Skip to main content Skip to navigation

WSU’s On Solid Ground- Elwha Bugs, Quinoa Harvest, Growing Groceries

Posted by | January 16, 2014

The insects of Elwha Valley reveal a changing ecosystem

Even before the largest dam removal in U.S. history confirmed that Pacific salmon would return to Washington State’s Elwha River for the first time in nearly a century, some scientists were also thinking about how the changing ecosystem would impact what they consider the most important foundational group of Elwha Valley dwellers: insects.

Last spring, WSU entomology professor Richard Zack was entrusted with what is likely millions of specimens collected prior to the removal of the 100-year-old dam in Olympic National Park. He is leading a project to create a database of the insects to provide insight into how the Elwha Valley ecosystem will change in the next several decades. The ability to document changes in insects will play a key role in learning about how the new ecosystem develops.

Laura Hamada, a WSU biology student, prepares to pin a beetle collected from the Elwha Valley. Photo by Rachel Webber.
Laura Hamada, a WSU biology student, prepares to pin a beetle collected from the Elwha Valley. Photo by Rachel Webber.

“The Elwha is a fabulous research opportunity because it is a rare before and after study,” Zack said. “Understanding what is expected to be a 30 to 40 year trajectory of recovery will require comparing the pre-removal ecosystem with species changes and their abundances as recovery proceeds.”

Bioblitz for bugs

The insect collection was part of a long-term, large-scale project conducted by researchers from the University of Washington and the National Park Service, explains Jerry Freilich, research coordinator for Olympic National Park and partner on the project. The ATBI, or all taxa biotic inventory, aimed to collect aquatic and riparian invertebrates and non-vascular plants in the Elwha drainage.

“When the removal of the dams began we knew everything was going to start changing,” Freilich said. Park Service biologists were already looking at larger plants and animals in the Elwha Valley “but a study was needed to find and identify the smaller, often overlooked organisms that make up the ecosystems foundation.” This is one of the first studies that will not only look at the more “charismatic meagafauna,” Freilich said, but “also the microfauna.” After the collections were made, Freilich connected with Zack to begin classifying the insects.

“If you want entomology experts in the Pacific Northwest, WSU is where you go,” he said.

Training future scientists

But where do you start when you have hundreds of thousands of bugs to organize? With the beetles, said WSU biology student Laura Hamada, who plans to pursue insect taxonomy. Hamada and fellow student Noah Austin, a WSU student double majoring in physics and music, work in a lab in the entomology department where they are beginning to sort, prepare and identify the aquatic bugs, caddisflies, mayflies, stoneflies, true flies, and beetles.

Click play to learn more about the project from Dr. Richard Zack. Video by Matt Haugen, WSU News.
Click play to learn more about the project from Dr. Richard Zack. Video by Matt Haugen, WSU News.

Eventually, most of these specimens will be sent to specialists for more specific identification.

“Noah is a pinning machine,” Hamada says as they work in the lab. While still in the beginning stages of sorting the insects by order or family, they have each pinned hundreds of insects. The project serves as a training opportunity for young scientists and a resource for observing the changing biodiversity of the Elwha region. The collection will also be the first to provide information on the biodiversity of Olympic National Park, one of the most geographically interesting regions of the United States, said Zack.

Preparing to look back

The dams, built in the 1900s, created still reservoirs of water that changed the Pacific Northwest system dramatically. Now that the water is again free-flowing, river and stream-dwelling insects are also expected to return to the valley, Zack said. This spring at Elwha, Zack will meet with entomologists, biologists, researchers and other partners on the project, including those classifying butterflies and spiders, to discuss how they can best use the collections to understand the impacts that removing dams have on ecosystems. The insects collected for the project will join the 3 million specimens already housed at the M.T. James Entomological Collection at WSU. The project is funded by a two-year $30,000 grant from the Katz Memorial Foundation and coordinated by the WSU Agricultural Research Center.

Learn about other WSU entomology projects at http://www.entomology.wsu.edu.

-Rachel Webber

Growing quinoa in the Pacific Northwest

Quinoa's reddish coat under the microscope: The red outer layer of the seed flakes off when rubbed. Photo by Adam Peterson.
Quinoa’s reddish coat under the microscope: The red outer layer of the seed flakes off when rubbed. Photo by Adam Peterson.

Growing quinoa where few have grown before, Hannah Walters and Adam Peterson are learning important lessons about what the protein-packed seed crop requires to fare in the Pacific Northwest: starting small in unfamiliar territory, choosing the right varieties, irrigation based on microclimate, and heat tolerance. At a test plot in northern Idaho, they even discovered how much deer like to eat the purple kind. “This year’s harvest was a little stressful,” said Walters, a master’s student in crop and soil sciences working with assistant professor and WSU quinoa research leader Kevin Murphy. “It all ended up pretty perfect, but early rains threw us a curveball.”

As the International Year of Quinoa came to an end in December 2013, the two reflected on quinoa harvests at trial plots in eastern and western Washington. Two of the team’s quinoa plots on the Olympic Peninsula succumbed to early pre-harvest sprouting due to heavy rainfall. Peterson, a doctoral student in crop and soil sciences, observed that under the right conditions, increasing water can also lead to more colorful flowers.

Hannah Walters, WSU Master's student
Hannah Walters, WSU Master’s student

Quinoa grows in a rainbow of colors other than green, said Walters, from yellow and orange, to pink, red, and even purple. In eastern Washington, however, most of the plants Walter works with are simply green, and dry up quickly by the time they are ready for harvest.

Walters hand-harvested five successful quinoa variety lines (breeding material that is being improved by breeders before release to growers) at the WSU Organic Farm in Pullman that were developed by researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU). Her graduate research involves phenotyping the varieties; that is, documenting the physical traits exhibited by the plants. She explained that genetically similar plants may look very different when grown in different environments. For example, a drought-resistant plant might be short and compact in a low-rainfall area, but in a high-rainfall area, it could be twice as tall.

In addition to the penotyping project, Walters has also established irrigation trials at the WSU Organic Farm to see if different methods of irrigation influence the dryland crop’s yield potential. She found that irrigated plants had a better yield than those in unirrigated plots. While this year’s plants weren’t ideally dry by the time harvest rolled around, between rainy days she was able to use a combine to harvest the two plots and get the seeds ready for cleaning.

Soapy saponins

Part of Peterson’s research includes making crosses of different quinoa varieties to arrive at a clean, sweet, or saponin-free, seed. This would eliminate the need to wash or rinse the seeds before preparing, a step that ensures the soapy, bitter outer layer. Some quinoa growers are experimenting with different methods to find the best way to clean the seeds, including using a household washing machine.

A matching game

Adam Peterson, WSU doctoral student
Adam Peterson, WSU doctoral student

Peterson was a field trial manager at Evergreen State College in Olympia when he first worked with Kevin Murphy. In 2010, they obtained 44 quinoa varieties from the local USDA seed bank and grew them in both eastern and western Washington. Of the total, the WSU Organic Farm hosted 11 varieties that produced seeds.

Quinoa growing at a WSU trial plot. Photo by Adam Peterson.
Quinoa growing at a WSU trial plot. Photo by Adam Peterson.

“When Kevin took me on as a grad student in 2011, I started working with these 11 fertile varieties. We’ve added many varieties since then, currently working with about 35 or so. In total, we’ve probably grown out 60 – 70,” he said.

“It’s almost like a game of match your climate. Our original 44 varieties were from all over South America: Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina. The only ones that really grow here from seed are from southern and central Chile. That area has a similar latitude to ours.”

Peterson talks about microclimate — the difference in climate even within just a few square feet — as factoring into quinoa growth, too. At the Clark Farm near Palouse, Washington, Ian Clark is growing two acres of quinoa as part of WSU’s research on quinoa. While he is still working on cleaning the quinoa, he produced about 600 pounds this year.

“It was interesting to see large differences in plants at the Clark Farm due to water and heat stress,” Peterson said. “Plots further up on the hill where soil was deeper had much greater seed set than plots at the bottom of the hill, where soil was shallow. Temperature and the local growing environment appear to be crucial factors that affect quinoa’s success.” Next year Clark plans to grow quinoa in a lower spot on his farm where subsurface water is more accessible to the plants.

Making a mark

Peterson hopes to pinpoint the crucial moment at which heat begins affecting quinoa, as well as characterize the effects of drought on seed set and sprouting tolerance, to identify the best varieties for the Pacific Northwest. “It’s all in its infancy, but those are the major challenges,” Peterson said.

Walters will graduate in May, but the lines from BYU will continue to grow on the WSU Organic Farm for another year, providing the research team with further material to select for breeding.

“It’s really a unique opportunity to be on the frontlines of the whole breeding program for a crop,” Walters said. “Some of these lines look really promising for the Pacific Northwest.”

Learn more about crop and soil sciences at http://css.wsu.edu/

-Rachel Webber

School garden sprouts from Growing Groceries training

Linda Mauer (left) and Kitty Janowiak (right) in the Kinder Garden section of the Panther Giving Garden at Mt. Pilchuck Elementary. Photo courtesy of Linda Mauer.
Linda Mauer (left) and Kitty Janowiak (right) in the Kinder Garden section of the Panther Giving Garden at Mt. Pilchuck Elementary. Photo courtesy of Linda Mauer.

A 29-year veteran of the Lake Stevens School District, librarian Linda Mauer readily admits that, though a lifelong gardener, there were plenty of gaps in her knowledge — especially when it came to growing food.

Through a friend, she connected with the WSU Snohomish County Extension Growing Groceries mentor training. Within a year of completing the training, Mauer had expanded her backyard garden and helped a group of volunteers and students create the Panther Giving Garden at Mt. Pilchuck Elementary School where she works.

In addition to the fresh produce provided to the school’s free lunch program, the garden gives students and teachers a learning lab, which has been incorporated into curriculum in many classes. Mauer credits Growing Groceries for the stimulus needed to get started and the knowledge necessary to ensure the garden’s success.

“The program gave me a great deal of insight into what it takes to grow successfully in western Washington as well as how to deal with common gardening challenges and mistakes,” she said.

“I went through the training again last year and found I learned some things I hadn’t picked up the year before,” she said. “I’ll be helping with the mentor training again this year and expect I’ll learn a few more new tricks.”

Growing opportunity for 2014

The 2014 Growing Groceries course begins Feb. 1 in Everett, Wash., and concludes July 19 at a location to be announced. Long-time program supporter and chef Graham Kerr is a featured speaker. Other local and regional experts will share the latest research-based practices on topics including how to choose a site, building healthy soil, starting from seed, the importance of compost, irrigation, managing pests, vertical and small space gardening, food safety, and more.

Training will include five classroom sessions and four hands-on, in-the-garden sessions. Teachers can earn up to 37 Northwest Educational Service District clock hours.

The deadline to apply is Jan. 24. Applications and details about the training are available at http://growinggroceries.cahnrs.wsu.edu/mentor-training. For registration information, contact Karie Christensen at 425-357-6039 or christensen4@wsu.edu.

-Kate Halstead

View past issues of On Solid Ground in the archives here.

Connect with the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at http://facebook.com/cahnrs.