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Investigation of brain anatomy across closely related bumblebee species, native to North-East England

Bumblebees are agriculturally important pollinators, but are currently declining in abundance in the UK and around the world, in part due to climate change (Soroye et al. 2020). Understanding these declines requires research on the biology and physiology of these species. Bumblebees are thought to be generalists, pollinating a variety of flower species. However, our preliminary observations conducted in Durham in summers 2020-22 indicate that different bumblebee species prefer different plants (see also Sikora et al. 2020). In addition, it has been reported that workers and drones of the same species also have different flower preferences. Bumblebees have been a preferred insect model for neuroethology and sensory neuroscience, however, most work has focused on Bombus terrestris in Europe (e.g. Li et al. 2017; Mertes et al. 2021) and Bombus impatiens in North America (e.g. Mares et al. 2005), with other species receiving little attention. In addition, most studies, including our own (e.g. Riabinina et al. 2014, Langridge et al. 2021), have focused on the bees’ behaviours alone, leaving the neuronal and genetic basis of their behaviours poorly understood. Thus, the neuronal basis of bees’ diverse flower preferences is currently unknown. This project will investigate and compare brain anatomy of 8 species of bumblebees, native to North-East England. We will specifically focus of antennal and optic lobes – olfactory and visual processing centres of an insect brain. We hypothesize that the brain anatomy reflects species- and sex-specific behavioural preferences of the bees.

Aims: This project aims to compare brain anatomy of males and females across closely related species of bumblebees. We hypothesise the existence of strong sexual dimorphisms as well as inter-specific dimorphisms, related to the complexity of sensory cues (smells, visual cues, etc) that an insect is able to process.

Training and skills: The student will conduct brain dissections, immunostaining, confocal imaging and creation of 3D models of the brains of adult males/females/workers across up to 8 closely related bumblebee species. The immunostaining protocol may require optimisation for the species that have not been studied yet, thus the student must be comfortable with the exploratory nature of the project.

The student will receive training: 1) by supervisor and lab members with multidisciplinary skills and expertise; 2) by attending training courses in Durham and externally (optional); 3) by participating in public outreach activities (optional); 4) by presenting their work at lab meetings and conferences. The student will acquire knowledge and skills in: 1) insect sensory ecology and sensory neuroscience; 2) brain dissection and immunostaining; 3) confocal imaging; 4) image analysis; 5) comparative neuroanatomy; 6) use of 3D modelling software, such as Amira or Dragonfly; 7) statistical analysis; 8) presentation and scientific writing; 9) Impact and public outreach.

Requirements: We are looking for an independent and enthusiastic student able to develop the project and drive it forward. Interest in sensory neuroscience, neuroethology, biological imaging, image processing and previous research experience are a plus.

Further information: Informal enquiries ARE STRONGLY ENCOURAGED and should be directed to Dr Lena Riabinina,, +44-191-334-1282

Funding Notes: Applicants must have the ability to SELF FUND in full the costs to cover tuition fees, bench fees, and living stipend for a minimum of 1 year (full time).

Success will depend on the quality of applications received, funding, and meeting the minimum criteria required in terms of language and academic qualifications.

Further general information and the on-line application form for Postgraduate Study at Durham University is available here.

If you are interested in applying, please contact Dr Olena Riabinina with a CV, contact details of at least two referees, evidence of English language ability, evidence of qualifications and a detailed covering letter explaining your interest in this research project and your future career plans.

References: Sikora A, MichoĊ‚ap P, Sikora M (2020) What kind of flowering plants are attractive for bumblebees in urban green areas? Urban For Urban Green 48:126546. 

Soroye P, Newbold T, Kerr J (2020) Climate change contributes to widespread declines among bumble bees across continents. Science (80- ) 367:685–688. 

Li, L., MaBouDi, H., Egertová, M., Elphick, M. R., Chittka, L. & Perry, C. J. A possible structural correlate of learning performance on a colour discrimination task in the brain of the bumblebee. doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.1323 Proc. R. Soc. B Biol. Sci. 284, 20171323 (2017).

Mertes, M., Carcaud, J. & Sandoz, JC. Olfactory coding in the antennal lobe of the bumble bee Bombus terrestris. Sci Rep 11, 10947 (2021). 

Mares, S., Ash, L. & Gronenberg, W. Brain Allometry in Bumblebee and Honey Bee Workers. doi:10.1159/000085047 Brain. Behav. Evol. 66, 50–61 (2005).

Riabinina O, Hempel de Ibarra N, Philippides A, Collett TS. Head movements and the optic flow generated during the learning flights of bumblebees. J Exp Biol (2014) 217 (15): 2633–2642.

Langridge KV, Wilke C, Riabinina O, Vorobyev M, Hempel de Ibarra N. Approach Direction Prior to Landing Explains Patterns of Colour Learning in Bees. Frontiers in Physiology, 12 (2021), 10.3389/fphys.2021.697886