The Impact of Light at Night on Bee-Plant Interactions - Environmental Sciences - NERC GW4+ DTP PhD studentship Ref: 2800

About the award

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 six Research Organisation partners:  British Antarctic Survey, British Geological Survey, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the Met Office, 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

The studentships will provide funding for a stipend which is currently £14,553 per annum for 2017-2018, research costs and UK/EU tuition fees at Research Council UK rates for 42 months (3.5 years) for full-time students, pro rata for part-time students.


Lead supervisor: Dr Natalie Hempel de Ibarra
Co-Supervisor: Dr Kevin Gaston

Location:  Streatham Campus, Exeter

Project description:

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.

Image 1: Night light map of South Devon (screenshot taken from ). The dark night sky and natural nightscape resource of the AONB is particularly highly valued and under increasing pressure from development of all kinds and scales. One of the South Devon AONB’s 10 special qualities includes natural nightscapes: Areas of high tranquillity, natural nightscapes, distinctive natural soundscapes and visible movement. Conversely light pollution, obtrusive lighting, glare, skyglow and light trespass are all problematic to varying degrees across the AONB with particular pressure spreading out from the urban areas of Torbay and Plymouth.

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, with regards to resource partitioning and nutrition, how efficiency of pollination for particular flower types that depend closely on bee pollination might be enhanced or compromised, and identify potential risks for pollination services at ecosystems level in hedge-dominated agricultural landscapes.


We look for a candidate with deep interest in plant-animal interactions, preferrably with strong quantitative skills. Candidates with a background other than biological sciences should present willingness to develop skills needed for experimental field work. A driving license is desirable.


Case Award Description

Cash and in-kind contribution to stipend, research and placement expenses, placement with the CASE partner, support from the CASE partner during the whole duration of PhD with maps, logistics, equipment, contact with landowners for access to sites.


The student will receive interdisciplinary research training ranging from behavioural, animal and plant science (N. Hempel, H. Whitney) to landscape mapping and ecological modelling (R. English & K. Gaston). The placement with the AONB will further provide training in non-academic topics and transferable skills. At the AONB unit the student will receive training and practical support for planning and executing the research, for example securing access to field sites, exposure to landscape management practice, tools and technical applications, implementation of policies, business planning and management and supported in interactions with local landowners, farmers and wider public.


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

Entry requirements:        

Applicants should have obtained, or be about to obtain, a First or Upper Second Class UK Honours degree, or the equivalent qualifications gained outside the UK.   Applicants with a Lower Second Class degree will be considered if they also have Master’s degree.  Applicants with a minimum of Upper Second Class degree and significant relevant non-academic experience are encouraged to apply.

All applicants would need to meet our English language requirements by the start of the  project

Applicants who are classed as International for tuition fee purposes are not eligible for funding.


Application deadline:7th January 2018
Value:£14,553 per annum for 2017-18
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Recruitment

How to apply

In the application process you will be asked to upload several documents.  Please note our preferred format is PDF, each file named with your surname and the name of the document, eg. “Smith – CV.pdf”, “Smith – Cover Letter.pdf”, “Smith – Transcript.pdf”.

•       CV
•       Letter of application outlining your academic interests, prior research experience and reasons for wishing to
        undertake the project.
•       Transcript(s) giving full details of subjects studied and grades/marks obtained.  This should be an interim transcript
        if you are still studying.
•       If you are not a national of a majority English-speaking country you will need to submit evidence of your current
        proficiency in English.

You will be asked to name 2 referees as part of the application process however we will not contact these people until the shortlisting stage. Your referees should not be from the prospective supervisory team.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 7 January 2018.  Interviews will be held at the University of Exeter between 5 - 16 February 2018.

If you have any general enquiries about the application process please email  Project-specific queries should be directed to the supervisor.

During the application process, the University may need to make certain disclosures of your personal data to third parties to be able to administer your application, carry out interviews and select candidates.  These are not limited to, but may include disclosures to:

• the selection panel and/or management board or equivalent of the relevant programme, which is likely to include staff from one or more other HEIs;

• administrative staff at one or more other HEIs participating in the relevant programme.

Such disclosures will always be kept to the minimum amount of personal data required for the specific purpose. Your sensitive personal data (relating to disability and race/ethnicity) will not be disclosed without your explicit consent.