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Cuckoo bees as sentinels for pollinator decline (DICKSUBIO17EE)

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  • Full or part time
    Dr L Dicks
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

This PhD will test whether cuckoo bees can be used as ‘sentinels’ to identify areas where wild bee pollinators are at risk due to low population densities.

Widespread declines in pollinator diversity have been recorded (IPBES, 2016). Pollinators, particularly wild bees, are directly responsible for 5-8% of global crop production, so pollinator decline is an important environmental issue worldwide. Policy makers are interested in indicators of pollinator community ‘health’ that can be easily measured.

Cuckoo bees could be such an indicator. Around one third of the UK wild bee fauna are ‘cuckoos’, or brood parasites, relying on females of the host bee species to rear their larvae. They can only persist when host population densities are above a predictable threshold (Antonovics and Edwards, 2011). This PhD will test the hypothesis that cuckoo bees are absent in areas where host densities are low. If so, their absence can be used to map low density areas in host bee species and target wild pollinator conservation measures to areas where they are most needed (Dicks et al. 2015).

Research methods
You will use advanced species distribution modelling, spatial analysis and UK field surveys to test whether cuckoo bees are absent at the edge of their host species’ ranges, or within the ranges in areas of low host density as predicted by landscape characteristics. You will also investigate whether cuckoo bee species are declining more quickly than non-cuckoos.

You will learn to analyze large biodiversity datasets, design ecological field studies and identify and monitor wild bee species.
The supervisors are globally recognized experts in evidence-based pollinator conservation (Lynn Dicks), social bee evolution (Andrew Bourke) and biodiversity trend analysis (Nick Isaac). You will interact with the farming industry, policymakers and a large community of international pollination researchers.

Who are we looking for?
You will have a first degree in biological sciences with a strong mathematical component, or a mathematics, statistics or computing degree with a strong interest in applying this to environmental issues. You will be a fast learner, highly numerate, with a deep interest in ecology, entomology, ecosystem services or host-parasite dynamics.

Funding Notes

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, comprising the Universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent, with twenty other research partners.

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 14/15 February 2017.

Successful candidates who meet RCUK’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship. In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award. In 2016/17, the stipend was £14,296.

For further information, please visit www.enveast.ac.uk/apply.


(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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