Saving Honey Bees
Honey bees face a lot of challenges, according to Steve Sheppard, professor of entomology at WSU. Invasive mites can sap a brood’s strength and vector viruses. Pesticides can build up in the brood comb and gradually weaken the bees. And while the agricultural practice of monoculture provides a lot of food, it offers little of the nutritional variety that bees need. Some of these threats may weaken or kill a hive on their own, but a combination of factors is thought to be the cause of colony collapse disorder, in which the worker bees abruptly disappear, and the entire local population is doomed.
Concerns over honey bee safety in the United States are not new. In 1922, shortly after tracheal mites were identified as the likely cause of bee kills on England’s Isle of Wight, the United States restricted the importation of live honey bees.
“The ban was fairly effective,” said Susan Cobey, a WSU research associate working with Sheppard. “It prevented tracheal mites from reaching our shores until 1984.” Just a few years later a more serious threat, the Varroa mite, with the suitably ominous scientific name Varroa destructor, entered the United States. “The Varroa mite feeds on the developing bees, or brood, and also introduces bacteria and viruses that damage the health of the hive,” Cobey said.
“Varroa mites will normally kill a colony within two years without intervention by a beekeeper,” Sheppard explained. Intervention often comes in the form of chemical miticides, which are tolerated by bees in the short term, but cause harm over the long term as chemical residues accumulate in hives.
Creating Smarter, Stronger Bees
Plant and animal breeders often seek to overcome challenges by finding resistant specimens to selectively breed, incorporating the resistance into the overall population. However, U.S. entomologists must also contend with a limited honey bee gene pool because of the import ban.
“Honey bees, Apis mellifera, have 28 recognized subspecies–in Europe, Africa, and Asia, the general vicinity of where honey bees are thought to have originated,” said Sheppard. Evaluation of this extensive genetic diversity (such as for genes that may help honey bees adapt to differences in the New World) by U.S. bee breeders was effectively halted by this country’s import restrictions.
In an effort to find and utilize the needed genes, the USDA granted WSU a permit in 2008 to import honey bee semen for breeding purposes, subject to strict screening for viruses. To meet the various goals of beekeepers in different climate zones across the United States, Sheppard and his colleagues identified three subspecies for import.
Commercial beekeepers in southern states often want bees that reproduce quickly to provide maximum pollination of early-blooming crops like almonds. WSU plant breeders have been collecting semen from Italian honey bees for this trait. Beekeepers in colder climates want bees that are more reluctant to reproduce at the first warm spell in spring, as a cold snap could kill the vulnerable brood.
To find appropriate genetic stock, Sheppard and colleagues have been collecting semen from Carniolan bees of the eastern Alps and Caucasian bees from the mountains of Georgia (formerly part of the Soviet Union). The semen is imported by special permit and tested for viruses. Queen bees inseminated with approved semen can then be released to queen bee producers.
The question of how to store honey bee genetic material for years, as is already the practice with other animals of agricultural importance, has been solved with the help of Sheppard’s graduate student Brandon Hopkins. While semen extraction and insemination of honey bees is known technology, preservation of the semen has always been a challenge. But Hopkins discovered that liquid nitrogen maintains the semen viability for decades, helping preserve imperiled subspecies in a honey bee genetic repository.
Sheppard and Cobey discuss the challenges facing honey bees and the efforts to expand the U.S. honey bee gene pool in a video at http://youtu.be/Lm2kibnKYnU.
Vegetable Grafting to Increase Nicaragua’s Crop Yields
Nicaraguan farmers may soon be able to double their produce yields thanks to a series of grafting workshops offered this spring by a WSU vegetable horticulture team. “If they are able to get rootstock, they now have the potential to overcome the primary production-limiting issues, which are disease and heat,” said Associate Professor Carol Miles, who, with Technical Assistant Patti Kreider, recently returned from a two-week trip focused on teaching vegetable grafting techniques to 88 Nicaraguan farmers at seven sites around that Central American country’s capital city.
The series of workshops held April 8-22 focused on women subsistence farmers, including many single mothers who rely on home-grown vegetables to feed their families. The mostly church-sponsored workshops were aimed at helping the women farmers improve production, increase nutrition, and create economic prosperity in their communities. “A conservative estimate would be that they now have the opportunity to increase their vegetable production by 50 percent,” Miles said, referring to the grafting techniques she and Kreider shared with the Nicaraguan farmers. “They’re very tech-savvy, even at the village level where they don’t have access to formal education.”
An Effective Pesticide Alternative
Grafting is the process of joining the scion of a market-desirable variety to the stem of a rootstock variety, which is in the same family as the scion but has disease resistance. Grafting is used to create a healthier, more vigorous, disease-resistant plant that is able to thrive under difficult growing conditions. According to Miles, grafting is more affordable, safe, and sustainable than using agricultural chemicals, especially in a country such as Nicaragua where chemicals are very expensive and often misused because of label misinterpretation.
“In our research program here at WSU Mount Vernon, we have developed simple grafting techniques for tomatoes that have 98 percent success rates and don’t require high technology,” said Miles. “So this information is easily transferable to a country like Nicaragua, where subsistence farmers are the primary agricultural producers.”
Collaborative Education Opportunities
Miles is optimistic about the potential for increasing Nicaraguan subsistence crop yields. She thinks that the culture of farming cooperatives there will likely result in the spread of grafting knowledge beyond those who participated in the workshops. “Cooperative groups are a real part of their social system,” she said. “They share knowledge and information and organize work parties. They are extremely hard working; everyone works from dawn until dusk. And they are very good farmers who readily receive and adopt new information.”
Miles said she was encouraged by the farmers’ generosity and warm welcome in light of the difficulties they face on a daily basis. “Just getting through life for some of these women is hard, but there was no anger or discontent,” she added. “They often have to carry in firewood and water, even in the towns. And although Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America, we found the people there to be wonderfully generous in spirit. Their reaction to our workshops was all positive. It was an amazing place to share our knowledge.”
The Florida International Volunteer Corps under its Nicaragua Professional Exchange Program sponsored the trip. The volunteer corps is funded through a Florida state appropriation to support missions to Central America and the Caribbean. Approximately 100 volunteer missions each year provide training and technical assistance to improve environmental, social, and economic conditions in the region.
For more about international research and agricultural development generated by WSU scientists, see http://ird.wsu.edu.
A Lyon of a Cereal
After more than 22 years of breeding wheat for WSU, Steve Lyon never expected to make a name for himself in the barley field. But this spring’s release of “Lyon,” a new variety of barley christened by one of his colleagues in Pullman, is making a significant impact in the larger world of small grains research.
“As a graduate student in Stephen Jones’ winter wheat program, I worked with Steve Lyon on a daily basis,” said WSU barley breeder Kevin Murphy, who developed, and hence claimed naming rights, to the new variety. “There is no way I would have survived the harsh rigors of grad school without Steve’s help. He was always very positive, always sure things would work out fine–and he was almost always right. This is the best way I can think of to honor and thank him.”
Lyon found out about his barley namesake from Murphy earlier this spring when Murphy was leading a graduate student agriculture tour of classes at the WSU Mount Vernon Northwestern Washington Research and Extension Center (NWREC). Lyon has been stationed there for the past three years.
“My first reaction was shock and disbelief,” Lyon said. “I am extremely honored, yet it is very humbling because I feel there are others much more deserving of such a rare distinction.”
Lyon barley, formerly known as 05WA-316.K, is notable for its higher yield potential than other varieties grown in eastern Washington, plump kernels, and resistance to stem rust, a disease caused by the fungus Puccinia graminis. The fungus attacks the above-ground parts of the plant, and if this occurs a few weeks before harvest, an apparently healthy crop can be reduced to a black tangle of broken stems and shriveled grains.
Although foundation seed can often take years for researchers to develop, Lyon will be available just one year after its official year of release. “Lyon is a (livestock) feed barley that is very high yielding across many dryland environments in Washington State,” explained Murphy. “It does especially well in areas that receive 16-24 inches of rainfall and are prone to stem rust. This variety is particularly well adapted to the Palouse region.”
The Man Behind the Grain
The same could be said of Lyon, a former wheat farmer who raised his family in Colfax, just north of Pullman, before heading west to the Skagit Valley. “I’ve worked with Steve since 1995,” noted Stephen Jones, director of the Mount Vernon NWREC and head of its plant breeding department. “He came into my program after time he spent with Ed Donaldson, a former WSU wheat breeder. Steve learned from one of the best–and when you add his farming experience, it made it possible for him to run a field program immediately.
“Steve was instrumental in developing highly successful wheat, such as Bruehl, the most widely grown club wheat in the United States,” Jones continued. “Lyon barley is the epitome of the variety-naming tradition: It is a great honor to have a variety named after you. Steve’s dedication to the grain growers in this state for nearly three decades is well worth this recognition.”
For more information about WSU’s plant breeding program, visit http://plantbreeding.wsu.edu.