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UW Researcher Part of EPSCoR Grant to Study How Bees Overcome Harsh Winter Conditions

September 11, 2018
bee on a flower
A queen bumblebee collects pollen and nectar early in spring in the Snowy Range. Michael Dillon, a UW associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology, is a member of the Insect Cryobiology and Ecophysiology Network that recently received a $5.86 million grant. The group will study how bees overcome harsh winter conditions to successfully emerge and reproduce in the spring. (Michael Dillon Photo)

A University of Wyoming faculty member is part of a research team that will study how bees overcome harsh winter conditions to successfully emerge and reproduce in the spring.

Michael Dillon, a UW associate professor in the Department of Zoology and Physiology, is a member of the Insect Cryobiology and Ecophysiology (ICE) Network that recently received a $5.68 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grant. Of that total, UW receives a little more than $2.37 million.

The project is titled “Insect Cryobiology and Ecophysiology (ICE) Network: Integrating Genomics, Physiology and Modeling.”

North American bees spend most of their lives overwintering in a physiological state that protects them from damage caused by low temperatures and conserves resources necessary for reproduction during the growing season. Regulation of this overwintering state determines key elements of bee life cycles, including when these critical pollinators are available in natural and agricultural ecosystems.

“Bees and other animals and plants that live in temperate climates, like Wyoming, spend as much as three-quarters of their lives overwintering. But, except in rare cases, we often ignore winter when we study them,” Dillon says. “Beyond simply having to survive through winter, the condition bees are in when spring finally comes will strongly affect whether they are successful in the growing season (spring and fall). So, though often overlooked, what happens to bees in winter is likely profoundly important.”

The ICE Network brings together experts in genomics, gene regulation, physiology and ecological modeling to predict how each of three species will respond to changes in temperature.

Julia Bowsher, an associate professor of evolutionary and developmental biology at North Dakota State University (NDSU), heads the research team made up of individuals from three states. Other members include Joseph Rinehart, a research biologist with the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA); Kendra Greenlee, an associate professor in insect physiology and immunology at NDSU; and Brook Milligan, a professor of biology at New Mexico State University. These faculty members will collaborate with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, setting the stage for improved management of three agriculturally relevant bee species, and more accurate forecasting of wild and agricultural bee populations.

“I have studied physiology of insects -- in particular, bees -- for many years. Colleagues at NDSU, the lead institution, brought me on board, as we have complementary expertise,” Dillon says. “So, we are ideally poised to tackle the ‘genome to phenome’ approach necessary for this grant. The planned work spans from the level of molecules and genes to whole animal function, to modeling at continental scales the predicted effects of changing winter temperatures on bees.”

Dillon says he will serve as the lead on much of the bumblebee studies. Because a primary focus of the work is understanding how bees prepare for and respond to winter conditions -- in particular, low temperatures -- he says the group will measure temperatures of their overwinter habitats, metabolic rates and energy usage at low temperatures; and potential stress of temperature variation during winter.

“In collaboration with Franco Basile (a UW professor in the Department of Chemistry) and Dan Rule (a UW professor in the Department of Animal Science), we also will measure how their fat stores change over time and how this may influence survival through winter and success in spring,” Dillon says. “We will be working at sites across the U.S. and at the three institutions.”

This four-year research effort also will support the development of early-career faculty members and involve students from diverse backgrounds in the research efforts, including students from tribal colleges.

“As one of only eight national NSF EPSCoR Track II awards given in this grant round, it speaks to the high-quality research being done at these institutions,” says Kelly Rusch, executive director of North Dakota EPSCoR. “The critical research on these agricultural-essential pollinators will provide insights that help support North Dakota’s primary industry.”


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