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Cuckoo bees as sentinels for pollinator decline (DICKSLU19SF)

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  • Full or part time
    Dr L Dicks
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Self-Funded PhD Students Only
    Self-Funded PhD Students Only

Project Description

This PhD project will test whether cuckoo bees can be used as sentinels, to identify areas where wild bee pollinators are in trouble and provide an early warning system for ‘unhealthy’ agricultural ecosystems.

Widespread declines in pollinator diversity have been recorded in Europe and North America, and are suspected elsewhere in the world (IPBES, 2016). Pollinators, particularly wild bees, are directly responsible for 5-8% of current global crop production, so pollinator is an important environmental issue worldwide. Policy makers want to understand what a ‘healthy’ wild pollinator community looks like, and are looking for indicators of pollinator community health that can easily be measured.

Cuckoo bees could be such an indicator, since their presence or absence provides information about host species density. Around one third of the UK wild bee fauna are ‘cuckoos’, or brood parasites, relying on a population of host bees to rear their larvae. As they do not collect pollen, cuckoo bees are unlikely to be important pollinators themselves. For bumblebees, threshold densities of host species necessary for the presence of cuckoos have been predicted, and this prediction supported by observations of parasite-free zones in areas of low host density (Antonovics and Edwards, 2011). This PhD will further test the hypothesis that cuckoo bees can be used to map low density areas in their host bee species, extending the work to solitary bee species and their cuckoos. The information can be used to target conservation measures for wild pollinators.

Research methods
The student will use a combination of advanced species distribution modelling, GIS, spatial analysis and field surveys to test whether cuckoo bees are absent at the edge of their host species’ ranges, or within the ranges in areas of predicted low host density. They will also investigate whether cuckoo bee species are declining in distribution more than non-cuckoo species.

For more information on the supervisor for this project, please go here:

Type of programme: PhD

Project start date: October 2019

Mode of study: Full time

ENTRY REQUIREMENTS: acceptable first degree - Biology, ecology, environmental sciences

The entry requirement - 1st class degree and Masters preferred.

Funding Notes

This PhD project is offered on a self-funding basis. It is open to applicants with funding or those applying to funding sources. Details of tuition fees can be found at

A bench fee is also payable on top of the tuition fee to cover specialist equipment or laboratory costs required for the research. The amount charged annually will vary considerably depending on the nature of the project and applicants should contact the primary supervisor for further information about the fee associated with the project.


(i) Antonovics, J., and M. Edwards. 2011. Spatio-temporal dynamics of bumblebee nest parasites (Bombus subgenus Psythirus ssp.) and their hosts (Bombus spp.). Journal of Animal Ecology 80:999-1011.

(ii) Dicks, L. V., M. Baude, S. P. M. Roberts, J. Phillips, M. Green, and C. C. 2015. How much flower-rich habitat is enough for wild pollinators? Answering a key policy question with incomplete knowledge. Ecological Entomology 40 (S1):22-35.

(iii) Erler, S., and H. M. G. Lattorff. 2010. The degree of parasitism of the bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) by cuckoo bumblebees (Bombus (Psithyrus) vestalis). Insectes Sociaux 57:371-377.

(iv) IPBES (2016): Summary for policymakers of the assessment report of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services on pollinators, pollination and food production. S.G. Potts, V. L. Imperatriz-Fonseca, H. T. Ngo, J. C. Biesmeijer, T. D. Breeze, L. V. Dicks, L. A. Garibaldi, R. Hill, J. Settele, A. J. Vanbergen, M. A. Aizen, S. A. Cunningham, C. Eardley, B. M. Freitas, N. Gallai, P. G. Kevan, A. Kovács-Hostyánszki, P. K. Kwapong, J. Li, X. Li, D. J. Martins, G. Nates-Parra, J. S. Pettis, R. Rader, and B. F. Viana (eds.). Secretariat of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, Bonn, Germany. 36 pages.

(v) Suhonen, J., J. Rannikko, and J. Sorvari. 2015. The rarity of host species affects the co-extinction risk in socially parasitic bumblebee Bombus (Psithyrus) species. Annales Zoologici Fennici 52:236-242.

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