PhD Studentship: Spatial Learning and Pollinator Effectiveness in Fragmented Landscapes: A Comparative Approach

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 NERC GW4+ DTP involves the four research-intensive universities across the South West – Bath, Bristol, Cardiff and Exeter – and six Research Organisation partners. For further details about the programme please see the Apply button below.

Studentships will be awarded on the basis of merit and will commence in September 2014. For eligible students the award will cover UK/EU tuition fees and an annual stipend (in 2013/14 this was £13,726 for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students) for three and a half years.

Dr Natalie Hempel de Ibarra,
College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter
Prof Juliet Osborne, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter
Dr Zena Wood, University of Exeter
Dr Sean Rands, University of Bristol
Dr Hema Somanathan, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Thiruvananthapuram

Project description: Existing research that measures and models spatial use of the landscape by social bees (as the principal crop pollinators) makes very simplistic assumptions about their spatial behaviour and emphasises forage availability, patch size and foraging ranges, whilst disregarding the fact that pollinators guide their outward and inbound foraging flights by landmark learning and navigation based on views of landscape scenes. Spatial landmark features, such as hedges, surrounding forest fragments and dominant landmarks, that are important for bee navigation are not considered. Consequently, such approaches are prone to fail in accurately predicting pollinator movement and pollinator effectiveness in spatially heterogeneous areas. However, progress has been made in understanding various aspects of the bees’ spatial behaviour, which includes work done by the project team members (Hempel de Ibarra, Osborne, Somanathan). Adding interdisciplinary input from computer science (Woods), makes it possible to tackle this problem. Furthermore, a recent pollination model (1) by Rands is available that has attempted to link bee behaviour and spatial landmark features (edge row density) in agricultural landscapes, and which needs empirical validation.

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Project objectives are to collect empirical data for creating a conceptual framework explaining how pollinator effectiveness in fragmented landscapes is influenced by spatial learning, navigation and foraging decisions made by bees. Data will be used to test and develop models by Rands (1) and by Becher&Osborne (2).

Experiments will be performed in South Devon during the European summer, and in South India during the European winter. The spatial structure of small agricultural holdings of South Devon separated by high hedges can be compared to areas frequently found in the Western Ghats in South India with a dense matrix of small-sized forest and field fragments. Both areas are hotspots of biodiversity, highly populated and have pressures to serve both conservation and agriculture. The comparative approach will allow us to explore whether our findings can be extrapolated to very diverse habitats that have a similar spatial structure and where social bees are the main pollinators.

This project aims to start closing a big gap of knowledge by linking expertise in the disciplines of biology, psychology and informatics (pollination ecology, animal navigation, foraging behaviour and artificial intelligence of collective behaviour). It offers an excellent interdisciplinary environment for innovative PhD research and skills training.

Closing date: 10th January 2014

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