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Cambridge NERC Doctoral Training Partnerships

Graduate Research Opportunities
Shrill Carder Bee Bombus sylvarum

Image by Steven Falk

Lead Supervisor: Lynn Dicks, Zoology

Co-Supervisor: Richard Comont, Bumblebee Conservation Trust

This is a CASE project with The Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Brief summary: 
This project, in partnership with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT), aims to fill key knowledge gaps to support the conservation of a severely threatened bumblebee species, Bombus sylvarum, in the UK.
Importance of the area of research concerned: 
The Shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum) is one of the UK’s most threatened bumblebee species. Changes in agricultural and land management practices and more recently direct losses to housing and industry have led to major declines of this once common species. Having been widespread across southern Britain, its modern range has contracted to just five populations, three in Wales and two in England. Two of these populations are large and appear to be stable (though threatened by development), but others are now small and declining. A Shrill carder bee Conservation Strategy 2020-2030 has been produced by BBCT, Buglife, RSPB, Natural England, NRW, BWARS & the IUCN, endorsed by 26 organisations. All partners are committed to delivering the urgent, co-ordinated and strategic approach needed over the next 10 years, to ensure this iconic bee not only survives – but again thrives. Conservation efforts are focused at landscape-scale, in areas around the surviving populations. There is a great need for research to support these efforts. In particular genetic analyses to estimate population sizes, foraging ranges, and pollen choices would be extremely helpful to inform conservation priorities.
Project summary : 
This project will work in partnership with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to derive research questions and hypotheses directly related to the conservation strategy for Bombus sylvarum. Clear research gaps identified for the species include: i) understanding the genetic structure of the species’ populations at UK and European level, and determining the level of inbreeding pressure. Bumblebees are particularly vulnerable to population impacts of low genetic diversity, because it leads to the production of diploid males instead of females; ii) modelling future changes in the climate envelope for the species across north-west Europe; iii) ecological requirements, including foraging choices and use of habitats at landscape scale, particularly in relation to habitat fragmentation; iv) impacts of pesticides and pathogens on the Shrill Carder bee.
What will the student do?: 
The project will involve a combination of field work, laboratory work and computer modelling. Field sites will be in England, Wales and potentially mainland Europe. It is likely that the project will focus on a subset of the research needs identified above, according to the students’ interest. As a member of the subgenus Thoracobombus, Bombus sylvarum is a ‘pocket-maker’, in which the workers do not individually feed the larvae, so it is very unlikely to be possible to rear this species in laboratory conditions. Given this, and the conservation status of the species, field methods for studies of the shrill carder bee will focus on non-lethal sampling, including pollen loads, tarsal clips for genetic analysis, and faecal or vomit samples for pathogen load and pesticide exposure. The student will conduct field surveys to map flowering plant and nesting resources at landscape scale, develop a species distribution model for Bombus sylvarum to predict responses to future land use and climate change, and use genetics to explore population genetic structure, estimate and map nest density, estimate levels of inbreeding, and quantify the plant species found in pollen loads.
References - references should provide further reading about the project: 
Page, S., Lynch S., Wilkins, V. and Cartwright, B. 2020. A Conservation Strategy for the Shrill carder bee Bombus sylvarum in England and Wales, 2020–2030: Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Stirling, Scotland UK.
Ellis, J. S., Knight, M. E., Darvill, B., & Goulson, D. 2006. Extremely low effective population sizes, genetic structuring and reduced genetic diversity in a threatened bumblebee species, Bombus sylvarum (Hymenoptera : Apidae). Molecular Ecology, 15(14), 4375-4386. doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2006.03121.x
Williams, P. H., Araújo, M. B., & Rasmont, P. 2007. Can vulnerability among British bumblebee (Bombus) species be explained by niche position and breadth? Biological Conservation, 138(3), 493-505. doi:
You can find out about applying for this project on the Department of Zoology page.
Dr Lynn Dicks