Our recent focus has been to study how rapidly changing environments induced by anthropogenic activities and practices pose threats to certain animal taxa or functional groups that play important roles in terrestrial ecosystems.
1. Impact of agricultural land-use change on insect pollinators
Social bees represent a crucial group of insect pollinators, and our work aims to better understand, as well as consider how to mitigate, how stress factors associated with agricultural intensification affect specific components of bee behaviours (including foraging performance) and measures of colony fitness. The ultimate goal is to understand how these stressors then place selective pressures in shaping populations. To do this we are starting to study: i) selective signatures in the genomes of bumblebees; ii) accompanied with gaining insights into the spatial patterns of risk to insect pollinators (primarily central place foraging bees) across landscapes; and iii) to look at the potential knock-on effects to functional traits and communities of bees, and the impacts this has on the free ecosystem services they provide.
The effect of pesticide exposure and variation in nutrition on bumblebees has been a primary focus. Using controlled manipulative experiments we study individual behaviour and how this is linked to changes at the physiological level. We further investigate how such impairment to individual function may collectively translate to impact(s) on health/success of the colony, and furthermore how we may gain insights into the effects at the population level. Learning from these results we can start to map how such potential risks are spatially distributed to better understand 'stress exposure landscapes' and thus provide valuable information for ecological applications, in addition to understanding how these selective pressures may be shaping bee populations.
2. the SCIE:NCE project (Soneva Conservation of Island Ecosystems : Nurturing Collaborative Endeavours)
Small island ecosystems are increasingly under threat, with isolated island systems considered to be in a state of delicate ecological balance and susceptible to anthropogenic activities and extreme climate change. Phase I of the SCIE:NCE project is to investigate the impact and damage caused by insect pests and their management. Controlling insect pest populations on many small islands has, to date, primarily involved the heavy, spatially non-targeted and prophylactic use of insecticides. The inadvertent effect this has on local wildlife is not fully understood and rarely monitored, but there is concern that pesticide residues filter through the terrestrial ecological network, as well as leaching or running-off into the surrounding marine environment. Our aim is therefore to better understand how pest populations can be controlled in a more targeted way that limits inadvertent perturbation to the ecological network, in order to ecologically and economically benefit all involved.
Our current work involves studying the population dynamics, spatial distribution and life-histories of mosquito and Lepidoptera pest species, and looking at the inadvertent effect of pesticide applications on biodiversity and functional processes in these ‘enclosed’ ecosystems.
3. Phenological responses to climate and environmental change
The effect of climate change on ecosystem processes is a key research priority, and understanding how species respond to this change is crucial if we are to predict and mitigate potential harmful effects. There is growing evidence to show that the phenology of many species are able to respond to changes in climate and the consequent alterations to the environment. However, it is less well known how species that are involved in intricate mutualistic relationships are affected, and how changes to one functional group are reflected in another. An international collaboration has just started to study the relationship between the communities of bees and flowering plants they visit along an historic transect spanning an altitudinal cline and located in a region that represents the boreal-arctic interface of northern Sweden.
4. Effects of land-use change on ant community dynamics
Understanding how anthropogenic disturbance influences patterns of species community composition is important if we are to mitigate threats to biodiversity. This requires not only understanding of which species are more susceptible to change, but also how alteration to composition has cascading effects on the interactive processes between species constituting the community. In collaboration with Prof Rob Ewers and supervising a recent Masters student, Ross Gray, I have become interested in how disturbance of lowland dipterocarp rainforest forest in Borneo alters the community composition of ants, and whether we detect alterations in the competitive interactions between ant groups.
5. Evolution of social strategies and the cooperation and conflict involved
The variety of social strategies adopted across the animal kingdom is fascinating. My previous work looked to understand what cooperative behaviours are required for successful group living (specifically cooperative breeding), to investigate the consequent conflicts involved and the resolving behavioural mechanisms that maintain group cohesion, and to understand what ecological and genetic factors determine variation in social organisation. This including looking at: i) polymorphic social organisation in a multiple queen ant; ii) conflict and its resolution over reproduction in eusocial insects with multiple queen colonies; iii) intra-specific tests of selfishness and enforced altruism in social insects
PI : Richard Gill
Dr Andres Arce (NERC funded Post-Doctoral Research Assistant)
Behavioural and molecular responses to pesticide exposure in social bees
Past population demography of bumblebees
text to come
Dr Jacob Johansson (visiting researcher at Imperial College and research fellow at Lund University, supported by an International Career Grant from the Swedish Research Council and Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions Cofund.
Working with the Gill group I am studying how seasonal resource peaks influence population dynamics, competition and phenological adaptation among pollinators. We also consider the effects of episodes of increased mortality, for example due to pesticide exposure, drought or outbreaks of disease. By studying these temporal aspects of the pollinator environment we hope to provide new perspectives on how climate change and pesticide use influence diversity of pollinators and the ecosystem services they provide. As a theoretical ecologist, my main tool for research is mathematical modelling, especially life-history optimisation, population dynamic modelling and adaptive dynamics.
Dr Kirsty Yule (Grantham Institute funded Post Doctoral Research Assistant)
Image and text to come
Dylan Smith (NERC/Grantham funded PhD student)
I am interested in how environmental factors place stress on insect pollinator behaviour. For my PhD I am investigating how pesticide exposure impacts on individual learning using behavioural assays and linking this with changes at the physiological level. My primary aim is to understand how exposure affects the morphology of key brain structures of the bumblebee Bombus terrestris at key developmental and life stages. Accompanying these studies, I am further looking to elucidate whether such exposure affects learning performances and ultimately link any impairment with structural changes found in the brain.
Ana Ramos Rodrigues (BBSRC funded PhD student)
Bee colony development in varying rural landscapes
Daniel Kenna (NERC funded PhD student)
To start in October 2017 - image and text to come
NERC standard grant on bees response to a century of land use change. £381,457 FEC awarded to Richard Gill (in collaboration with Prof Ian Barnes, NHM London, with total grant ~£790,000 FEC) (2017-2020)
British Ecological Society large grant (£17,000) awarded to Andres Arce in collaboration with the Gill lab
Grantham Pump Priming grant (£25,000) - sustainable solutions for controlling pest species in small island ecosystems - hired Dr Kirsty Yule
NERC standard (new investigator) grant on Behavioural and molecular responses to pesticide exposure in bumblebees. £503,980 FEC awarded to Richard Gill (in collaboration with Dr Yannick Wurm, QMUL, with total grant ~£1.1million FEC) (2014-2018)
Royal Society Research Grant (£14,051): Pesticide impairment to bee foraging behaviour (2014).
Yannick Wurm (QMUL), Thomas (Joe) Colgan (QMUL), Richard Bomphrey (RVC), Farah Ahmed (NHM), Samraat Pawar (Imperial College), Elli Leadbeater (RHUL), Isabel de Rosa (Imperial College), Nigel Raine (Guelph University).
Research in collaboration with Dr Nigel Raine, Royal Holloway, University of London: The Buzz about pesticides - by Nature Video.
Masters & PhD opportunities
Funding: I welcome anyone that is interested in joining my research group that has, or knows of, a source of funding to contact me and discuss their research ideas/interests.
Another summary of my research interests: The research carried out in my group addresses questions in both ecology and evolution, involving experimental biology, behavioural observations and molecular analyses. To investigate and test my research questions my model system has been the social insects (primarily ants & bees), although I would also be interested in expanding this to other important insect, bird and mammal groups. Currently my research interests follow two primary avenues: 1) the effect of environmental stressors (such as pesticides) on the behaviour, survival and population dynamics of bees, and the consequent effects on community networks and ecosystems services (such as pollination). Bees play a crucial role in pollinating crops and wild flowers and so are key players in maintaining food security and biodiversity. 2) The evolution of social behaviour and colony organisation in ants, and their dominance in the environment. Ants are arguably the pinnacle of animal cooperation and have been resolving conflicts for millennia, as well as providing vital ecosystem functions (i.e. soil turnover).
Imperial College is a world leading university, the Times Higher Education World University Ranking 2013-2014 placed the Department of Life Sciences as 3rd best in Europe and 10th best in the World. My group is based at the Silwood Park campus which currently has a growing and internationally renowned community of researchers. The Grand Challenges in Ecosystems and the Environment (GCEE) initiative (which I am part of) has invested significantly into ensuring a world leading group of scientists addressing important global issues.