Social evolution is a fundamental topic in evolutionary biology and behavioural ecology because it shows how natural selection acting on selfish genes can lead to cooperative behaviour. In addition, by explaining why individuals group together to form new levels of organization (such as genomes within cells, cells within organisms and organisms within societies), social evolution lies at the heart of our understanding of the major transitions in evolution.
The social insects such as the ants, bees and wasps represent perfect subjects for the study of social evolution because of the rich diversity of their societies and the extreme nature of some of their social behaviour. Social insects also play a crucial role in delivering ecosystem services such as pollination, making the continued health of social insect populations a top priority.
Accordingly, my research interests fall into two main areas:
Social evolution: I am interested in the evolutionary, ecological, behavioural and genetic basis of social behaviour. In particular, using ants and the bumble bee Bombus terrestris, I conduct empirical studies to test hypotheses from inclusive fitness (kin selection) theory. I am also interested in conceptual, synthetic and empirical studies that apply insights from the study of social evolution to related domains, examples being the evolution of ageing and the major transitions in evolution.
Conservation ecology and genetics of social insects: I conduct applied research (much of it with external collaborators) in social insect conservation biology, including such topics as the assessment of agri-environment schemes for bumble bees and the conservation genetics of scarce or declining social insects. A particular focus is on developing genetic methods for censusing wild populations of bees with a view to aiding conservation initiatives for these threatened pollinators. We have also begun a set of studies on the unusual case of the Tree Bumble Bee, a spectacularly successful recent colonist of the UK.