2012 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award – Professor Robin Crewe

Top Scholar at the University of Pretoria receives the Oppenheimer Fellowship

The Board of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust is pleased to announce the recipient of the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award for 2012: Professor Robin Crewe of the University of Pretoria (UP). Crewe becomes the thirteenth recipient of the Award since its inception and the first from UP.

The Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Awards were initiated by the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust in 2001 to commemorate the Trust’s founder and all he stood for, especially his efforts to support human and intellectual development, advance scholarship and encourage ideas. The Trust has a long tradition of investing in education and many beneficiaries have gone on to make important contributions to South African public life. The Fellowship builds on and expands this tradition and is a very special investment to encourage and acknowledge excellence in scholarship in all its forms. Candidates from all disciplines compete annually for the Award and it is granted to scholars of the highest calibre who are engaged in cutting-edge, internationally significant work that has particular application to the advancement of knowledge, teaching, research and development in South Africa.

Johannesburg-born Robin Crewe is Professor of Zoology and Entomology at UP and a NRF-rated scientist. He is a founder member of the Academy of Science of South Africa, a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, the Royal Entomological Society of London and the World Academy of Science and also serves as a council member of the Academy of Science of the Developing World and chairs the Board of the Network of African Science Academies. He is currently the acting Senior Vice-Principal of the University of Pretoria and will retire at the end of June 2013 to return to work on honeybee research and direct the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship at UP.

The Award will enable Professor Crewe to produce a monograph on the life history of the honeybee Apis mellifera in collaboration with Professor Robin Moritz of the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

Crewe commented “Although this goal may look somewhat quixotic at first sight in view of the fact that there are a series of excellent monographs on this topic that have been produced over the past decades, we feel that these volumes have a bias that is too strongly focused on the harmony and the perfection of cooperation in the colony. Yet as with any complex social system, honeybee societies are prone to error, robbery, cheating and social parasitism. The honeybee colony is thus far from being a harmonious, cooperative whole. It is full of individual mistakes, obvious maladaptions and evolutionary dead ends. There is conflict, there is cheating, worker inefficiency, maladapted reproduction strategies. Thus the perfection that is perceived to exist in their social organisation is a function of a particular experimental focus.

“Nevertheless, honeybee colonies get by remarkably well in spite of many seemingly odd biological features that are often regarded as aberrations and it is these “aberrations” that we would like to address in our monograph. Since both of us have worked for more than two decades on the chemical ecology, the genetics and the evolution of parasitic honeybee workers, we feel it is now overdue to report on plasticity of social organisation in the honeybee colony with a view to achieving a more nuanced understanding of honeybee social organisation. The work that we are proposing is not designed to suggest that the work of our colleagues and our previous work requires revision or reconsideration, but will provide a richer understanding of the real life of a honeybee in the colony. Our work will thus focus on the role of the individual within the colony rather than studying the colony as a biological entity (superorganism). We will try to dissect the various careers a male and a female honeybee can have and their roles in colony organisation.

“In addition, the Social Insect Research Group at the University of Pretoria will continue with its research on social parasitism in southern African honeybees with a view to resolving a persistent problem in the apicultural industry.

“This very generous award provides us with an extraordinary opportunity to document the importance of understanding the biology of African honeybee populations to the conception of honeybee sociality globally and provide potential solutions to the threat of the loss of honeybee populations. I would like to thank the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust for making the Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award to me, and hence facilitating international collaboration that will allow us to achieve this objective.”

Concluding the Award presentation, Mrs Mary Slack, the Chair of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust, said “We are delighted to confer this honour on Professor Crewe and offer him the opportunity to advance this important work and we wish him every success.”


For further information please contact:

Robin Crewe
Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Pretoria
Phone 012 420 4094

Clare Digby
Oppenheimer Memorial Trust
Phone 011 551 9502