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WSU’s Green Times- Saving Bees, Anaerobic Digestion, Fire-Resistant Plants

Posted by l.meyer | June 12, 2013

Saving Honey Bees

Using liquid nitrogen tanks to preserve semen from imperiled subspecies, WSU researchers plan to develop a sperm bank repository for honey bees.
Using liquid nitrogen tanks to preserve semen from imperiled subspecies, WSU researchers plan to develop a sperm bank repository for honey bees. Photo by Bob Hoffmann.

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, for bees, 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 by U.S. bee breeders of this extensive genetic diversity (such as for genes that may help honey bees adapt to differences on our continent) 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 U.S., Sheppard and his colleagues identified three subspecies for import.

Click to watch and learn more about challenges facing honey bees and WSU efforts to expand the gene pool.
Click to watch and learn more about challenges facing honey bees and WSU efforts to expand the gene pool.

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 during the first warm spell in spring, because a cold snap afterwards 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 for 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, allowing the preservation of 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.

-Bob Hoffmann

Vegetable Grafting to Increase Nicaragua’s Crop Yields

Members of Nicaraguan farmer cooperatives can improve crop yields as a result of grafting techniques taught by Carol Miles (row 2, third from left) and Patti Kreider (row 2, second from right). Photo courtesy of Carol Miles.
Members of Nicaraguan farmer cooperatives can improve crop yields as a result of grafting techniques taught by Carol Miles (row 2, third from left) and Patti Kreider (row 2, second from right). Photo courtesy of Carol Miles.

Nicaraguan farmers may soon be able to double their produce yields thanks to a series of grafting workshops offered there 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 (a live cutting) of a market-desirable variety to the stem of a rootstock variety that is in the same family as the scion but has disease resistance or another desirable trait. 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 both more affordable and sustainable, as well as safer, 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.

-Cathy McKenzie

Anaerobic Digestion: Beyond Waste Management

Click to watch the recently released video about how state-of-the-art anaerobic digestion systems can benefit the world. By Sylvia Kantor.
Click to watch the recently released video about how state-of-the-art anaerobic digestion systems can benefit the world. By Sylvia Kantor.

Organic waste, be it municipal or industrial solids and liquids or manure, has long been a source of air and water pollution as well as greenhouse gas emissions. Anaerobic digestion, a biological process of breaking down organic waste material, is no longer used only to reduce odors and produce electrical power. Anaerobic digestion centered within a system of complementary technologies offers much more. Working with commercial partners, researchers at Washington State University have transformed an environmental concern in agriculture into an environmental, economic, and social solution. WSU researchers have expanded the capacity of anaerobic digestion to address problems of nutrient management to produce transportation fuels, and much more.

A new 7.5 minute video shows how state-of-the-art anaerobic digestion systems can offer multiple benefits to society. The video is produced by the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources (CSANR) at Washington State University: http://youtu.be/Ei49Z4oeUtY.



Save the date! July 10, 2013 WSU CSANR will host an Anaerobic Digestion Systems Field Day near Lynden, WA for more information visit http://csanr.wsu.edu/pages/2013ADFieldDay.

-Sylvia Kantor

Imagining Tomorrow

Simply placing a water wheel in sewer pipes can generate energy, these students from Silverdale, Wash., demonstrated. Photo courtesy of WSU News.
Simply placing a water wheel in sewer pipes can generate energy, these students from Silverdale, Wash., demonstrated. Photo courtesy of WSU News.

The 2013 Imagine Tomorrow Competition recently brought more than 500 students to WSU from Idaho, Montana and Washington to find innovative ways to fuel the future. Students involved in the event teamed up to influence behaviors, rethink policy, reengineer technologies, and redesign communities, following the theme, “Redesign. Reform. Refuel.”

“All of you are doing such incredible things at such a young age,” said keynote speaker Robert Peters, Washington state president for Bank of America. “At a time when many kids are distracted by the prospect of getting their first car, you’re thinking of creating a carbon-neutral car.”

Teams were tasked with researching their ideas rigorously and presenting proposals to judges who hail from the top ranks of academia and industry. Students with interests in all subjects were invited to compete. First place winners in each of four challenge categories — behavior, biofuels, design and technology — raised the bar for presenting creative, thoroughly researched ideas to solve energy problems.

A team of students from Sentinel High School in Missoula, Mont., won the behavior challenge by designing a video game that influenced players to recycle—in real life. The top award in the biofuels challenge went to students from Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek, Wash., who discovered that combining biodegradable plastic with cow manure in an anaerobic digester yields significantly more biogas than when manure is digested alone.

Students from STEM School in Redmond, Wash., conquered the design challenge with an affordable way to retrofit existing homes with renewable energy technologies. A team from Union High School in Camas, Wash., developed an easy, affordable way to control and monitor home energy usage and nabbed the top award in the technology challenge.

“This year we saw a number of projects that demonstrated extraordinary creativity,” said M. Grant Norton, Imagine Tomorrow co-chair and dean of the WSU’s Honors College. “Some of the students had ideas so innovative and so well-researched that they could even begin steps toward commercialization.”

– Marilyn Reed

Fire-Resistant Plants for Home Landscapes (PNW 590)


Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 8.54.47 AMThis month it’s hard to imagine our lush green yards and landscapes being fuel for fire, but now is a great time to replace junipers and other “fire fuelish” plants, and create defensible spaces around our homes. Fire-Resistant Plants for Home Landscapes (PNW590) is a publication for Washington, Oregon, and Idaho that shows homeowners how to plan a fire-resistant landscape and select plants to reduce the risk of damage from wildfires. Available for $3 (plus shipping) from WSU Extension, this booklet depicts over 100 trees, shrubs, and ground cover plants in full-color photos with descriptions of their size, shape, growing requirements, and more. For more details, including ordering information, visit http://bit.ly/16HMLKA.

Chockfull of science-based answers, this short book was written by experts specifically for home landscapers in the Pacific Northwest. It’s just one of hundreds of helpful publications available from the WSU Extension Online Bookstore: https://pubs.wsu.edu/Default.aspx.