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QUADRAT DTP: The cost of being a fussy eater – Oligolectic pollinators and environmental change

Project Description

Insect pollinators provide fundamental ecosystem services to natural and human-dominated communities. Different pollinators have different abilities to cope with environmental changes, due to differences in their behaviour, physiology and life-history traits. There is increasing evidence that anthropogenic stressors such as urbanization and agricultural intensification are particularly harmful for wild, native pollinators that are already experiencing population declines due to climate change(1). However, the majority of research conducted so far has been focused on only a few key species that are largely managed and have become models for this research area (e.g. the honeybee Apis mellifera and the bumblebee Bombus terrestris).

One factor that varies significantly across different species of pollinators is diet breadth: some species are highly specialized on few plants that they forage upon (oligolectic) while others are more generalists and have a broader repertoire of food choices (polylectic). It has been hypothesized that oligolectic species are more vulnerable under conditions of environmental stress, as the lack of plasticity in their diet does not enable them to rapidly respond to a sudden reduction of foraging opportunities(2). This project will first investigate whether oligolectic species are indeed those experiencing more serious declines worldwide, based on data previously published in the literature. Key species of native oligolectic and polylectic pollinators will then be compared to test the costs and benefits of each type of diet, in terms of expression of genes associated with different extents of diet plasticity (e.g. detoxification genes(3)) and interspecific foraging competition.

One of the benefits of having a broad diet is the ability to exploit new resources when they become available. One possible scenario when this could happen is after invasive plant species become established in a new area. The second part of this project will test whether polylectic pollinators are better at exploiting recently established invasive plants (e.g. Rhododendron), and if they are more resistant to toxic compounds that these plants might produce.

Thanks to the integrative and interdisciplinary nature of the project, the student will receive broad training in multiple areas: from behavioural observations in the field, to experimental manipulation of pollinator-plant interactions in semi-natural conditions (e.g. poly tunnels), preparation of samples for molecular work (e.g. isolation of DNA and RNA for sequencing and gene expression analyses) and analyses of behavioural and molecular data (e.g. bioinformatics). The two supervisors have broad experience in these fields and will provide full support. Furthermore, both QUB and Aberdeen have links with local farmers and forest trust for experimental setups in the field and they both have Genomic Centres (GCTU at QUB and CGEBM at Aberdeen) that will support the student during the bioinformatic analyses of molecular data.

The project has great potential to make broad impact outside the scientific community interested in the biology of pollinators. From stakeholders who rely on pollinators for crop production to government agencies and NGOs tasked with control of invasive species. The proposed research has clear potential to emphasise the economics of pollination services to encourage conservation and management of native pollinators.


Candidates should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Master’s level.


• Apply for Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Biological Sciences
• State name of the lead supervisor as ‘Name of Proposed Supervisor’ on application
• State ‘QUADRAT DTP’ as Intended Source of Funding
• Select the ‘Visit Website’ to apply now

Funding Notes

This project is funded by the NERC QUADRAT-DTP and is available to UK/EU nationals who meet the UKRI eligibility criteria. Please visit View Website for more information.

The studentship provides funding for tuition fees, stipend and a research training and support grant subject to eligibility.


(1)Potts, Simon G., et al. "Global pollinator declines: trends, impacts and drivers." Trends in ecology & evolution 25.6 (2010): 345-353.

(2)Manfredini, Fabio, Marina Arbetman, and Amy L. Toth. "A potential role for phenotypic plasticity in invasions and declines of social insects." Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 7 (2019): 375.

(3)Vannette, Rachel L., Abbas Mohamed, and Brian R. Johnson. "Forager bees (Apis mellifera) highly express immune and detoxification genes in tissues associated with nectar processing." Scientific reports 5 (2015): 16224.

How good is research at Aberdeen University in Biological Sciences?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 89.42

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

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