How many flowers to sustain wild bees? NERC GW4+ DTP, PhD in Biosciences studentship Ref: 3315

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Dr James Cresswell, University of Exeter, Biosciences

Additional Supervisors

Dr David Horsell, University of Exeter, Physics & Astronomy

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

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

For eligible successful applicants, the studentships comprises:

  • An index-linked stipend for 3.5 years (currently £14,777 p.a. for 2018/19);
  • Payment of university tuition fees;
  • A research budget of £11,000 for an international conference, lab, field and research expenses;
  • A training budget of £4,000 for specialist training courses and expenses.

Up to 30 fully-funded studentships will be available across the partnership.

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.

Project details

Bumble bees are important wild pollinators that nest underground.  Even in cold Arctic soils, bumble bees heat their nests metabolically to over 30 [Symbol]C by non-flight thermogenesis, which takes a lot of energy depending on soil temperatures.  For fuel, bees collect sugary nectar from flowers, which takes a lot of time depending on the locations of flowers.  Their populations are in decline perhaps in part due to shortages of flowers.  This PhD will contribute to their conservation by (i) quantifying the energy needs of bumble bee nests in different soils and (ii) calculating the number and proximity of flowers needed to sustain colonies and viable populations.  This will be achieved by analyzing the thermal performance of bee nests (including fieldwork) and by formulating models to identify the critical balance point between energy demand (carbohydrate metabolism, heat transfer) and supply (foraging energetics).
Project Aims and Methods
i. Quantify the energy requirements, power outputs and efficiency of nest incubation in bumble bees in relation to soil/substrate attributes;
ii. Determine the number, proximity and nectar richness of flowers needed to support colony growth and reproduction in bumble bees.
iii. Formulate conservation/enhancement plans for landscapes to be able to provide enough flowers to sustain or increase bumble bee populations.

You will study the performance and energy requirements of nest incubation in bumble bees and develop a device (the ‘bumble bee nest simulator’, or BSM) that can be used to precisely measure equivalent heat transfers in artificial nests.  The BSM will comprise heat generators (to simulate thermogenic bees) and heat sensors, as well as being able to remotely transmit data to an above-ground recorder.  You will generalize the results mathematically using theories of heat transfer, optimal foraging and population growth.  Your results will begin to establish a framework to predict bumble bee nest distributions and thereby direct conservation efforts aimed at sustaining these ecologically and economically valuable pollinators.

In addition to the training events provided by NERC GW4+ DTP and the UoE Doctoral College, you will work across laboratories in biology and physics. Your supervisors will meet with you weekly and provide training opportunities to set you up for a successful career in research including: ecology, animal physiology and sensing technology.  You will also be involved in reviewing manuscripts and grants, attending international conferences and specialist group meetings. You will be allocated a pastoral mentor by the University and trained to practice a good work-life balance.

CASE or Collaborative Partner
Prof Paul Williams (Natural History Museum) is the foremost world expert on the taxonomy and distribution of bumble bees, which are the focus of this project.  Guidance from Prof Williams will enable you to make a comparative study of nest site ecology among bumble bees worldwide.

Fig.1 Bumble bees incubating their brood on a pollen patty in Cresswell’s laboratory.

Fig.2 A thermal image of a worker bee producing heat by non-flight thermogenesis.

References / Background reading list
Gorman, J. 2016. 6 Scientists, 1,000 Miles, 1 Prize: The Arctic Bumblebee. The New York Times:
Woodard, S.H. (2017) Bumble bee ecophysiology: integrating the changing environment and the organism. Current Opinion in Insect Science, 22, 101-108.
Woodard, S.H. & Jha, S. (2017) Wild bee nutritional ecology: predicting pollinator population dynamics, movement, and services from floral resources. Current Opinion in Insect Science, 21, 83-90.


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.

Candidate Requirements
This interdisciplinary project suits a person with a background in ecology, physics, mathematics, engineering or computer science. You should be a good collaborator with strong quantitative skills.  Ideally, you will have some knowledge of: animal physiology; programming (e.g. Python); and device controllers/data loggers (e.g. Arduino or Raspberry Pi.)

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

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.
  • Two References (applicants are recommended to have a third academic referee, if the two academic referees are within the same department/school).

Reference information
You will be asked to name two referees as part of the application process.  It is your responsibility to ensure that your two referees email their references to, as we will not make requests for references directly; you must arrange for them to be submitted by 7 January 2019

References should be submitted to us directly in the form of a letter. Referees must email their references to us from their institutional email accounts. We cannot accept references from personal/private email accounts, unless it is a scanned document on institutional headed paper and signed by the referee.

All application documents must be submitted in English. Certified translated copies of academic qualifications must also be provided.

The closing date for applications is midnight on 7 January 2019.  Interviews will be held between 4 and 15 February 2019.

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

Data Sharing
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.


Application deadline:7th January 2019
Value:£14,777 per annum for 2018-19
Duration of award:per year
Contact: PGR Enquiries