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Enhancing food security through understanding pollinator responses to stress

Primary Supervisor: Dr Scott Hayward, School of Biosciences

Secondary supervisor: Professor John Colbourne and Dr Luisa Orsini

PhD project title: Enhancing food security through understanding pollinator responses to stress

University of Registration: University of Birmingham

Project outline:

Establishing agricultural resilience and food security in the face of environmental change is of intense global interest, and pollinators will play a key role in achieving this objective. Pollinators are in severe decline however, encountering stressors on multiple fronts: climate change, pesticides, pathogens, parasites, etc. While omic technologies have greatly enhanced our understanding of the molecular processes underpinning responses to individual stressors in the lab 1, few studies have considered how multiple stressors interact in the real world. Food security resilience also comes from recognising that bees are not the only (or even the most important) pollinators2 – and so studies of different insect Orders are crucial. This project will employ state-of-the-art physiological and molecular techniques to investigate how key pollinator species respond to combined stress events, and the impact on survival/tolerance thresholds.

Pollinators are exposed to increasing quantities and different cocktails of pesticides and preliminary data from our lab has shown this can massively disrupt their thermal biology. However, we currently have a very poor understanding of the underpinning molecular mechanisms or whether pesticide exposure also disrupts other stress responses such seasonal dormancy (diapause). For some species, even slight disruption of dormancy can be catastrophic3 due to severe population bottlenecks during winter, e.g. for the bumblebee Bombus terrestris, it is only queens that enter diapause, while all workers and males die during autumn. For many solitary bees diapause is obligatory every winter and fecundity the following spring is critically determined by bee health before and during diapause. In contrast, several fly (Diptera) species have different pesticide responses and more flexible life histories.

B.terrestris is an ideal study system as a key pollinator of crops globally; commercially produced on a massive scale; and highly tractable for molecular studies (sequenced genome, application of RNAi etc.)4. Many Dipteran pollinators (flies) are equally tractable molecular model systems and easy to culture in the lab for diapause studies. Transcriptomics provides the route to investigate temporal and tissue-specific patterns of gene expression underpinning stress responses. In addition, CRISPR or RNAi can be employed to undertake functional analysis of selected genes. In a commercial setting this could have fundamental applications in e.g. controlling dormancy and/or stress tolerance to facilitate better field survival or long term cold storage.

Core objectives are to: i) Characterise gene expression networks underpinning different insect stress and dormancy responses. ii) Determine the impact of pesticide exposure in disrupting these responses. iii) Develop new molecular and physiological methods to enhance commercial insect culturing practises.


  1. Hayward S. A. L. (2014) Application of functional ‘Omics’ in environmental stress physiology: insights, limitations, and future challenges. Current Opinion in Insect Science 4: 35-41.
  2. Rader R. et al. (2016) Non-bee insects are important contributors to global crop pollination. PNAS 113: 146-151
  3. Bale, J. S. and Hayward, S. A. L. (2010) Insect overwintering in a changing climate. Journal of Experimental Biology 213: 980-994.
  4. Deshwal S. and Mallon E. B. (2014) Antimicrobial peptides play a functional role in bumblebee anti-trypanosome defense. Developmental and Comparative Immunology 42: 240–243

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Sustainable Agriculture and Food: Animal Health and Welfare 

    Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:

    All supervisors are based within the Biosystems and Environmental Change (BEC) theme ( ), and the DR will interact on a daily basis with researchers at the vanguard of applying systems biology approaches to understanding organismal responses to environmental change and stress. The SH lab has considerable experience in working with many different insect systems, including ongoing projects with pollinator species.

    The DR will receive training in the use of extensive insect culturing and climate control facilities, as well as state-of-the-art omic technologies. Specialist training will be given in high throughput sequencing, spanning the processes from sample extraction to the bioinformatic analysis of the data generated.

    Through collaboration with/exposure to established industry partners involved in the commercial production of pollinators, the DR will also gain unique training at the interface of academic biological research and industry.

    Contact: Dr Scott Hayward, University of Birmingham