Creating bio-inspired synthetic flowers to support standardised monitoring of pollinating insects PhD

Updated: 15 days ago
Location: Cranfield, ENGLAND

This project will support global efforts to investigate and monitor declining pollinator population by fabricating bio-inspired ‘synthetic’ flower attractants. The research will use cutting edge techniques in design including 3D printing, CAD and visualisation, in design and microfabrication to replicate flower shape, colours, smells and function. Based mainly at UKCEH, Wallingford, with periods at Cranfield University, this is an exciting opportunity for a fully-funded NERC - CENTA PhD 3.5 year studentship. CENTA is a consortium of Universities and research institutes that are working together to provide excellence in doctoral research training within the remit of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). Successful home-fees-eligible candidates will receive an annual stipend, set at £15,609 for 2021/22, paid directly to the student in monthly increments, full university fees and a research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000

This project will support global efforts to investigate and monitor declining pollinator population by fabricating bio-inspired ‘synthetic’ flower attractants. The project will use cutting edge techniques in design including 3D printing, CAD and visualisation, in design and microfabrication to replicate flower shape, colours (including UV), smells and function (i.e. providing micro-capillary sugar solution). ‘Synthetic’ flowers will be tested in controlled settings using captive insects, as well as being deployed and tested in real world settings as attractants for machine vision AI-assisted insect monitoring systems

Pollinators contribute to healthy and resilient ecosystems, being responsible for helping 90% of the world’s flowering plants reproduce (EPA, 2020). This is key in maintaining natural ecosystem services, in maintaining sufficient seeds and fruits for dispersal and propagation and in maintaining genetic diversity (USFC, 2020). Society is entirely dependent on ecosystem services, such as pollination, arising from the interactions between biodiversity and the physical and chemical environment. Modern agricultural systems are dependent on pollinators to ensure crop performance, whose outcome collectively contributes to national food security. Pollinating insect population decline has been linked to several drivers and challenges, including widespread use of pesticides (Woodcock et al, 2017) and changing climatic patterns (Settele et al, 2016). Given the importance of pollinators, improved knowledge is needed on their abundance and distribution worldwide. However, despite the UK supporting a world-leading scheme for systematic monitoring of insect pollinators (, led by Carvell and partners) and other countries developing similar approaches, this relies heavily on the limited capacity of both field surveyors and taxonomists, and there are significant trade-offs between sampling intensity, capacity and cost (Breeze et al, 2020). Automated monitoring tools are showing promise for tracking changes in pollinators by using recently developed tools in machine learning (Hoye et al, 2021), potentially opening the door to large scale monitoring, especially in areas that are remote or lack taxonomic expertise (easy RIDER, co-led by August). However, one of the remaining challenges for autonomous monitoring of pollinators is the creation of standardised attractants. Existing systems use either live flowers, which can be highly variable in space and time (Hoye et al, 2021), or they use coloured sheets, which are a poor attractant as compared to flowers (Diopsis, 2020).

This research project aims to develop and evaluate bioinspired insect attractants to enhance and standardise insect monitoring systems. This aim will be supported by the following provisional research objectives:

1. Identify the attributes of a flower important for attracting insects (olfactory, visual, chemical), the forms that are most effective (e.g. colour preference), and the relative importance of features for different species groups (e.g. bees vs flies). This will be conducted by a literature review.

2. Design and manufacture of bioinspired insect attractants that can be standardised. This will make use of microfabrication methods such as 3D printing, CAD and visualisation.

3. Deploy bioinspired attractants with autonomous AI monitoring systems in experimental and real-world conditions to quantify their ability to increase the number of insects drawn to the

camera, and to standardise protocols. This will include undertaking comparative testing in biodiverse regions of the world through collaboration with Operation Wallacea, including engagement with school groups (see LoS).

To address the project aim, a three-stage research project methodology is proposed. In the first instance a systematic review will be undertaken of prior work identifying how insects are attracted to the particular facets of flowering plants in the pollination process. The project will consider colour (visible and UV), shape, and function of component parts. The student will use advanced spectrometric and morphological scanning techniques to assess natural flower variation (figure 1b) and insect pollinator behaviours. Subsequent visualisation and modelling will be conducted and evaluated using virtual reality techniques.

A second stage will be to develop and construct ‘synthetic’ flowers and flower components using precision 3D printing technology and advanced micro-fabrication methods. Designs will be put forward for testing to establish pollinators’ preferences.

Finally, the designs will be tested in both natural and controlled conditions. Automated AI-based classification systems will be used to assess the outcomes of each experiment (Figure 1a), utilising machine-vision techniques to identify and track visiting insects. The project will draw conclusions and recommendations, considering the implications for biodiversity, agricultural production, and citizen science.

The project will be led by CENTA partner UKCEH in conjunction with Cranfield University. UKCEH is a leading provider of excellent environmental science that is relevant to society's needs. The proposed work is directly linked to the UKCEH ‘Biodiversity’ science challenge and is further relevant to a) ‘ASSIST’ national capability programme achieving sustainable agricultural systems, b) ‘PMRP’ the Pollinator Monitoring and Research Partnership (PMRP), and c) ‘Easy-Rider’ which brings together experts across European and North American to develop automated sensors using computer vision and deep learning to monitor insects.

The project is proposed in partnership with Operation Wallacea (Opwall) which facilitates research around the world at its field sites. Opwall has extensive experience of running projects in expedition settings and of engaging students in research and will support and enable the student in testing their ‘synthetic’ flowers in a tropical setting, and to engage school groups in their research.

The project has also gained the support of Natural England who will engage with the research as it progresses, attending meetings with the research team and providing focussed advice and guidance.

The following potential timeline is proposed:

Year 1: Conduct of a systematic review of pollination research, identification of selected pollinator insect and plant species for the research and development of a theoretical model and ethical framework development as required. Springtime work will include planting of selected flowering plant species in glasshouses and natural beds to ensure a supply of suitable flowers for analysis. Summer work will involve spectrometric and morphological scanning of natural flower specimens and subsequent analysis in Cranfield’s ‘Virtual Reality’ facility. The year will conclude with an investigation of the capabilities and potential of micro-fabrication techniques, and development of plans as to which characteristics of flowers and flower components to replicate as well as the experimental design approaches needed. Training in all required techniques will be provided.

Year 2: The early part of the year will involve fabrication of the flower parts using specialised 3D printing and micro-fabrication techniques, and development of the monitoring and classification techniques. As Summer progresses, the planned experiments will be conducted, and data gathered and analysed.

Year 3: Further analysis and presentation of results. As Summer progresses a series of further ‘live’ experiments may be conducted and monitored under natural conditions, this may include an expedition to test the designs in tropical settings and to engage with school groups. The latter part of the year will involve writing up the thesis, which it is intended will be presented in ‘manuscript’ form, with suitable conferences and workshops being attended by the researcher.


Sponsored by NERC through CENTA DTP, UKCEH and Cranfield University. The project has CASE support through Operation Wallacea.

The project is open to all applicants who meet the academic requirements (at least a 2:1 at UK BSc level or at least a pass at UK MSc level or equivalent). Please note the grant covers fee costs for a Home award. Unless you are eligible for such a Home award, you will need to consider how you will be able to meet any shortfall in funding for tuition fees, e.g. self-funded. Please contact the supervisors listed on the project for more information.

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