Nature and Biodiversity

How CO2 leads to changes in bumblebee reproduction

Bumblebee on yellow flower

A recent study reveals the effect of carbon dioxide on bumble bee physiology including reproduction. Image: Unsplash/at8eqeq3

Katie Bohn
Writer, Futurity
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Future of the Environment

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Beekeepers often use carbon dioxide to calm bee colonies, but little is known about other ways it may effect them.
  • A new study on bumblebee queens has found that CO2 can impact metabolism and reproduction.
  • It alters the way macronutrients are stored, which can then cause the reproduction process to begin earlier than normal.
  • Because carbon dioxide is so widely used commercially, it’s important to understand its mode of action, not just in bees but all insects.

A new study reveals clues about how carbon dioxide affects bumble bee physiology, including reproduction.

While a beekeeper puffing clouds of carbon dioxide into a hive to calm the insects is a familiar image to many, less is known about its other effects on bees.

The researchers set out to disentangle how carbon dioxide seems to bypass diapause, a phase similar to hibernation during which bees sleep over the winter, to trigger the reproductive process in bumblebee queens.

They found that carbon dioxide first induced a change in metabolism, which then triggered secondary effects on reproduction. The findings, published in Insect Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, are contrary to previous hypotheses.

“Previously, it was believed that CO2 directly affected reproduction, but this study is some of the first evidence showing this is likely not the case,” says Etya Amsalem, associate professor of entomology at Penn State.

“We found that CO2 changes the way macronutrients are stored and reallocated in the body. The fact that the reproductive process is then kickstarted is just an artifact of these processes.”

According to the researchers, carbon dioxide is commonly used by beekeepers and researchers to sedate bees and other insects. But in addition to inducing a calming effect, carbon dioxide also can trigger a range of other physiological responses.

For example, while bumble bee queens typically enter diapause through the winter months before starting a new colony in the spring, bee farmers and researchers may use carbon dioxide to trigger the queens’ reproductive process earlier than it would happen on its own.

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Amsalem says there were multiple reasons she and the other researchers wanted to conduct the study. First, because carbon dioxide is so widely used, she says it’s important to understand its mode of action in insects, and particularly in bumblebees where it is a useful tool for commercial apiaries to produce colonies for pollination year-round. But second was to better understand how using carbon dioxide also could influence the results of research.

“We know that carbon dioxide can have many effects, including on behavior,” Amsalem says. “So, if you’re doing a study on the effects of a specific manipulation on bee behavior and are also using CO2 as an anesthetic, what are you really studying—the effect of your manipulation or the effect of the CO2?”

For the study, the researchers performed two phases of experiments. In the first, the researchers wanted a better baseline understanding of the physiological effects of carbon dioxide on the bumblebee queens.

The researchers split the bees into two groups: one that remained untreated and another that was treated with carbon dioxide. The team then examined the bees at three time points: right after the treatment and then three and 10 days later. At each timepoint, the researchers examined the ovaries and measured macronutrient concentrations in several tissues, which gave clues about changes in metabolic function over time.

A bee taking pollen from a blue flower
The findings are important for understanding not just how carbon dioxide affects bumblebees, but all insects. Image: Unsplash/imvenkat

“The queens treated with CO2 exhibited higher levels of ovarian activation than untreated ones,” Amsalem says. “Treated queens also experienced a shift in macronutrient allocation, with fewer lipids in the organ known as the ‘fat body’ and greater glycogen [a stored form of glucose] and protein in their ovaries.”

With this baseline information, the researchers then wanted to tease apart how carbon dioxide affected both metabolism and reproduction. They used carbon dioxide to treat two additional groups of queens: one group that had their ovaries removed, and another that was treated with a juvenile hormone antagonist.

The researchers explain that this antagonist reduces the levels of juvenile hormone, which regulates reproduction and accelerates metabolism, in bumble bees. The scientists suspected that this hormone is important to the way carbon dioxide could affect insects’ physiology.

This time, they found that the bees that had their ovaries removed experienced a similar change in macronutrients to bees in the control group that still had their ovaries. The researchers say this suggested that carbon dioxide affects the metabolism first, since bees without their reproductive organs still experienced the same effect.

Additionally, bees treated with the juvenile hormone inhibitor didn’t exhibit these metabolic effects, which the researchers say confirms the role of this hormone in mediating the effects of carbon dioxide.

The findings are important for understanding not just how carbon dioxide affects bumblebees, but all insects, Amsalem says.

“CO2 has many different impacts on insects, so as scientists we’re trying to find an effect they all have in common so we can find the precise process or mechanism that is creating these effects,” she says.

“For example, it positively affects reproduction in bees but might inhibit it in other insects. It’s not consistent in the way it affects reproduction. But we think it is consistent in the way it affects metabolism.”

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