. “One of the key aspects of social behaviour in honeybees is that queens are the only ones allowed to reproduce, releasing a set of chemical signals that prevent the workers from developing their ovaries and laying eggs.”
In South Africa, however, there is one bee that is unique — the Cape honeybee. These bees allow the workers to lay eggs which produce females and that act as social parasites in other bee colonies.
“We have been exploring what it is that’s unique about this bee that allows it to produce these strange workers, and the impact that they have on beekeeping,” says Crewe. “It can lead to massive losses of colonies that are maintained by beekeepers, so we have been trying to understand what they are doing, and proposing solutions to reduce these annual colony losses.”
Looking forward, Crewe is continuing to advance his significant work with honeybees, focusing on the conversations around global honeybee populations. Honeybees don’t just produce honey, they pollinate crops, and their loss is a threat to agriculture and food security.
“Considering how critical bees are to the reproduction of food, we don’t have any data on what their population sizes look like and how they fluctuate with changes in climate,” concludes Crewe. “We need a much clearer picture of population sizes and how to harvest this population in a responsible manner. The project Population Dynamics in Southern Africa measures the populations of honeybees in southern Africa, as this understanding is critically important to our future.”