Project Highlights:

  • Field-based assessments of changing patterns of insect biodiversity, spatial distributions and phenology within woodland habitats under unique climate change simulation (BIFoR FACE experiment: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/bifor/face/index.aspx ).
  • Lab and field based investigations of physiological (and biochemical) processes underpinning different species responses to (and interactions under) climate change, e.g. plant-herbivore or plant-pollinator interactions.
  • Interdisciplinary research environment and access to diverse stakeholders in industry, policy and government to integrate these outputs in order to develop mitigation strategies for insect conservation and/or pest control.



Forest/woodland systems are major source of biodiversity globally and also play a crucial role in carbon capture/mitigating against rising CO2 levels. Thus, sustaining healthy woodland systems is very important, and insects are critical to this endeavour. Insects overwhelmingly dominate forest biodiversity from canopy to soil, and the fate of insects and plants within a woodland system are inextricably linked. Insects play a direct role in shaping community structure, plant reproduction through pollination, as well as linking above- and below-ground processes via their roles in nutrient dynamics (Frost and Hunter 2004). Herbivorous species can hugely impact upon carbon budgets, and are able to switch small carbon sinks to large net carbon sources (Kurz et al. 2008). As poikilotherms their life history is largely dictated by temperature variability (Bale and Hayward, 2010), which combined with their short life cycles and complex behavioural repertoires, mean that insects can provide the earliest and most detailed indicators of climate change impacts on forest systems. Many insect species will also quickly respond to elevated CO2 (eCO2) as a result of altered leaf chemistry and the physical properties of plants (Gherlenda et al. 2015). Our understanding of these plant insect interactions within complex woodland systems remains in its infancy, and this project will take advantage of the state-of-the-art Birmingham Institute of Forestry Research (BiFoR) Free Air Carbon dioxide Enrichment (FACE) facility (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/bifor/index.aspx) to investigate these relationships.


The three core objectives are to determine how:

  1. eCO2 alters insect diversity, abundance and phenology  
  2. Influences plant-herbivore interactions
  3. Impacts on key pollinator species

Objective 1 represents a very broad assessment of insect community change using well established field sampling methods that have already been running at the site for the past 3 years. Objective 2 will document herbivory in key species such as leaf miners and aphids, as well as lab-based assessments of how eCO2 might influence this interaction, e.g. changes in plant biochemistry and/or production of volatiles. Objective 3 will also investigate plant-insect interaction dynamics, as well as if pollinator phenology patterns are losing synchrony with woodland plant flowering.

 [A1]Detailed collections across the site as close as possible to switch on, even if sorting of samples occurs much later, is fundamental to aspirations for system-wide understanding. For all the reasons set out above we can’t examine woodland system in any meaningful way without data on insects to link with any recycling, soil processes, carbon budget etc.


Figure 1: Bumblebee, Bombus pascuorum, on bluebell


Both the Hayward and Sadler labs are highly experienced in field sampling of insects, with combined expertise in insect physiology and ecology. The project will employ range of time series trapping techniques (pit fall, malaise, pan traps, canopy sampling etc).   The BIFoR FACE site provides access to extensive environmental monitoring equipment at soil, field and canopy levels (temperature, soil moisture, %RH, light intensity etc.) allowing comprehensive training in microclimate monitoring and data analyses to be linked with e.g. insect spatial distribution and phenology patterns. There is also an opportunity to employ techniques to characterise changing plant chemistry and volatile production as part of examining plant-insect interactions with co-supervisor Christian Pfrang.

Training and Skills

The DR will receive specialist training in the use of state-of-the art facilities at the vanguard of environmental research within the Biosystems and Environmental Change (BEC) theme. They will also have access to the full range of facilities within the BIFoR FACE project. There is huge scope for stakeholder impact and public engagement, and partners linked to the BIFoR project provide a wealth of knowledge on forest research globally (e.g. EucFACE and Amazon FACE). The PhD student will experience first-hand the practicalities of translating field and lab-based research into functional outputs within a setting of environmental policy and management.


Year 1: Continue long-term insect field sampling at FACE site and environmental monitoring. Synthesis of historic data to interrogate changes in biodiversity, abundance and phenology. Develop lab-based investigations of plant-insect interactions.

First UK Conference end of Yr 1

Preparation of manuscripts for publication.

Year 2: Second season of field work. Lab-based environmental manipulation of insect model systems guided by field data – e.g. winter survival under different climate scenarios, changes in herbivory driven by alteration of plant chemistry.

Organise public understanding of science event based around project.

Ongoing submission of manuscripts.

Year 3: Continued fieldwork. Analysis of insect spatial and temporal distributions integrated with climate data. Combine outputs from physiology and field experiments to model future plant-insect interaction scenarios. Biochemical analyses of plant volatiles/signalling under eCO2 and impacts on key insect species.

International conference and ongoing submission of manuscripts.

Further impact activities and stakeholder engagement.

Partners and collaboration (including CASE)

This project builds on an existing collaboration between Hayward (Biosciences) and Sadler (GEES), but brings in a new collaboration with Pfrang (GEES). This integrates expertise in insect physiological responses to climate variability with landscape ecology and plant-insect interactions through volatile production. The proposed work directly addresses a fundamental aim of BIFoR: to enhance our understanding of how environmental change will impact on woodland systems. The DR will have every opportunity to engage with the extensive rolling programme of stakeholder engagement activities in both the Hayward lab and BIFoR.

Further Details

Any further questions about the project, please contact:

Dr Scott Hayward

School of Biosciences

University of Birmingham

e-mail: s.a.hayward@bham.ac.uk