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Applications are now open for PhD studentships starting in October 2018. 

Please read the recruitment introduction for more information about eligibility, how to apply, and possibilities for further funding.

The deadline for applications is 8 January 2018.

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BOURKE_UBIO18EE - Dominance and policing in bumble bees

Project description

Selected other project supervisors:
Dr Martin Taylor (UEA)
Dr Lynn Dicks (UEA)

Scientific background
A fundamental problem in behavioural ecology concerns the stability of social systems. Such systems are threatened by within-group cheats that selfishly use group resources for personal reproduction. When cheating becomes too frequent, the result is group collapse through resource depletion (a tragedy of the commons). In animal societies, key processes keeping cheating in check, and so maintaining group stability, include dominance (one or a few powerful individuals suppress cheats) and policing (individuals mutually inhibit cheating behaviour).

This project aims to address major, unanswered questions about these processes using the bumblebee Bombus terrestris. In this species, workers lay male-producing eggs in queenless colonies, but the group risks collapse if there are too many egg-layers. The specific objectives will be to test the hypotheses that (1) queenless workers form dominance orders in which rank correlates with reproductive success and (2) policing (by egg-eating) in colonies within a queen originates as reproductive competition between dominant, egg-laying individuals (selfish policing).

Research methodology
The student will obtain B. terrestris colonies from commercial suppliers and maintain them in the laboratory. He/she will then test the hypotheses using observations, digital filming and experimental manipulations of marked individuals. He/she will also conduct parentage analyses based on existing microsatellite markers, supplemented by a new panel of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms) developed by the student.

Training and person specification
The student will receive full research training and generic, transferable training within the project, and cohort training provided by the EnvEast DTP. Research training will be in behavioural ecology, social insect biology, experimental design, molecular genetics and data analysis. Generic, transferable training will include project management, effective written and oral communication and career development.

The student will be a member of a well-supported research group specialising in the social biology of bumble bees, with access to all required facilities. All group members are encouraged and supported in conference attendance and public engagement. The student will also be free to shape the direction of the project for themselves as it develops.

This studentship would suit a motivated individual with a BSc or MSc in Biology, Ecology, Genetics or Zoology.

This project has been shortlisted for funding by the EnvEast NERC Doctoral Training Partnership, comprising the Universities of East Anglia, Essex and Kent, with over twenty other research partners. Undertaking a PhD with the EnvEast DTP will involve attendance at mandatory training events throughout the course of the PhD.

Shortlisted applicants will be interviewed by EnvEast on 12/13 February 2018.

Selected candidates who meet RCUK’s eligibility criteria will be awarded a NERC studentship - in 2017/18, the stipend is £14,553. Ordinarily, EnvEast studentships are for 3.5 years, although longer awards may be made to applicants from quantitative disciplines who have limited experience in the environmental sciences, to allow them to take appropriate advanced-level courses in the subject area.

In most cases, UK and EU nationals who have been resident in the UK for 3 years are eligible for a stipend. For non-UK EU-resident applicants NERC funding can be used to cover tuition fees, RTSG and training costs, but not any part of the stipend. Individual institutes may, however, elect to provide a stipend from their own resources.

This PhD studentship is expected to begin in September/October 2018. Both full-time and part-time study are possible (those planning to study part-time may wish to discuss this with the supervisor before applying).


  1. Blacher P, Huggins TJ, Bourke AFG (2017) Evolution of ageing, costs of reproduction and the fecundity-longevity trade-off in eusocial insects. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284: 20170380.
  2. Bourke AFG (2011) Principles of Social Evolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Gill RJ, Baldock KCR, Brown MJF, Cresswell JE, Dicks LV et al. (2016) Protecting an ecosystem service: approaches to understanding and mitigating threats to wild insect pollinators. Advances in Ecological Research 54: 135-206.
  4. Helyar SJ, Hemmer-Hansen J, Bekkevold D, Taylor MI et al. (2011) Application of SNPs for population genetics of non-model organisms: new opportunities and challenges. Molecular Ecology Resources 11 (S1): 123-136.
  5. Zanette LRS, Miller SDL, Faria CMA, Almond EJ, Huggins TJ, Jordan WC, Bourke AFG (2012) Reproductive conflict in bumblebees and the evolution of worker policing. Evolution 66: 3765-3777.