Skip to main content Skip to navigation

WSU’s On Solid Ground-Warm Fuzzy, Guava, Cider

Posted by l.meyer | November 20, 2013

On Solid Ground is a bi-weekly, electronic newsletter for the friends and stakeholders of the Washington State University College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences (CAHNRS), WSU Extension and the Agricultural Research Center. Subscribe here

Friendship Between Researcher, Teenager Benefits Honeybees

At just 16 years old, Sheridan Miller is already a veteran fundraiser. The Mill Valley, California, teenager recently donated $1,400 she raised to help support Washington State University’s honey bee stock improvement program. Over the past six years, Miller has raised more than $5,000 to help fund research aimed at combating colony collapse disorder (CCD) and saving the honey bee.

A Bee Ally is Born

Sheridan Miller, a California high school student with WSU bee researcher Sue Cobey. Photo courtesy of Sheridan Miller.
Sheridan Miller, a California high school student with WSU bee researcher Sue Cobey. Photo courtesy of Sheridan Miller.

Miller first became interested in honey bees when she was 10. She heard her mom talking about how bees were disappearing and became concerned.

“I remember being incredibly worried, because she said most ice cream flavors would be gone along with their disappearance,” said Miller, referring to the vital role bees play in agriculture through the pollination of about 100 crops, including strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cherries, pears, apples, cranberries, and almonds.

About the same time, Miller had a school assignment to create a presentation on the topic of her choice. She chose to research honey bees and CCD. What she learned from the project was far more disturbing than the disappearance of ice cream flavors, she said.

“I read Albert Einstein’s foreboding quote about how if bees were to disappear, mankind would have but four years to live,” Miller said. “Although I learned that this may not necessarily be true, I was still intrigued and concerned.”

Energized by this new knowledge, Miller decided to help. She held her first fundraiser at age 10 and has made donations to bee research every year since. This year she organized and hosted a lecture for local honey bee enthusiasts and concerned citizens. The featured speaker was Sue Cobey, a WSU bee breeder-geneticist who Miller supported previously at the University of California, Davis.

“Sue was kind enough to come to Mill Valley to talk about her work with honey bees,” said Miller. “She really did an amazing job and continues to do amazing work each and every day.”

Miller’s parents are proud of their daughter’s commitment to this cause and her fundraising skills. Her father, Craig, describes Miller’s accomplishments as “remarkable.” For this year’s fundraiser, she rented a clubhouse from the city of Mill Valley, got the facility administrators to waive their insurance and down payment requirements, secured sponsors to pay for food and beverages, and publicized the event. She also enlisted Cobey, who agreed to fly down and speak for more than two hours. At the event, Miller sold hand-rolled beeswax candles, booklets about honey bees, and raffle tickets for a donated gift basket.

“Sheridan cares so much about people and the earth,” said Craig. “We are amazed at her energy level and the fact that, instead of burning out, she seems to be getting even more committed to her efforts. She often tells us of her next idea where she hopes to raise even more money than the last time.”

Developing High-Level Connections

Miller first met Cobey at UC Davis in 2009. Cobey was the manager of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, the largest and most comprehensive state-supported apiculture facility in North America. She gave Miller and her family a tour of the bee lab, with the goal to “enamor them with the bees and show what can be done,” said Cobey. “Sheridan was excited about the breeding program we were working on as one piece of the puzzle in dealing with the collapse of colonies and she wanted to support this.”

After that first meeting, Miller kept in touch with Cobey, writing and asking questions. And later, when Cobey came to work for WSU, Miller’s interest and donations followed.

“Sue has been generous with her time and her gratitude toward Sheridan,” said Craig. “She has instilled confidence in Sheridan and an incredible sense of pride. I guess an organization could simply send a thank-you note for a donation. Sue, on the other hand, sent friendship, knowledge, encouragement–and even bees!”

Combating CCD with Better Breeding

Sue Cobey, WSU entomologist, and fellow researchers have begun to collect and successfully preserve honey bee semen to help ensure a future for bees.
Sue Cobey, WSU entomologist, and fellow researchers have begun to collect and successfully preserve honey bee semen to help ensure a future for bees.

Beekeepers first sounded the alarm about CCD when entire apiaries of bees began disappearing circa 2006. Researchers now believe that CCD may be caused by a variety and combination of factors, including pesticides, parasitic mites, pathogens, viruses, and malnutrition resulting from the declining diversity and abundance of flowers. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that nearly one-third of all honey bee colonies in the country die annually.

Miller’s donations, along with other funding, support Cobey, who is working with Steve Sheppard, chair of the WSU Department of Entomology, to establish the first genetic repository of honey bee semen in the world. The project’s goal is to preserve and increase genetic diversity known to increase honey bee fitness and the ability to better cope with environmental challenges.

“Our project at WSU includes the importation of honey bee germplasm for breeding purposes in collaboration with U.S. honey bee queen producers who supply stock to beekeepers nationwide,” said Cobey. Restrictions on honey bee importation into the United States have been in place since 1922 in an effort to protect domestic bees from imported mites and other dangers. The restrictions have resulted in a limited gene pool for U.S. honey bees.

“A million-and-a-half queens are commercially produced annually to supply the industry. These are descended from about 500 queen mothers—a relatively small number. Lack of genetic diversity can lead to reduced fitness,” said Cobey. “We look at genetic diversity as our tool box for selection toward more hardy strains of honey bees.”

Recent improvements in technology have made it possible for Cobey and fellow researchers to collect and successfully preserve honey bee semen. Germplasm imported from several races of honey bees in Europe is being crossed with domestic breeding stocks to create healthier, more robust bees. Researchers are also collecting domestic strains of bees to preserve for future selection programs.

The Outlook from a Budding Beekeeper

Miller’s passion for helping honey bees has led her to become a backyard beekeeper. Cobey set her up with her first hives.

“It’s been quite the experience, and I mean that in the best way,” said Miller. “Bees are such fascinating creatures; we as people can learn so much from the way they live.”

She offers the following tip for new beekeepers: “Don’t be tentative,” she said. “I was incredibly tentative the first few times around the hive, and it just holds you back from learning as much as you can about these insects.”

While Miller isn’t sure what she wants to be when she grows up, she will always maintain her love of bees. “I want to continue in the field of science, whether that is in honey bee research or in the medical field,” Miller said. “I have so many things I want to pursue, and I am very excited to have fun learning where my biggest passions lie.

“I always want to be a backyard beekeeper, though,” she added. “I really sympathize with these tiny creatures’ plight and see them as ‘a canary in a coalmine’ for our somewhat ailing world.”

What advice does Miller have for others who are concerned about problems in the world?

“Honestly, and I know this sounds cliché, but every little bit counts,” she said. “CCD is an incredibly terrifying prospect…but it will only continue to keep getting worse if we just sit on the sidelines and let it happen. I have only made a tiny impact, but if everyone made just as tiny an impact with this issue, or with other huge issues in the world, we would have seven billion people making a gigantic impact, together.”

To learn more about honey bee research at WSU, visit

-Kate Wilhite

Researchers Acquit Guava of Spreading Deadly Fungus

Peever in his lab at WSU. Photo by Brian Clark, WSU
Peever in his lab at WSU. Photo by Brian Clark, WSU

No more pitting guava against eucalyptus when it comes to explaining how a poorly understood fungal disease spreads. That is the conclusion reported by an international team of scientists in the journal Molecular Ecology. The team used a common forensic technique to clear guava’s good name.

In reaching its conclusion, the team of Brazilians, Koreans, and Americans turned to WSU plant pathologist Tobin Peever. At issue was a fungal pathogen called Puccinia psidii that attacks eucalyptus trees.

Eucalyptus is an enormously valuable tree grown in its native Australia, Brazil, and other South American countries, as well as South Africa. In Brazil alone, there are more than 5 million hectares of eucalyptus plantations. The fast-growing tree is primarily used in papermaking, though its oil and leaves are also economically important.

Since eucalyptus grows far from the wheat and lentil fields of the Palouse, why turn to WSU’s Peever for guidance? Though he typically works on pathogens of crops grown in the Pacific Northwest, his reputation as a leading fungal population geneticist is known worldwide. So when Brazilian scientists wanted to test the hypothesis that the rust pathogen infecting eucalyptus originated on guava, they looked to Peever.

Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Viçosa sent graduate student Rodrigo Graça––along with samples from infected guava and eucalyptus trees––to Peever’s lab to ferret out the genetic secrets of P. psidii.

“The arrangement is what we call a sandwich program,” Peever said. “A student takes classes at one university but conducts his or her research program at another institution in order to have access to unique expertise.” Graça then returned to his home base in Brazil to analyze the data he collected and write and defend his dissertation.

The Detection Arsenal

Rust disease on guava leaves caused by Pucinia psidii. Photo courtesy of Ned Klopfenstein.
Rust disease on guava leaves caused by Pucinia psidii. Photo courtesy of Ned Klopfenstein.

Working closely with Peever and Graça were Amy Ross-Davis and Ned Klopfenstein (an adjunct WSU faculty member). Both are based at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Moscow, Idaho, just a few miles from WSU’s main campus in Pullman. Both are experts in analyzing the genetic variation of plant pathogens.

The scientists used microsatellite analysis to determine that the rust pathogens infecting guava are genetically different from those infecting eucalyptus. Microsatellites are short, repeating bits of DNA that are telling in a forensic sort of way. For example, they are used to determine kinship, as in paternity tests, as well as in criminal investigations where trace amounts of genetic material are left at the crime scene. They can also be used to detect differences between closely related populations of organisms.

“What we found were several different types of rust pathogen, each infecting a different host plant,” said Peever. “They are all morphologically similar, but they can behave differently––like different types of flu.”

Just as different types of the flu “bug” infect different animals, so too it appears that the various populations or biotypes of P. psidii infect different members of the myrtle family, a large group of tropical shrubs and trees that  includes guava, eucalyptus, allspice, clove, rose apple, and more than 5,000 other species.

This paints a very different––and much more complex––picture than that assumed before Peever and his colleagues conducted their study.

Understanding the Magnitude of the Problem

Rust disease on guava caused by Pucinia psidii. Photo courtesy of Ned Klopfenstein.
Rust disease on guava caused by Pucinia psidii. Photo courtesy of Ned Klopfenstein.

“For decades, everyone assumed this rust pathogen jumped from guava to eucalyptus and that it was native to South America,” said Klopfenstein. That’s because the P. psidii pathogen has been infecting guava in Brazil since the late 1880s and has since spread to the Caribbean, where it infects allspice and rose apple (a fruit-bearing plant related to guava).

The importance of this rust disease was dramatically elevated in 2007 when it was reported in Hawai’i. Native forests there are largely comprised of species in the myrtle family, such as ’ohi’a, that are susceptible to the disease. In 2010, it was detected in Australia, the myrtle family’s center of diversity. The rust disease was reported in South Africa this year.

“It’s pretty much threatening the entire southern hemisphere,” Klopfenstein said.

The rust not only destroys economically important crops, but infected plants throw a wrench in the works of international trade.

Just as a trace of a fungal pathogen in a shipment of wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest would cause it to be blocked from importation into Asia, infected members of the myrtle family may also be stopped at the border. And in Hawai’i, a biotype of P. psidii rust threatens an already overtaxed environment where native plants are barely holding on among a myriad of invasive species.

“The problem, in terms of trade, is that plant health inspection is based largely on visually detectable characteristics of pathogens, and populations of P. psidii all appear morphologically identical,” said Peever.

In other words, a shipment might be allowed into a country where P. psidii is already present, even though the type of P. psidii in the shipment is actually going to cause greater damage to local members of the myrtle family.

So, while guava’s name has been cleared, the hypothesis that all P. psidii are the same has been eliminated. In its place is a scene filled with identical-looking perpetrators that infect different members of the myrtle family.

That’s tough news for plant inspectors until there’s a fast, cheap genetic test that can allow accurate identifications of the various pathogen biotypes.

Developing such a test––sandwich program or not––could be a great project for a graduate student interested in a career in plant pathology.

For more information about plant pathology at WSU, visit

-Brian Clark

Free Online Training Shows How to Detect Tannins in Cider

jonagoldapplesHard cider is one of the fastest growing segments of the alcoholic beverage market, and as with any industry experiencing rapid growth, producers need solid information to ensure product quality and consistency. How to Detect Tannin Levels in Apple Juice, a new online training module from Washington State University, teaches cider producers how to analyze their raw materials to provide a consistent mouth feel in their finished product.

Tannin provides astringency, which is a sensation of dryness in the mouth. Tannin levels in apple juice, though, are anything but consistent. Not only do tannin levels vary among varieties of apples, but tannin concentrations even differ in apples picked from the same trees in different years. To ensure their ciders have consistent tannin levels, producers must test each batch of juice.

How to Detect Tannin Levels takes the guesswork out of determining tannin levels by demonstrating the relatively simple Lowenthal Permanganate Titration technique. This training module, featuring video and photography, includes segments on equipment and materials, setup, safety, and performing the laboratory procedure. The technique can also be used to test tannin levels in grape juice, tea, and other beverages. How to Detect Tannin Levels in Apple Juice was produced with the expertise of D. Scott Mattinson and John Fellman of the WSU Department of Horticulture.

Registration for the free training is available at

-Bob Hoffmann