Tracking historical dynamics of pathogens in bumblebees: linking disease to declines

Theme: Biodiversity, Ecology & Conservation

Primary Supervisor:

Ian Barnes

Earth Sciences Department, NHM

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Secondary Supervisor:

Mark Brown

School of Biological Sciences, RHUL

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Project Description:

Bumblebees (genus Bombus) provide a core ecosystem service through pollination of flowering plants, and are a key pollinator of both wildflowers and many agricultural crops. However, there is currently growing concern about the health of wild bumblebee populations in the UK and overseas, partly due to increasing incidence of infection with pathogens and parasites (including viruses, fungal microsporidia and protozoa). The drivers of this increase in parasite pressure are unclear, but may include reduced host immune capacity (driven by a reduction in dietary quality due to increasing monoculture; increased use of pesticides; or reduction in genetic diversity) or increased disease prevalence (driven by increased interaction with commercial bumble and honeybee populations).
In this project, we will quantify the timing, nature, and extent of changes in the prevalence of infection by a range of bumblebee pathogens, through DNA sequencing of historical bumblebees. As part of our ongoing work on historical bee genetics, we have already established that we can identify DNA sequences of pathogens from museum specimens. Here, we will actively focus on the identification and analysis of pathogen sequences, which we will use to test specific hypotheses for changes in parasite pressure, for example, the emergence of viral diseases in honey bees, changes in the type and quantity of agrochemical exposure, and large-scale changes in land-use.
The student will receive training in laboratory work (principally in the specialist ancient DNA lab at the NHM) and the analysis of metagenomic datasets. There are also be opportunities for field sampling of modern comparative material, and work within the museum collections.

Policy Impact of Research:

This project will inform conservation management plans for bumblebees, and potentially other pollinator species. By linking ecological theory, and palaeogenomic methods and data, with archival specimens, we will also contribute to the ongoing development of museum collections as sources of data for long-term studies of environmental change.

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