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WSU’s On Solid Ground- Monarchs, Lentils, AutoAg

Posted by l.meyer | September 25, 2013

Monarchs Take Flight

When a young girl named Rosie found a Monarch butterfly resting on the garage door of her house in Bolinas, California, last year, she noticed it had a small, white tag on its wing with a WSU e-mail address and identification number.

She sent a message to WSU entomologist David James, and he recorded that in six weeks the butterfly had made a 600-mile journey from its release in Yakima, Washington, to the coastal town north of San Francisco. The Monarch was one of 12 recaptures from a rearing and tagging research project conducted by a small group of inmates—nicknamed the “Butterfly Wranglers”—at Washington State Penitentiary in collaboration with WSU.

A Monarch butterfly tagged with a Washington State University sticker. Photo by David James.
A Monarch butterfly tagged with a Washington State University sticker. Photo by David James.

After a successful first year of the butterfly rearing program at the prison, hundreds of Monarch butterflies will be released in September as part of a WSU study answering the question: Where do Monarchs in the Pacific Northwest go? The results will be applied to address a growing concern about decreasing populations.

Snowbirding Butterflies

Earlier this year the iconic butterfly made headlines when their numbers in Mexico hit a record low. The new data was based on decades of documentation on Monarchs spending their summers in the eastern United States and traveling south to Mexico for the winter. There is less research on Monarchs that head south from the Pacific Northwest, but several studies shows this smaller population also seeks milder climates once temperatures and day length start to drop. Prior to James’ study, there had only been one or two Pacific Northwest monarchs tagged and recaptured. And they also landed in California.

James believes Monarchs from the western United States may be in alignment with their eastern counterparts in choosing Mexico as their destination. One Monarch from last year’s release was spotted in Utah—so, while off course if trying to reach California, James said it was “tantalizing evidence” that it may have been on its way to Mexico.

Building Value

It will take several years to raise and release the thousands of butterflies needed to gather enough data to make any firm conclusions, said James, but utilizing the Butterfly Wranglers’ time and skill has greatly contributed to the amount of this research.

James also pointed out that the inmates benefit from the project too. “The interest and the motivation from rearing the butterflies help them become invested in bettering themselves and contributing to scientific research,” he said.

Program Expanding to Wine Industry

It’s been such a successful program, he said, that they are introducing a new project with benefits to the Washington wine industry. Now, the Butterfly Wranglers are counting mites and insects on grape leaf samples and will be rearing smaller, more delicate native butterflies as part of a project to integrate native plants and pollinators into vineyards.

While most of the Monarch butterflies will be released outside of the penitentiary this month, the Wranglers tagged and released a few hundred of the butterflies from inside the penitentiary during the third week of September. As the butterflies head into the wild this month, only time, and a sharp eye from citizen scientists, will tell where they’ll land next.

Report sightings to, and visit the Monarch Butterflies in the Pacific Northwest Facebook page for updates: For more about the Department of Entomology visit

-Rachel Webber

No Lentils Left Behind

It’s harvest season and the Palouse is a patchwork of amber and bronze. Quick, before it’s gone–look closely and you’ll see an understated wonder of our landscape: lentils.

The Palouse pumps out more than a million pounds of them annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And though the so-called “Lentil Capital of the World” celebrates this tiny, lens-shaped legume each August with a national festival, far more people consume it overseas than here in the United States. In fact, 75 percent of the crop grown in this region is exported to lentil-loving places such as Spain, India, Italy, and Mexico.

lentils-mcgee-400USDA plant geneticist Rebecca McGee blows the thin coating away from just-picked lentil seeds. Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU.

“Lentils have an identity problem that they don’t deserve,” said USDA plant geneticist Rebecca McGee, an adjunct professor at WSU Pullman who oversees the nation’s lentil breeding program for the federal Agricultural Research Service.

“Unfortunately, a lot of Americans don’t realize how versatile they are,” she said, plucking pods off the spindly, honey-colored plants to get at the more recognizable seeds grown at WSU’s Spillman Agronomy Farm a couple miles from campus. In France, cooked lentils are integral to a variety of dishes. In India and parts of the Middle East, they are a cornerstone of cooking fare.

In the United States, they’re often associated with hippie food and winter soups.

“I think we’re getting beyond that,” said McGee. Thanks to marketing efforts of the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council in Moscow, Idaho, lentils are slowly earning a bigger place at the kitchen table, she said.

Cultivating Desire

Lentils are the seeds harvested from the plant's pods. Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU.
Lentils are the seeds harvested from the plant’s pods. Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU.

Lentils are the seeds harvested from the plant’s pods. Photo by Linda Weiford, WSU.
In her job as a plant breeder, McGee tinkers with the crop’s genes to make the seeds taste better, pack more nutrients, and produce higher yields to feed the hungry around the globe. She also works to make the plants less vulnerable to foes such as disease, cold temperatures, hungry insects, and certain herbicides.

Inspecting her plant rows at the Spillman farm, McGee split a pod with two finger tips, removed two seeds, and tossed them into her mouth. As one of the nation’s top lentil breeders, it’s clear that she savors the subject of her research. Moving from one variety of lentil plant to another, she bit into the seeds and chewed, sampling them the way a viticulturist might taste subtle differences between wine grapes…Read more.

Learn more about legumes and other vegetable research at:

-Linda Weiford

Sneak Peek at New Agricultural Automation Technologies

The public will have an opportunity to see what’s new in automated and precision farming technologies at the second annual Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems (CPAAS) Expo. The free event will take place Oct. 8, 2013, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser.

Automated fruit weighing system designed to improve labor management. Photo by Matt Whiting, WSU.
“At the top of our to-do list is making our research useful to growers and the industry. The Expo is a chance for growers, industry professionals, and members of the public to see what we do and explore possibilities,” said Qin Zhang, director of CPAAS.

Automated fruit weighing system designed to improve labor management. Photo by Matt Whiting, WSU.
Automated fruit weighing system designed to improve labor management. Photo by Matt Whiting, WSU.

The focus will be on technologies aimed at developing and improving harvesting technologies, labor management systems, input delivery systems, and worksite safety.

• a blossom thinning device
• shake and catch cherry harvesting
• 3D sensor technology
• over-the-row sensor platforms
• bin-dog technology
• a solid set canopy delivery system and more.

CPAAS serves as a venue for the incubation and development of new ideas for researchers, entrepreneurs, and others seeking to advance and commercialize automated and precision agriculture technologies.

For more information on CPAAS and the 2013 Expo, see

-Sylvia Kantor