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How does stress affect floral smell preferences of bumblebees?

   Department of Biosciences

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  Dr O Riabinina, Dr M Tinsley, Dr W Dawson, Prof Thomas Schmitt  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Bumblebees are agriculturally important pollinators, but are currently declining in abundance in the UK and around the world, in part due to climate change (Soroye et al. 2020). Understanding these declines requires research on the biology and ecology of these species. Bumblebees are thought to be generalists, pollinating a variety of flower species. However, our preliminary observations conducted in Durham in summer 2020 indicate that different bumblebee species prefer different plants (see also Sikora et al. 2020). Bumblebees have been a preferred insect model for neuroethology and sensory neuroscience, and a wealth of earlier work has focussed on the importance of visual cues and nectar/pollen reward for foraging honeybees and bumblebees (Latty and Trueblood 2020). In contrast, the importance of floral smells is less well known, although some works report the essential role of flower volatiles in bumblebees’ floral choice (Galen and Kevan 1983; Suchet et al. 2011; Haber et al. 2019). It is also unknown how the flower preferences of bumblebees are affected by stressful climatic conditions: temperature, humidity and radiation (Raines et al. 2020). This project will investigate olfactory preferences of local bumblebees to naturally-occurring floral volatiles, and how these preferences are affected by environmental stress. This project will be supervised by a team of scientists from the UK and Germany: Lena Riabinina (Durham University), Matt Tinsley (Stirling University), Wayne Dawson (Durham University) and Thomas Schmitt (Wuerzburg University). The work will be carried out both in Germany and in the UK.

1) To collect and identify bumblebees and the plants they forage on, to establish plant preferences for local bumblebee species; 2) Collect floral volatiles from the plants identified in Aim1; analyse these volatiles by GC/MS ; 3) Establish behavioural preferences of bumblebees in response to full floral bouquets and components of bouquets, fractions and synthetic components of that are specific for focal plant species; 4) Investigate how stressful short- or long-term conditions affect behavioural choices to flower volatiles.
Methodology. Bee and plant collections will be conducted in Durham and Stirling in March-September (bumblebee foraging period). Student will be trained by WD and TS to identify plants and bumblebees, respectively. Floral volatiles will be collected at the same time as bumblebees by using standard volatiles traps, and will be analysed by the student via gas chromatography-mass spectrometry in TS laboratory. Behavioural olfactory assays on bees will be conducted either in the glasshouse at the Biocentre, University of Wuerzburg (facilitated by TS) or in a glasshouse at Durham Botanical garden (facilitated by WD). The bees will be given a choice between 2 stimuli, or stimulus and a control, and their preference for a smell will be inferred from the tendency of a bee to land at the stimulus. Stress experiments will be set up either by rearing/keeping bumblebees in climate chambers with increased temperature in line with climate warming projection for the next two decades, or by irradiating bumblebees at Stirling University (supervised by MT). LR will supervise bee and plant collections and behavioural experiments.

Training and skills:
The student will receive training: 1) by supervisors with complementary skills and expertise; 2) by collaborators and postdocs in the four participating labs; 3) by attending summer courses, conferences and Durham-run training events; 4) by participating in regular public outreach activities; 5) by helping to supervise undergraduate students; 6) by presenting their work at lab meetings and conferences. The student will acquire knowledge and skills in: 1) insect chemical ecology and neuroethology; 2) gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and collection of volatiles; 3) bumblebee rearing; 4) identification of bumblebees and plants; 5) cutting-edge techniques for behavioural analysis; 6) presentation and scientific writing; 7) research supervision; 8) impact and public outreach.

We are looking for an independent and enthusiastic student able to develop the project and drive it forward. Interest in sensory ecology, neuroethology, animal behaviour, chemical ecology and previous research experience are a plus.
You should be available to conduct field collections and lab work in the UK and Germany.

Further information:
Informal enquiries are strongly encouraged and should be directed to Dr Lena Riabinina, [Email Address Removed], +44-191-334-1282

Funding Notes

This project is in competition with others for funding. Success will depend on the quality of applications received, relative to those for competing projects. If you are interested in applying, in the first instance contact the supervisor, with a CV and covering letter, detailing your reasons for applying for the project.

For further information on the IAPETUS scheme, and details of eligibility criteria & requirements please visit the IAPETUS website:

The application deadline is 8th January 2021, but early applications are strongly advised.


Galen C, Kevan PG (1983) Bumblebee foraging and floral scent dimorphism: Bombus kirbyellus Curtis ( Hymenoptera: Apidae) and Polemonium viscosum Nutt. ( Polemoniaceae). Can J Zool 61:1207–1213.
Haber AI, Sims JW, Mescher MC, et al (2019) A key floral scent component (β-trans-bergamotene) drives pollinator preferences independently of pollen rewards in seep monkeyflower. Funct Ecol 33:218–228.
Latty T, Trueblood JS (2020) How do insects choose flowers? A review of multi‐attribute flower choice and decoy effects in flower‐visiting insects. J Anim Ecol 1365-2656.13347.
Raines K, Whitehorn P, Copplestone D, Tinsley M (2020) Chernobyl-level radiation exposure damages bumblebee reproduction: a laboratory experiment. Proc R Soc B
Sikora A, Michołap P, Sikora M (2020) What kind of flowering plants are attractive for bumblebees in urban green areas? Urban For Urban Green 48:126546.
Soroye P, Newbold T, Kerr J (2020) Climate change contributes to widespread declines among bumble bees across continents. Science (80- ) 367:685–688.
Suchet C, Dormont L, Schatz B, et al (2011) Floral scent variation in two Antirrhinum majus subspecies influences the choice of naïve bumblebees. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 65:1015–1027.