Why I study social insects


Friday, 26 August, 2016 - 15:00


Mathews D, UNSW Kensington


Evolution and Ecology Research Centre

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In Virgil’s poem The Georgics, worker bees are described as happily sacrificing their reproductive prerogatives in order to joyfully labour in the service of their colony and monarch. This view has held sway for the greater part of history, until the publication of Hamilton’s inclusive fitness theory. Although Hamilton’s work initially explained how non-reproductive workers in insect colonies could evolve, Darwin’s ‘one special difficulty’, his gene-focused explanation also predicts conflict. So, we can view an insect colony both as a harmonious, xenophobic society in which workers selflessly sacrifice their reproductive opportunities in order to serve their queen and as a battlefield, with selfish individuals pursuing their own interests. Which angle is most appropriate depends on the exact question one wants to ask. Madeleine studies honeybees to ask questions about how a collective makes decisions but also to elucidate when conflict is expected and means to avoid conflict.


Madeleine Beekman is a Professor in Behavioural Ecology at the University of Sydney. She has always been fascinated by insects in general and social insects in particular. Madeleine did her PhD at the University of Amsterdam on bumblebees. After finishing her PhD in 1998 she moved to the University of Sheffield, where she worked both on honeybees and ants, a ‘tradition’ Madeleine maintained after her move to the University of Sydney in 2001. Currently her main honeybee research interests are conflict and cooperation in honeybee colonies and the evolution of virulence of honeybee RNA viruses. For more information about Madeleine’s lab and the research the lab is involved with, see