Windows into the past: understanding historic bee population declines through genome sequencing 150 years of museum specimens

Bumblebee Bombus terrestris

This project will investigate how the bumblebee population structure responds to alterations in land-use and the strength and focus of natural selection across the genome.

The studentship starts October 2019 and is funded by NERC. 

How to apply

Read the eligibility criteria and application guidance below, then send your application to

Application deadline: 8 January 2019

Research focus

The aims of the project is to use genomic analyses of museum specimens to infer not only how  population structure responds to alterations in land-use, but also the strength and focus of natural selection across the genome.

This project takes a novel approach to insect pollinator research, and has significant implications for understanding which major past events shape our bumblebee communities.


For this project, the student will use ancient DNA techniques to sequence genomes of museum bumblebee specimens of up to 150 years old, gathered from a network of natural history museums across UK. The student will be trained in bioinformatic and quantitative skills to analyse genomic data from individuals from select populations of differing land-use change through time.

The student will look to infer how population structure responded to changes in land use, and investigate the strength and focus of selection across the genome.

The students will join an ongoing project based between the NHM London and Imperial College, and the student’s findings will be coupled with morphological data. 


The successful candidate will join the NHM Ancient DNA lab, where we are developing methods to recover genomic datasets from museum specimens. The student will collaborate closely with the Gill lab who work on bumblebee responses to environmental stressors to address ecological and evolutionary questions.


For more than a century, the UK has experienced significant agricultural land-use change with increased chemical applications to the environment. Consequently, the loss of and impact on ‘natural’ habitats has been substantial, and this has been associated with biodiversity loss, such as the decline of insect pollinators. Bees are crucial pollinators for wild flowers and crops, making it important to understand the causes and dynamics of their decline, if we are to mitigate threats and develop solutions to future risks.

To date, understanding how historical changes in farming practices have affected bee populations has relied on archival observation data on historical abundance. Whilst providing some valuable insights, this approach suffers from unstandardized collections and limited understanding as to how populations have responded. It has therefore been difficult to estimate the extent to which past changes in bumblebee populations are linked to ecological change. This latter point is important, as some bee species appear to have coped better with agricultural changes than others, and so we need to move on from presence-absence data to understanding the dynamics of population change.


To be eligible for a full award a student must have:

  • British Citizenship or; 
  • Settled status in the UK, meaning they have no restrictions on how long they can stay,
  • Been ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK for 3 years prior to the start of the studentship - (For non-EU citizens, this must NOT have been in full time education.)
    This means they must have been normally residing in the UK (apart from temporary or occasional absences).  This does not apply to UK nationals. 

For more information, download this PDF.

How to apply

Applications for the PhD are processed through the Natural History Museum.

To apply please send the following documents to the Postgraduate Office at 

  • Curriculum vitae.
  • Covering letter outlining your interest in the PhD position, relevant skills training, experience and qualifications for the research, and a statement of how this PhD project fits your career development plans.
  • Names of two academic referees.

The deadline for applications is 8 January 2019.

Any questions?

If you have any questions about the project please contact

Main supervisor: Prof Ian Barnes

Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) doctoral training partnership

This is a joint project between The Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) Doctoral Training Partnership at Imperial College London and The Natural History Museum.

Funded by 

Submit your application