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Dominance and policing in bumble bees (BOURKEUBIO18EE)

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  • Full or part time
    Prof A Bourke
    Dr M Taylor
    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

Scientific background
A fundamental problem in behavioural ecology concerns the stability of social systems. Such systems are threatened by within-group cheats that selfishly use group resources for personal reproduction. When cheating becomes too frequent, the result is group collapse through resource depletion (a tragedy of the commons). In animal societies, key processes keeping cheating in check, and so maintaining group stability, include dominance (one or a few powerful individuals suppress cheats) and policing (individuals mutually inhibit cheating behaviour).

This project aims to address major, unanswered questions about these processes using the bumblebee Bombus terrestris. In this species, workers lay male-producing eggs in queenless colonies, but the group risks collapse if there are too many egg-layers. The specific objectives will be to test the hypotheses that (1) queenless workers form dominance orders in which rank correlates with reproductive success and (2) policing (by egg-eating) in colonies within a queen originates as reproductive competition between dominant, egg-laying individuals (selfish policing).

Research methodology
The student will obtain B. terrestris colonies from commercial suppliers and maintain them in the laboratory. He/she will then test the hypotheses using observations, digital filming and experimental manipulations of marked individuals. He/she will also conduct parentage analyses based on existing microsatellite markers, supplemented by a new panel of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) developed by the student.

Training and person specification
The student will receive full research training and generic, transferable training within the project, and cohort training provided by the EnvEast DTP. Research training will be in behavioural ecology, social insect biology, experimental design, molecular genetics and data analysis. Generic, transferable training will include project management, effective written and oral communication and career development.

The student will be a member of a well-supported research group specialising in the social biology of bumble bees, with access to all required facilities. All group members are encouraged and supported in conference attendance and public engagement. The student will also be free to shape the direction of the project for themselves as it develops.

This studentship would suit a motivated individual with a BSc or MSc in Biology, Ecology, Genetics or Zoology. EnvEast welcomes applicants from quantitative disciplines who may have limited background in environmental sciences. Excellent candidates will be considered for an award of an additional 3-month stipend to take appropriate advanced-level courses in the subject area.

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, comprising the Universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent, with over twenty other research partners. Undertaking a PhD with the EnvEast DTP will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed on 12/13 February 2018.

For further information, please visit

For more information on the supervisor for this project, please go here:
Type of programme: PhD
Start date of project: October 2018
Mode of study: Full time or part time
Length of studentship: 3.5 years

Acceptable first degree: Biology, Ecology, Genetics, Zoology, or similar.
Minimum entry requirement: 2:1 or equivalent.

Funding Notes

Successful candidates who meet RCUK’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - in 2017/18, the stipend is £14,553. In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a full award (including stipend). For non-UK EU-resident applicants NERC funding can be used to cover fees, RTSG and training costs, but not any part of the stipend. Individual institutes may, however, elect to provide a stipend from their own resources.


(i) Blacher P, Huggins TJ, Bourke AFG (2017) Evolution of ageing, costs of reproduction and the fecundity-longevity trade-off in eusocial insects. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284: 20170380.

(ii) Bourke AFG (2011) Principles of Social Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

(iii) Gill RJ, Baldock KCR, Brown MJF, Cresswell JE, Dicks LV et al. (2016) Protecting an ecosystem service: approaches to understanding and mitigating threats to wild insect pollinators. Advances in Ecological Research 54: 135-206.

(iv) Helyar SJ, Hemmer-Hansen J, Bekkevold D, Taylor MI et al. (2011) Application of SNPs for population genetics of non-model organisms: new opportunities and challenges. Molecular Ecology Resources 11 (S1): 123-136.

(v) Zanette LRS, Miller SDL, Faria CMA, Almond EJ, Huggins TJ, Jordan WC, Bourke AFG (2012) Reproductive conflict in bumblebees and the evolution of worker policing. Evolution 66: 3765-3777.

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