Division of labour--individuals specializing in different activities--features prominently in the spectacular success of the social insects. Until recently, genetic and genomic analyses of division of labour were limited to just a few species. However, research on an ever-increasing number of species has provided new insight, from which we highlight two results. First, heritable influences on division of labour are more pervasive than previously imagined. Second, different forms of division of labour, in lineages in which eusociality has arisen independently, have evolved through changes in the regulation of highly conserved molecular pathways associated with several basic life-history traits, including nutrition, metabolism and reproduction.