A hive of bee research activity

28 September 2017
PhD student Ryan Leonard talks insects and how cities affect them

Ryan is passionate about his research into honey bees and the ecological impacts of air pollution.

Image of Ryan Leonard

He’s currently undertaking a PhD in the Integrative Ecology Lab in the University of Sydney School of Life and Environmental Sciences, under the supervision of Associate Professor Dieter Hochuli, Associate Professor Clare McArthur and Dr Tanya Latty.

“My PhD looks at the effect of air pollution on honey bee cognition” said Ryan. “Cognition involves the analysis, integration and interpretation of information, and is relevant to many aspects of bee behaviour including pollination and honey production."

“Like humans, honey bees process information using a range of senses. A bee’s sense of smell is particularly important. Bees use their sense of smell to recognise nest mates, warn others against intruders and most importantly, locate a key food resource - flowers. The process of locating flowers involves a bee first learning and remembering the flowers unique smell. My research aims to understand how air pollution affects this process.”

How do you research something like this?

“I train bees to learn a diversity of polluted and unpolluted flower smells using Pavlovian conditioning protocols. These protocols involve associating flower smells with sugar rewards. Bees tell me if they have learnt and remember these flower smells by sticking out their tongue.

Air pollution is, and will continue to be a significant threat to wildlife. This makes the research I do incredibly important. Understanding the impact air pollutants have on honey bee cognition is an important step towards understanding how bees will respond under future scenarios of increased ambient air pollution. Honey bees also provide a vital ecosystem service in the form of pollination. Pollination is a key step in plant reproduction and the maintenance of genetic diversity within plant populations, and is essential for a large proportion of the crop plants we consume. Understanding how air pollution affects honey bees can also help us understand how air pollutants affect plants and agricultural production.”

Working in the Integrative Ecology Lab, alongside Associate Professor Dieter Hochuli has been an amazing opportunity. Dieter combines fundamental ecological research with a mechanistic focus to answer big picture and applied ecological questions. His mentorship has given me the confidence and skills to continue tackling important real world ecological problems after completing my PhD.”

Find out more about the ways nature adapts to the pressures of city life at the Sydney Science Forum event, Life in the city: Why nature persist in urban environments

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