Skip to main content

Unit information: Behaviour and Ecology of Social Insects in 2015/16

Please note: you are viewing unit and programme information for a past academic year. Please see the current academic year for up to date information.

Unit name Behaviour and Ecology of Social Insects
Unit code BIOL31133
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 4 (weeks 1-24)
Unit director Professor. Franks
Open unit status Not open

None, but we strongly recommend that students should previously have studied BIOL20103 Acquisition of Behaviour and BIOL20104 Behavioural Ecology.



School/department School of Biological Sciences
Faculty Faculty of Life Sciences


Insect societies are good model systems for investigations of biological organization because they are built out of individual organisms. Hence, the interactions among these components parts can be studied macroscopically and most important of all – insect societies can be rapidly taken apart and put together again in different configurations. Their macroscopic, modular-structure means that the interactions among the components can be seen, studied, quantified, modelled mathematically and experimentally manipulated. Thus the study of social insects can provide generic insights into the most important and spectacular processes at the very core of the evolution of life.. We will investigate both strategic and tactical issues – combining analyses of the two fundamental questions: why have certain systems evolved? and how do they work? A further goal of this course is to reveal the power and the unexpected beauty of mathematical biology. There are brief question and answer sessions in each of the lectures and these are a source of informal feedback.


This course will demonstrate how certain fabulously sophisticated social structures are based on surprisingly simple algorithms.

Intended learning outcomes

Students completing this course will be able to demonstrate an understanding of why insect sociobiology is important and how it is investigated. They will be able to demonstrate this understanding through a detailed knowledge not only of the results but also the experimental and modelling procedures involved in the case studies.

Teaching details

Lectures, interactive seminars/workshops and independent study.

Assessment Details

End of Session exam (100%)

Reading and References

Most of the lecture material for the specific subjects considered in this Unit is taken from text books, research monographs, reviews and primary papers, and is not covered in any one textbook. You will receive a list of references at the start of teaching of this unit.

As background to this Unit, you will find a range of general textbooks in the library. Amongst these, you will find a good coverage of basic information in

  • Bourke, A.F.G and Franks, N.R. (1995) Social Evolution in Ants.
    • Princeton University Press, Princeton (pp. XIV+529)
  • Hölldobler B. and E.O. Wilson (1990) The Ants. Harvard Uni. Press.
  • Krebs, J.R. and Davies, N.B. (1993) An Introduction to Behavioural
    • Ecology. (3rd Edition) Blackwells.
  • Sudd, J.H. and Franks, N.R. (1987) The Behavioural Ecology of Ants.
    • Tertiary Level Biology. Blackie and Son Ltd. 224pp.
  • Camazine,S., Deneubourg, J.-L., Franks N.R, Sneyd, J. G. Theraulaz and E Bonabeau (2001) Self-Organization in Biological Systems. Princeton University Press (pp VIII + 538).
  • Seeley, T .D. 1995 The Wisdom of the Hive Harvard University Press,
  • Seeley, T.D. 1985 Honeybee ecology: a study of adaptation in social life. Monographs in behavioral ecology, Princeton University Press.
  • Seeley, T.D. 2010 Honeybee Democracy. Princeton University Press.