The Northern Ireland Countryside Survey (NICS) is a statistically robust sample of the NI Countryside. It assesses the area, distribution and species composition of land cover and habitat types and provides reliable estimates of how land use changes over time.
This project is aligned with the latest NICS starting in 2022 and will complement core NICS activity by quantifying the abundance and diversity of pollinators and their food resources across the NI landscape and will specifically test for the effects of agri-environmental measures on pollinator abundance, diversity and food availability.
Insect pollinators provide fundamental ecosystem services in natural and human-dominated ecosystems. Different pollinators vary in their ability 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.
A major source of variation among pollinators is diet breadth: some species are highly specialized on a few forage plants (oligolectic) while others are more generalist and have a broader repertoire of food choices (polylectic). Agricultural practices that lead to declines in habitat diversity are known to have a detrimental impact on floristic diversity. How food plant availability and choice has changed, and whether cascading effects on pollinator abundance and diversity can be detected across landscapes with covariation in agricultural intensification remains unknown, but can be explored in the context of the NI Countryside Survey.
With this PhD we aim to test the hypothesis that oligolectic species will be more vulnerable under conditions of environmental stress reflected in a gradient of agricultural intensification, as the lack of plasticity in their diet does not enable them to respond to reduced foraging opportunities.
The abundance and diversity of key species of native oligolectic and polylectic pollinators will be quantified and compared to test the costs and benefits of each type of diet and interspecific foraging competition and patterns related to trends in floristic diversity and food plant availability from within the wider NI Countryside Survey data. One possible scenario is that as food plant species are lost or reduced in abundance then oligolectic species will be less able to switch to alternative food plants, leading to a decline in their overall abundance.
The PhD student will receive broad training in behavioural observations in the field, the collection and taxonomy of pollinator species and food plants, and field based survey techniques as well as statistics and data analysis. The student will work alongside the NICS survey teams complementing core data collection and adding value to the NI Countryside Survey.
QUB, AFBI and CEH have an ongoing collaboration through the delivery of the NI Countryside Survey as well as a Strategic Alliance between AFBI and QUB. The student will benefit from links with local farmers and the wider expertise within all three organisations.
Further reading: https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/articles/northern-ireland-countryside-survey
Start Date: 1 March 2023
Duration: 3 years
How to apply: Applications must be submitted via: https://dap.qub.ac.uk/portal/user/u_login.php
NOTE: Applicants must either (a) have held a drivers license for three years prior to PhD registration or (b) have access to their own transport and mobility facilitating daily field work at various countryside locations around Northern Ireland during each of the three spring-autumn periods. This will include work on uneven farmland terrain to set and retrieve sampling equipment. Candidates should state clearly in their application how they meet this requirement.