The microbiome of the beehive as an indicator of honeybee pathogens
Infectious diseases affecting bees pose a serious threat to both biodiversity and food security. Many honeybee pathogens are shared by other wild bee species and crops are experiencing considerable yield gaps owing to insufficient pollination. Therefore, novel strategies that mitigate and prevent the negative impacts of infectious agents on insect pollinators are urgently needed.
Start date1 October 2023
Funding sourceFaculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Surrey
Funding is for 3.5 years and includes UKRI-aligned stipend (£17,668 pa for 2022-23), approved University of Surrey fees and a research budget.
Infectious diseases affecting bees pose a serious threat to both biodiversity and food security. Many honeybee pathogens are shared by other wild bee species and crops are experiencing considerable yield gaps owing to insufficient pollination. Therefore, novel strategies that mitigate and prevent the negative impacts of infectious agents on insect pollinators are urgently needed. Here we propose to monitor the microbiome of entire bee colonies and use this as a method to forecast the prevalence of honeybee pathogens. Our group has recently discovered that honey itself can be used to screen for the DNA of bacteria derived from the bees’ environment, including other bee species, plants, soil, and water (Santorelli et al. 2023; https://doi.org/10.1186/s40793-023-00460-6). Furthermore, we found that the exact microbial profile of a hive and the honey within the hive is dependent on the geographical context, suggesting that each bee colony possesses a unique microbial feature that could be used as a predictor of the prevalence of bee pathogens.
The selected candidate will monitor changes in the microbiome of the entire bee colony using DNA extracted from honey samples, and relate this to the impact of geographical context and the type of colony management techniques employed by beekeepers. Ultimately this data will allow the candidate to identify which bacterial species are commonly associated with healthy or diseased colonies and develop predictive algorithms which can use data from simple molecular screens of honey to predict colony health and resilience. The methods will initially be developed with an economically important, managed pollinator, the honeybee, but once established could be adapted as a predictive tool to monitor the health of other wild pollinators such as bumblebees and solitary bees.
Training opportunities and student profile
The ideal candidate will have a background in biology and an interest in molecular microbiology and/or molecular ecology. A background in techniques related to these topics is desirable but not essential since you will receive training in all techniques needed to conduct the data collection and analysis.
The selected candidate will benefit from training in molecular microbiology high throughput technologies such as 16S rRNA sequencing, and advanced computational analysis. Furthermore, you will gain experience of beekeeping through sampling colonies for honey, ecological surveys and methods for collecting data on management practices from beekeepers. This PhD project will develop your laboratory and scientific skills and you will become a well-trained molecular & computational microbiologist with expertise in bee ecology.
This is a collaborative project between The University of Surrey, The University of Sussex, Wisley Gardens, Royal Horticulture Society (RHS), The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) and Queen’s University Belfast (QUB).
The principal supervisors are Dr Jorge Gutierrez-Merino, a veterinarian with an extensive track record in Applied Microbiology, particularly in the area of beneficial microbes, (email@example.com); and Dr Elizabeth Nicholls (E.Nicholls@sussex.ac.uk), a bee ecologist at the University of Sussex with expertise in leading landscape-scale field experiments investigating the impact of pathogens on whole honeybee hive health.
- Santorelli L, T Wilkinson, R Abdulmalik, Y Rai, CJ Creevey, S Huws and J Gutierrez-Merino. 2023. Beehives possess their own distinct microbiomes. Environ Microbiome 18, 1.
- Santos-Beneit F, A Ceniceros, A Nikolaou, JA Salas and J Gutierrez-Merino. 2022. Identification of antimicrobial compounds in two Streptomyces sp. strains isolated from beehives. Front Microbiol 13, 742168
- Griffiths-Lee J, E Nicholls and D Goulson. 2022. Sown mini-meadows increase pollinator diversity in gardens. 2022. J Insect Conserv 1-16.
- Goulson D and E Nicholls. 2022. Anthropogenic influences on bee foraging. Science 375 (6584), 970-72.
- Nicholls E, M Rossi and JE Niven. 2021. Larval nutrition impacts survival to adulthood, body size, and the allometric scaling of metabolic rate in adult honeybees. J Exp Biol 224(14).
Open to UK students, with the project starting in October 2023.
You will need to meet the minimum entry requirements for our PhD programme https://www.surrey.ac.uk/postgraduate/biosciences-and-medicine-phd#entry.
Previous education in microbiology and environmental sciences is desirable; and ideally having some experience in genomics and bioinformatics. The person recruited for the PhD is also expected to have (or be willing to develop) beekeeping skills, therefore they will ensure that the beehives selected for the study are carefully managed, and that sample collection is appropriately conducted.
How to apply
Applicants are strongly encouraged to contact the relevant principal supervisor(s) to discuss the project(s) before submitting their application.
Applications should be submitted via the https://www.surrey.ac.uk/postgraduate/biosciences-and-medicine-phd programme page (N.B. Please select the October 2023 start date when applying).
When completing your application, in place of a research proposal, please provide a brief motivational document (1 page maximum) which specifies:
- the reference number for the project
- the project title and principal supervisor names
- an explanation of your motivations for wanting to study for a PhD
- an explanation of your reasons for selecting the project you have chosen
Additionally, to complete a full application, you MUST also email a copy of your CV and 1-page motivational document directly to the project principal supervisors. Due to short turnaround times for applicant shortlisting, failure to do this may mean that your application is not considered.
Read our studentship FAQs to find out more about applying and funding.