Browse/search for people

Dr Emily Bell

Phenotypic plasticity and evolution of castes in eusocial insects

Research keywords

  • Social insects
  • Evolution
  • Phenotypic plasticity
  • Behavioural Ecology
  • Animal behaviour

Research methods

  • Behavioural assays
  • Gene expression
  • barcoding

Research findings

Understanding the evolution of major biological transitions is one of the major challenges in evolutionary biology. The evolution of sociality is one such transition the peak of which has been reached in organisms that have a distinct division of labour such as the eusocial insects (bees, ants and wasps). In these species some members “worker castes” commit to a lifetime of sterility whilst others remain reproductive “queen castes”. These castes result individuals displaying altruistic tendencies, whereby some individuals sacrifice their own reproductive potential to help raise the offspring of kin. 

In advanced eusocial insects (ants, honeybees, some vespid wasps) castes are determined during development, and queen and worker larvae embark on different developmental pathways in response to environmental cues. These species however tell us little about the origins of caste evolution as many of their features are secondarily derived. Whereas simple or primitively eusocial insects, such as paper wasps, have simple behavioural castes (rather than morphological castes) and represent one of the earliest or simplest stages of eusociality. My intersts lie in trying to determine what influences the plastic nature of castes in simple eusocail societies in order to help us better understand the evolution of caste differentiation which will ultimately shed light on the factors involved in the evolution of sociality.


Selected publications  

Southon, R. J., Bell, E., Graystock, P. & Sumner, S. Long live the wasp: adult logevity in captive colonies of the eusocial paper wasp Polistes canadensis (L.). Peer J.

Heathcote, R. J. P., Bell, E. et al. (2014) The scent of sun workship: basking experience alters scent mark composition in male lizards. Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology.

Bell, E. & Sumner, S. (2013) Ecology and Social Organisation of Wasps. eLS, Encyclopedia of Life Sciences.

Bell, E., Andres, B. & Goswami, A. (2011) Integration and dissociation of limb elements in flying vertebrates: a comparison of pterosaurs, birds and bats. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 24(12), 2586-2599.