USDA Fellow to Study Pesticide Exposure in Key Pollinators

As part of an $11.6 million research initiative, Biological Sciences postdoctoral fellow Sarah Orr will leverage a new USDA Fellowship to study the impact of synthetic pesticides on bumblebees — a key pollinator for U.S. agricultural production.

September 7, 2023

Synthetic pesticides were first developed in the 1930s, but began to be widely used in agriculture in the 1950s and 1960s. Scientists have since discovered how toxic certain chemicals like DDT can be to ecologies and humans, but researchers still want to know more about their environmental impact on animal pollinators like bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, moths, beetles, and bats at the genetic level.

A School of Biological Sciences postdoctoral scholar will have a chance to help the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) fill in the blanks in that knowledge, thanks to a two-year fellowship from the agency’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).

Sarah Orr, who researches in Professor Michael Goodisman’s lab, receives the grant for her project proposal, “Effects of Pesticide Exposure on Developmental Genetics in Bumblebees.” The award is part of a new USDA/NIFA $11.6 million funding initiative for projects that promote healthy populations of animal pollinators in agricultural systems where reliance of crops on pollinators is increasing, but pollinator numbers are declining. 

“I am honored and ecstatic to have received this prestigious postdoctoral fellowship from USDA,” Orr says. “It’s rewarding to see how my research can have important implications in agriculture broadly in the U.S. Being able to bring in my own funding and serve as the project director on a grant as a postdoc has also been exciting. It’s a brief glimpse into what it will be like to hopefully be a faculty member myself in the future.”

Orr knows that pesticides play an important role in agricultural production and human food supply. Her scientific goal is to help find a balance between the risks and benefits of pesticide use. 

“My investigation into the genetic effects of pesticides is unique and somewhat novel,” she says. “Beyond traditional toxicological methods, my project will improve our understanding of how pesticides may affect the developmental genetics of bumblebees.”

Homing in on key pollinators

Bumblebees are social insects native to North America and important pollinators for food crops including tomatoes, blueberries, and eggplant. As with most social insects, bumblebees live in colonies made up of a single queen and hundreds of sterile workers. “This genetic structure provides a really interesting model to study integrated development,” Orr says.

Orr’s project will investigate how pesticides affect the integrated developmental processes of Bombus impatiens bumblebees by examining changes in gene expression. Orr’s research will attempt to determine if pesticides impact the ratio of males to females in bee colonies, and how pesticides affect morphological traits of both worker and queen bees. 

Orr says that new chemicals are approved before science can fully explore all of the potential environmental impact from their use. “For example, a lot of my research will focus on sulfoxaflor, a relatively new pesticide on the market,” she says, “and scientists are continuing to discover negative consequences of sulfoxaflor on native bee populations.”

USDA/NIFA New Contract/Grant/Agreement No. 2023-67012-39886, Proposal No. 2022-09642, Effects of Pesticide Exposure on Developmental Genetics in Bumblebees
Initial Award Year: 2023
Investigator: S.E. Orr


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Writer: Renay San Miguel
Communications Officer II/Science Writer
College of Sciences

Editor: Jess Hunt-Ralston