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California: A good place to bee

Elina Lastro Niño in the apiary of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, UC Davis. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
“Honey bees are good teachers and we can all learn from them,” says Elina Lastro Niño, the new Cooperative Extension apiculturist for UC Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Each hive has its own personality and own temperament.”

Niño, based at UC Davis, is as busy as the proverbial worker bee during a colony's spring build up as she settles into her new position involving research, education and outreach.

“California is a good place to be,” she said. “I just wish I could have brought some of that Pennsylvania rain with me to help out California's drought.”

Her lab not only aims to conduct applied research that leads to practical solutions, but to alert the state's beekeepers about new research, and develop web-based educational tools. She writes the bimonthly newsletter, “from the UC apiaries." (See her newsletter section on her website, and see the archived editions by Eric Mussen on his website). In addition, she will be serving on various advisory boards to allow “us to guide decision making and legislation based on the most up to date scientific information.”

Niño operates her field lab at Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, west of the central campus. She also maintains a lab and office in Briggs Hall. Her aims: to conduct practical, problem-solving research projects; to support the state's beekeepers through research, extension and outreach; and to address beekeeper and industry concerns.

Niño, who studies honey bee biology, health, reproduction, pollination biology, insect ecology, evolution, genomics and chemical ecology, replaces Eric Mussen, who retired in June 30 after 38 years of service.

“Elina is a very accomplished scientist,” said Mussen. “Her research involves the reproductive processes involved in queen bee mating, including the impacts of oviduct manipulation, insemination volume and insemination substances. The induced changes include measurable behavioral, physiological and molecular alterations that occur, including differences in behavioral interactions between queens and worker bees.”

Niño has already met with many of the state's beekeepers, attended meetings of the California State Beekeepers' Association, the California Bee Breeders' Association, and the Almond Board of California, and charmed youngsters from the California School of the Blind, Fremont, who asked many questions about honey bees.

“I love meeting people,” she said. She delights in answering questions, including those from inquisitive school children.

Honey bee pollinating almond blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
One of the most common questions: “Do you get stung?” Answer: “Yes, many times.”

Some don't know that all worker bees are females, that they do all the work. They are fascinated with the queen bee, which can lay as many as 2,000 eggs a day during peak season. Once a youngster, thinking about the queen bee, asked: “What happened to the king?”

Bees are in a global decline due to pesticides, parasites, pests, malnutrition and stress. Niño says most people have heard of colony collapse disorder, and many know that the average beekeeper loses approximately 30 percent of the colonies each winter due to the combined effect of various pests, pathogens, environmental toxins, and poor nutrition.

“My research and extension goals are to provide stakeholders with practical tools that better equip them to confront these challenges. My primary research focus is to characterize biological factors that regulate honey bee queen reproduction. By better understanding these factors, we can improve the honey bee breeding protocols necessary for creating and maintaining resilient honey bee stock.”

Elina Niño wasn't always so totally devoted to bees. Born and reared in Bosnia in Eastern Europe, Elina moved to the United States with plans to become a veterinarian. She obtained her bachelor's degree in animal science at Cornell University, but while there, enrolled in an entomology class on the recommendation of her advisor. “I was hooked,” she recalled.

Following her graduation from Cornell in 2003, she received her master's degree in entomology from North Carolina State University and her doctorate in entomology from Pennsylvania State University. While at Penn State, she sought to add to her applied-research expertise and gain experience in basic research. She joined the honey bee lab of Christina Grozinger, who studies the genomics of chemical communication and collaborates with researcher David Tarpy on understanding queen bee post-mating changes.

After attending her first lab meeting, “I was hooked again!” Niño recalled.

She and her fellow researchers confirmed that carbon dioxide causes queens to stop attempting mating flights and helps them start producing eggs. They also found that instrumental insemination triggers changes in Dufour's gland pheromone. Understanding the regulation of reproductive processes can lead to better management practices for improved colony productivity and health, Niño said.

Niño is now settled in Davis with her husband, Bernardo Niño, a former senior research technologist in the Grozinger lab and now a staff research associate at the Laidlaw facility; their toddler son, Sebastian; and their dog, a Doberman named Zoe. Bernardo, who managed some 40 to 50 colonies at Penn State, received his bachelor's degree in biology from St. Edward's University, Austin, Texas; and his master's degree in entomology from North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

Elina is building up her research team, which includes Bernardo; and staff research associate Billy Synk and doctoral candidate W. Cameron Jasper of the Brian Johnson lab.

“We view ourselves as the liaison between the beekeepers and other relevant growers and the scientific community,” Elina said. “We are continuing research on queen mating and reproduction, especially considering the importance of Northern California beekeepers for the queen rearing and bee breeding enterprises.”

They will expand their work to include studies “crucial for supporting honey bee health.” Current collaborate work includes examining the effects of Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, Deformed Wing Virus and Nosema gene expression regulation and longevity in workers. Understanding the molecular mechanisms that underlie individual responses to specific honey bee pathogens, Elina said, “can lead to the implementation of appropriate beekeeping practices.”

“In the near future, we plan to contribute to the general understanding of synergistic effects of pesticides on honey bee health and collaborate on research evaluating alternative Varroa mite control.”

How would she describe herself? “Like a rock. I don't get easily disturbed. There's not a lot that fazes me. I find a way to figure out a problem and find a solution.”

Now she and her “Bee” team--that is, Bernardo and Billy--are gearing up for their inaugural queen bee rearing short-course March 28-29 at the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility. She will continue teaching these  short courses to beekeepers with basic bee experience who want to learn more about rearing queens.

Another pending activity: she'll be judging the California 4-H Honey Bee Essay Contest, “Planting for Bees from Backyards and Up” (http://preservationofhoneybees.org/essays). The contest closed Feb. 20.

Meanwhile, Niño has set up her lab's website at http://elninobeelab.ucdavis.edu/; a Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/elninolab and has obtained an easy-to-remember email in the form of "el nino": elnino@ucdavis.edu.

“California is a good place to be,” she reiterated.

An initiative to enhance competitive and sustainable food systems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Author: Kathy Keatley Garvey

Elina Lastro Niño working a hive. (Photo courtesy of Elina Lastro Niño)
Elina Lastro Niño working a hive. (Photo courtesy of Elina Lastro Niño)

Elina Lastro Niño working a hive. (Photo courtesy of Elina Lastro Niño)

Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2015 at 10:02 AM

Teachers invited to learn about natural resources in the forest

Mike De Lasaux shows FIT participants the tree rings in a core sample.
California teachers are invited to spend a week in a northern California forest this summer and participate in the Forestry Institute for Teachers.

“The goal of the Forestry Institute for Teachers, or FIT, is to provide K-12 teachers with knowledge, skills and tools to teach their students about forest ecology and forest resource management practices and introduce them to environmental education curriculum such as Project Learning Tree, Project WILD and California's Education and the Environment,” said Mike De Lasaux, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension advisor for Plumas and Sierra counties and a FIT instructor.

The program, which is in its 23rd year, brings teachers from rural and urban settings together with natural resources experts to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between forest ecosystems and human use of natural resources. The environment becomes the basis for learning in many subject areas, including environmental science, physical science, social science, biology, forestry and history.

“FIT gave me a lot of physical group activities and ideas for how to get to know a new group of people,” said Renata Martin, who is a substitute teacher for grades 3 through 8 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Teachers learn how to take tree measurements.
By examining the rings in a tree's cross-section, foresters can tell a lot about events – such as wet or dry periods, insect or disease damage – that have occurred during the tree's lifetime. She has used the tree analogy to teach students that important events shape their own lives.

“Especially because I meet new kids every day, I've been able to use the lesson that we did around the campfire the first night with sharing important points in our lives as if they were tree cookies” or slices of a tree, said Martin.

FIT emphasizes California Department of Education Content Standards including Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. Since 1993, more than 2,200 teachers have graduated from the program. 

Using what they learn at the workshop, the participants conduct training for their colleagues and develop a forestry education project for their students during the school year.

Martin, who participated in FIT in 2014 in Plumas County, said she has adapted many of the lessons for her students based on their age, development and behavior.

Tom Catchpole leads a Talk About Trees program exercise for teachers to practice applying tree science to activities they can do with their students.
Meeting forest-related professionals including small property owners, archaeologists, large lumber corporations and historians made an impression on environmental educator Carrie Raleigh. “It was interesting to get a variety of perspectives on forestry issues and to have face-to-face conversations with a variety of specialists,” said Rawleigh, who participated in the program in 2010 and teaches in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

Four 1-week FIT sessions are scheduled at four different locations: Plumas, Tuolumne, Shasta and Humboldt counties.

Two June sessions will be held at the University of California Forestry Camp, close to Quincy in Plumas County, and at Sierra Outdoor School near Sonora in Tuolumne County. The July sessions will be at Camp McCumber just east of Shingletown in Shasta County and at Humboldt State University in Arcata in Humboldt County.

The presenters and staff include public and private forest resource specialists and other natural resource managers, environmental activists and science and environmental education curriculum specialists. Groups are welcome to register as teams. There is an application fee of $25, but training, meals and lodging are free for first-time participants.

The deadline for applications is March 16. For more information and to apply, visit http://forestryinstitute.org or call the Forest Stewardship Helpline at (800) 783-8733. 

The Forestry Institute for Teachers (FIT) workshop was developed by the Northern California Society of American Foresters, University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension, Shasta County Office of Education, The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and Project Learning Tree. The FIT Program is underwritten by a consortium of public and private sources.

An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

California black rail likes leaks

The California black rail is heard but rarely seen.
While Californians are tightening their pipes to conserve water during this fourth year of drought, the California black rail might say, “Let it leak,” if it could speak.

The rare bird species makes its home in marshes created in large part by leaky pipes, stock ponds, irrigation tailwater and unlined canals. Even the springs that support some habitat may rely on water flowing from leaky canals. In 1994, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientists found the small, red-eyed bird with the black breast and speckled black feathers at UC ANR's Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center. Since its discovery, a group of scientists have been exploring the effects of water management and climate change on the bird in Sutter, Butte and Yuba counties.

California black rails, which can be heard more often than seen, largely depend on humans and irrigated agriculture to provide the shallow flowing water they use for habitat.

Accidental wetlands created by leaky pipes and ponds are habitat for the black rail habitat.
Because most of the rangeland in the area is privately held, and includes irrigated pasture for livestock, Lynn Huntsinger, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, wondered if property owners would be willing to maintain wetlands to support wildlife.

With the help of UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisors Glenn Nader and Roger Ingram, Huntsinger conducted a survey of 1,000 landowners in the three counties.

Property owners responding to the survey said the primary reason for maintaining ponds and wetlands is to reduce wildfire risk, but they also like the birds and wildlife that are attracted by wet areas. However, Huntsinger worries that the “accidental wetlands” may dry up as the drought increases the pressure on people to conserve water by fixing leaks and replacing canals built during the 19th century Gold Rush with pipes.

Most of the farmers and ranchers buy water from a water district so Huntsinger sees working with water districts as a key to the sustainability of wetlands for wildlife.

Property owners favor ponds to protect against wildfire and to support wildlife.
“Water is going to be more expensive and harder to access given the trends in weather and population demand,” she said. To predict how long landowners will continue to maintain wetlands if water prices rise, Huntsinger is working with Jose Oviedo, an environmental economist in Spain.

More and more, she says, it seems that we are facing tradeoffs between “goods”— saving water is good and preserving wildlife habitat is good. “We need flexibility and adaptation rather than all or nothing choices. After all, we are creating the future landscape of California,” Huntsinger said.

Huntsinger's study is just one facet of a California black rail study that involves scientists with different kinds of expertise.

Steve Beissinger, professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley, has been studying black rail behavior for years and continues to monitor how many sites in the Sierra foothills the small birds use as habitat.

Canals at the UC ANR Sierra Foothill Research & Extension date back to the Gold Rush days.
Norman Miller, a Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory hydrologist, is developing models to understand the water dynamics and sustainability of the wetlands habitat.

Marm Kilpatrick, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Santa Cruz, studies how concern about mosquito-borne West Nile virus may affect landowners' decisions to maintain wetlands.

“It is a novel ecosystem, offering habitat engineered by people and their livestock that happens to offer the black rail what it needs,” Huntsinger said. “We just don't know enough about conservation in this kind of situation. Managing traditional landscapes is common in Europe, but rare in the United States.”

For more information about the California black rail, see the California Agriculture article “California black rails depend on irrigation-fed wetlands in the Sierra Nevada foothills.”

Below, UC Berkeley graduate student Nathan Van Schmidt describes research at UC Sierra Foothill Research and Extension Center on how the rails cope with drought, seasonal hydrology regimes, and the rescue effect.

An initiative to maintain and enhance sustainable natural ecosystems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Tuesday, March 3, 2015 at 9:17 AM

Organic farmers are counting on UC to control exotic Virginia creeper leafhoppers

Organic farmers are struggling with invasion of exotic Virginia creeper leafhoppers in Lake and Mendocino counties.
When Virginia creeper leafhopper made its way into Mendocino and Lake county wine country a few years ago, some certified organic winegrape producers threw in the towel.

“They lost too much income,” said Glenn McGourty, a UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Cooperative Extension advisor in Lake and Mendocino counties. “They decided they were not going to risk their crop until there is a workable biological control solution to this new pest.”

Meanwhile, other organic grape producers are hanging on to their organic certification and counting on UC ANR researchers to come through with a biological control option soon.

“Organic farmers are spending a couple hundred dollars per acre for organic pesticides,” McGourty said. “They don't want to use them. It takes out beneficial insects and it doesn't even control Virginia creeper leafhopper very well.”

Three leafhopper species are pests of California grapes. Western grape leafhopper is a native insect that's present throughout California north of the Tehachapi Mountains. Several natural enemies keep the pest in check most years. Variegated leafhopper migrated north from the Imperial Valley to Central California in the 1980s, and is established in Napa Valley and other valleys of Napa County. Virginia creeper leafhopper, a native of the northern Midwest, made its way to Northern California in the early 1980s. It migrated southward to the northern Sacramento Valley and Sierra foothills, and most recently was detected in Lake and Mendocino counties, where the population boomed.

“The farmers were devastated, especially financially,” McGourty said. “Conventional growers had to begin spraying pesticides. Some organic vineyards were completely defoliated.”

The leafhoppers' key natural enemies are fairyflies (Genus: Anagrus), among the tiniest flying insects in the world. Certain species of fairyflies attack certain species of leafhoppers. What has scientists perplexed at the moment is the fact that Virginia creeper leafhoppers' natural enemies are present in Mendocino and Lake counties, but they are failing to do their job.

Generally, fairyflies lay their eggs in leafhopper eggs, killing them. The fairyflies known to attack Virginia creeper leafhopper are successfully parasitizing the pest's eggs in Yolo County. However, the very same species of fairyfly is not recognizing Virginia creeper leafhopper eggs as a host in Mendocino and Lake counties.

Virginia creeper leafhopper adults have a reddish-brown zigzag marking on each front wing.
“Virginia creeper leafhopper only recently moved into the Mendocino area,” said post-doctoral researcher Houston Wilson. Wilson works in the lab of Kent Daane, UC ANR Cooperative Extension specialist based at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Parlier. “Although these Anagrus parasitoids can attack both Western grape leafhopper and Virginia creeper leafhopper, the Anagrus population in Mendocino County has been reproducing on Western grape leafhopper for so long, they seem to have lost their preference for Virginia creeper.”

The scientists believe that, in time, fairyflies in Lake and Mendocino counties will begin to parasitize Virginia creeper leafhopper eggs on their own. But, because of the severity of the situation to organic winegrape growers, they've hatched a plan to help out the natural enemies. This summer, they will be rounding up fairyflies in the Davis area – where they know how to attack Virginia creeper – and bring them to Lake and Mendocino county vineyards.

Beginning in April, Wilson will allow Mendocino area Virginia creeper leafhoppers to lay eggs on potted grapevines. The vines will be transported to Davis, where local fairyflies can parasitize the eggs. The plants will go back to the laboratory in Berkeley so scientists can rear populations of the parasitoids and later release them in Mendocino and Lake county vineyards.

“I just planted the grapevines this month,” Wilson said. “When leafhoppers become active in the summer, we'll start monthly releases. We hope our efforts will take some of the pressure off winegrape farmers soon.”

In addition to the work releasing natural enemies of Virginia creeper leafhopper, UC Agriculture and Natural Resources scientists are implementing an area-wide integrated pest management program in Mendocino and Lake counties. The program – a combination of biological, cultural and chemical controls for this pest – employs:

  1. Improved monitoring and mapping of Virginia creeper populations
  2. Cultural practices to reduce egg deposition in vineyards
  3. Earlier and coordinated pesticide applications (if a spray is necessary)

The Virginia creeper leafhopper pest control program is funded in part by the American Vineyard Foundation.

An initiative to manage endemic and invasive pests and diseases is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Wednesday, February 25, 2015 at 9:01 AM

Insecticide use threatens onion seed production

A honeybee collects nectar on an onion blossom. (Photo: Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Insecticides farmers use in Northern California onion seed production appear to repel honeybees, which can result in reduced seed yields, according to a recent study by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) researchers.

Visitation by honeybees is the single most important factor for onion seed set in commercial fields, said Rachael Long, UC ANR Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Yolo County.

“The more honeybees that visited the onion flowers, the higher the seed yield,” Long said.

If insecticides are applied repeatedly prior to onion bloom, honeybees were less likely to visit once the flowers opened up.

“If you spray three times in the spring before onion bloom, there was less honeybee activity during early bloom,” Long said. “We weren't sure why. We didn't see any dead bees. Honeybees might be repelled by the insecticide because, if a spray took place close to bloom, their visitation was significantly reduced, but increased later during bloom, as if the insecticide affects wore off.”

Yolo and Colusa county farmers play an important role in worldwide onion seed production. Many different varieties of onions are grown in the region to produce seed ideal for use on onion farms from Siberia to the equator and every latitude in between.

“Growing high quality onions in different areas around the world requires varieties specially adapted to a wide range of conditions, such as day length,” Long said. “In our region, you'll see a tremendous diversity of onions being grown for seed – some short, some tall, some bloom early, others later. There's also all the red, yellow and white bulb variations.”

George Weiss had been farming in Yolo County for more than 50 years when he noticed a mysterious decline in onion seed production in 2009. He paid a visit to the local UC ANR Cooperative Extension office.

“We grow onions for seed, and we weren't getting the seed yields we thought we should have,” said Weiss, 80.

He spoke with Long, who immediately began collecting information on insecticide use on the Weiss and neighboring farms.

A researcher counts honeybees in a blooming onion field.
“I saw a trend,” Long said. “The more insecticides that were sprayed, the lower the onion seed yield.”

Onion seed companies and officials at the California Garlic and Onion Research Advisory Board also observed lower yields.

“We all noticed a decline in seed production over the years, but we couldn't put a finger on what was happening,” said Bob Ehn, CEO of the California Garlic and Onion Research Advisory Board.

Long, Ehn and UC Davis entomology professor Neal Williams worked together to secure a $250,000 grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture Specialty Crops Block Grant program to solve the onion seed mystery. Ehn's board also provided funding for research.

The sharp decline in onion seed yields began when growers were dealing with a new disease, iris yellow spot virus. The virus is spread by tiny insects called onion thrips, so growers began applying insecticides in early spring to keep the pests from moving the damaging disease around the field.

Over three years, scientists collected extensive data on insecticide use, honeybee activity, soil moisture, pollen germination, and nectar production on 29 onion seed farms of 25 acres of more. They learned that three applications of insecticide in the spring resulted in less honey bee visitation, which can reduce yield given the importance of honeybees in crop pollination.

The data analysis also concluded that:

  • If farmers sprayed insecticides too close to bloom, there was less pollen germination. Typically, when a bee transfers pollen from the male to female flower, the pollen germinates right away and begins to grow, but less so after insecticide use. “There might be some chemical interaction that prevents pollen from germinating. It's not a huge effect, but there's an impact,” Long said.
  • If the soil was too dry or too wet, nectar production in the onion flowers dropped way off, reducing honeybee activity and seed yields. “Honeybees need rewards,” Long said. “Their visitation to flowers is based on the ability to collect nectar. If there is little to no nectar, they will just bypass the flowers and find another source of nectar.”
  • Fungicide use in onion fields did not impact honeybee activity.
  • Pronounced effects of insecticides on pollinator behavior and seed set are more likely at rates of three sprays per year or more, however, even at reduced insecticide use, the researchers still saw the potential for subtle effects on both the pattern of honeybee visitation over time and the pollen-stigma interactions.

An onion field in full bloom was the site of UC ANR research.
“These results highlight the importance of field management practices on the pollination process. In hybrid onion seed production, we recommend moderation in insecticide use and careful management of water during bloom for maximum nectar production,” Long said.

Ehn said the research furnished valuable information for California onion seed growers.

“We now know we have to be very careful about insecticide management prior to bloom time,” Ehn said. “We have to be more strategic about insecticide planning and avoid it as much as possible.”

Ehn said field research by Long, Williams and other UC ANR Cooperative Extension advisors and specialists is of critical importance to the California Garlic and Onion Research and Advisory Board.

“We are totally dependent on Cooperative Extension,” Ehn said. “Our research with Cooperative Extension stretches from Imperial County up to Tule Lake (on the Oregon border). They are our strength and anchor to get research work done that we set as a priority.”

Weiss said he highly values the research assistance from UC ANR Cooperative Extension.

“I can't pin it down in dollars and cents, but it all goes together with experience,” Weiss said.

An initiative to enhance competitive and sustainable food systems is part of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources Strategic Vision 2025.

Posted on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 9:32 AM
Tags: honeybees (2), onion (1), Rachael Long (3)

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