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The impact of light at night on bee-plant interactions

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 07, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

This project is one of a number that are in competition for funding from the NERC Great Western Four+ Doctoral Training Partnership (GW4+ DTP). The GW4+ DTP consists of the Great Western Four alliance of the University of Bath, University of Bristol, Cardiff University and the University of Exeter plus five Research Organisation partners: British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Natural History Museum and Plymouth Marine Laboratory. The partnership aims to provide a broad training in earth and environmental sciences, designed to train tomorrow’s leaders in earth and environmental science. For further details about the programme please see

Location: University of Exeter, Streatham Campus, Exeter EX4 4QJ

Supervisory team:
Prof Natalie Hempel de Ibarra Departmant of Psychology, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter.
Prof Kevin Gaston Department of Environment and Sustainability , College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter.
Dr Heather Whitney School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.

Project details
The widespread use of artificial lighting at night in the environment, associated with human settlements and areas of agricultural and other activities, has increased since the last century, massively altering natural daily and seasonal patterns of light (1). Evidence for this is found not only in urban settings, but also in natural ecosystems, and more research is urgently needed to understand the impact of light pollution. An quantitative analysis of how the spectral composition of various types of street lighting matches the visual sensitivities of animals has revealed that most animal taxa have a high potential to be affected by artificial light at night (2), but empirical evidence is still scarce. Here we aim to examine these predictions focusing on bees, the most important and abundant group of pollinators.

Project Aims and Methods
Bees have a highly evolved visual system that primarily determines their flight, navigation and foraging behaviour (3). All bees are generalist nectar foragers and exploit all types of flowers to collect pollen, relying on their learning abilities, suites of refined motor patterns and additional multisensory information, such as chemical and mechanosensory cues in flowers (4). Their behaviour, physiology and ecology are very well understood, and advanced methods for investiging their behaviour and ecology have been developed. It is timely and feasible to investigate how bee activity and foraging performance are affected by light pollution. This interdisciplinary project brings together a skilled team of expert supervisors and will employ a combination of ecological, behavioural and modelling methods. In close collaboration with the South Devon AONB, observational and experimental data will be collected in the field, taking advantage of existing mappings of light pollution and dark skies in this area and support from local communities of landowners and farmers for environmental schemes and research. We will determine how patterns of activity and bee-plant interactions vary under different lighting conditions, considering spatial and temporal addition of light from artificial sources and natural variation of light cycles. This work will help to understand better how changes might affect bees at colony and population level, and identify potential risks for pollination services at ecosystems level in hedge-dominated agricultural landscapes.

There is scope to shape the project direction to the interests and educational background of the applicant. We expect the candidate to be involved in the project design.

You will receive interdisciplinary research training ranging from behavioural, animal and plant science to landscape mapping and ecological modelling.

Funding Notes

NERC GW4+ funded studentship available for September 2019 entry. For eligible students, the studentship will provide funding of fees and a stipend which is currently £14,777 per annum for 2018-19.


Students from EU countries who do not meet the residency requirements may still be eligible for a fees-only award but no stipend. Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.


References / Background reading list

1. Bennie, J., Davies, T.W., Cruse, D. & Gaston, K.J. 2016. Ecological effects of artificial light at night on wild plants. Journal of Ecology 104, 611-620.

2. Davies, T.W., Bennie, J., Inger, R., Hempel de Ibarra, N. & Gaston, K.J. 2013. Artificial light pollution: are shifting spectral signatures changing the balance of species interactions? Global Change Biology 19, 1417-1423.

3. Hempel de Ibarra N, Vorobyev M, Menzel R (2014). Mechanisms, functions and ecology of colour vision in the honeybee. Journal of Comparative Physiology A: sensory, neural, and behavioral physiology, 200, 411-433.

4. Whitney, HM & Federle, W, 2013, ‘Biomechanics of plant–insect interactions’. Current Opinion in Plant Biology, vol 16., pp. 105-111

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