Heather Mattila

Professor of Biological Sciences

Studies the organization of animal societies, insect communication, and the evolution of cooperation, using the honey bee as a model.

My research focuses on the mechanisms that create organization in social insect colonies. My study subject is the honey bee, one of the most important insects on the planet. Not only do honey bees add enormous value to the crops that we produce through their pollination services, but they also serve as an important model organism for understanding how genetic and environmental influences can act on individuals to produce group-level phenomena. Currently, my research examines ways that honey bees use communication to organize their group activities. Through field work and genetic studies, I have explored how and why genetic diversity within a honey bee colony—created naturally when queens mate with many males—enhances the productivity of a colony’s foraging effort. Part of the answer lies in a more extensive use of the sophisticated waggle-dance signals that honey bees use to direct nest mates to food resources. Another recent line of research investigates how a honey bee queen produces pheromones to organize a swarm of thousands of bees as her colony reproduces by fission.

At Wellesley College, I teach three biology courses, two of which include a lab: Organismal Biology and Animal Behavior. Students in these biology courses get a chance to think about the common themes that are embedded in the spectacular ways that organisms have adapted to survive and reproduce on this planet. By getting up close and personal with live organisms, the lab component of these courses gives students hands-on experience with scientific discovery. I also teach a seminar on social insect biology that gives students an opportunity to marvel at the remarkable feats of engineering and biological organization that these little creatures generate. In this seminar, we learn to truly appreciate the small things in life. My fondness for animals and my interest in their often strange strategies for success fuels the pleasure that I get from teaching these classes.

Because my research addresses both basic and applied aspects of honey bee biology, I spend a good deal of time throughout the year traveling to speak at scientific conferences (such as the International Society for Behavioral Ecology and the IS for the Study of Social Insects), but I also speak often to beekeeper associations about how their practices affect the productivity of their colonies. Discussing my research with beekeepers is important because honey bee health ultimately impacts the safety of our food supply. Because my research relies heavily on observing honey bees in the field, I spend most of my summer at Wellesley College working with student researchers on new studies.

In my spare time, I love to jog around Lake Waban, to make things (like scarves and cookies), to peruse flea markets, and to take in the sights of Boston and greater New England with my husband.


  • B.S., University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada)
  • Ph.D., University of Guelph (Ontario, Canada)