What Makes Societies Tick?

Western University Assistant Professor of Biology, Graham Thompson studies the nature of insect communities.

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Humans are not the only species to exhibit social behaviour. In fact, people are fascinated by what brings animals together, how they communicate, what makes those groups form. But, why are some species social and others not?

Graham Thompson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at Western University, studies the genes that are important for the evolution of social behavior in insects like termites and honey bees. He is interested not only in what makes societies tick, but also what makes them persist. Why is it that they don’t collapse under individualist conflict or why don’t they decay? He also studies how societies maintain their order and propagate social harmony both in real time and over generational/evolutionary time.

Though it may seem a bit strange to study social behavior in insects, Prof. Thompson’s research could help us to better understand our own social behaviour. It is also important to note that many social insects have economic importance. For instance, honey bees make up an industry worth over 2 billion dollars annually. With a declining bee population, understanding their behaviour may be even more important than we ever imagined.

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Graham Thompson is Associate Professor in the Department of Biology at Western University. Prof. Thompson spent a significant amount of his early research career in the land Down Under, where he worked with some of the top minds in the bourgeoning field of behavioural genetics and sociobiology. Unlike many in his field, Graham does not study human societies, Australian or otherwise, but instead chooses insects as a model to ask how animal societies form, and why? Since starting at Western in 2008, he has cultivated the Social Biology Group that addresses these questions, and does so through an all-to-rare coupling of evolutionary theory and genomic technique. Prof. Thompson and his students are currently using Canadian populations of termites and honey bees to find genes important to the evolution of insect societies, a topic that is fascinating to students of all ages and has practical spin-offs related to apiculture and pest control.