The impact of light at night on bee-plant interactions, NERC GW4+,PhD in Psychology studentship. Ref: 3348

About the award


Lead Supervisor

Prof Natalie Hempel de Ibarra Departmant of Psychology, College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter.

Additional Supervisors

Prof Kevin Gaston Department of Environment and Sustainability , College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter.

Dr Heather Whitney School of Biological Sciences, University of Bristol.

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

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. 

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, and identify potential risks for pollination services at ecosystems level in hedge-dominated agricultural landscapes. 

There is scope to shape the project direction to the interests and educational background of the applicant. We expect the candidate to be involved in the project design.


You will receive interdisciplinary research training ranging from behavioural, animal and plant science to landscape mapping and ecological modelling. 

CASE or Collaborative Partner 

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.

Fig.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.

References / Background reading list

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

Candidate Requirements
We look for a candidate with deep interest in plant-animal interactions, preferably 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.

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.

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