NASA funds UD-led research on carbon dynamics in Mexico

October 8, 2013 under CANR News

Rodrgio Vargas works with NASA on REDD+ activitiesWorking with a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant, University of Delaware researcher Rodrigo Vargas is collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service and multiple institutions in Mexico to provide information to support implementation of the international program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) by improving forest management, carbon stock enhancement and conservation.

It has been estimated that greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest degradation around the world may contribute up to 20 percent of global emissions. A key REDD+ goal is to make forests more valuable standing than they would be through logging by creating a financial value for carbon that is stored, or sequestered, in vegetation.

Vargas, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural ResourcesDepartment of Plant and Soil Sciences, is working as the principal investigator on the three-year project with a team that includes members from UD, the U.S. Forest Service, six different Mexican institutions and the National Forestry Commission of Mexico (CONAFOR).

The overarching goal of the project is to analyze carbon stocks and dynamics from ecosystems to the regional-scale to improve a framework for monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) to support implementation of REDD+ in Mexican forests.

The project could lead to UD becoming a key research institution on REDD+ initiatives and an important repository of information about carbon dynamics in Mexico to be made available throughout the scientific community.

The work builds on research that Vargas started as an assistant professor at a national research center in Baja California, Mexico, where he worked with scientists to establish the Mexican network of eddy covariance sites (MexFlux). The eddy covariance technique allows measuring the exchange of mass (e.g., carbon dioxide and methane) and energy between terrestrial ecosystems and the atmosphere; in other words it is possible to measure how ecosystems “breathe”.

In that past work, Vargas was able to facilitate collaboration between a network of 11 eddy covariance sites across Mexico in different vegetation types.

“Some of them are in forests and in those specific sites, we want to create intensive monitoring sites in collaboration with the participating institutions,” said Vargas, explaining that those intensive monitoring sites would provide the research team fundamental information of how the forests are growing and breathing.

The research will consider data from NASA satellites, the MexFlux sites, as well as intensive forest inventory plots that CONAFOR has established, for information on MRV of REDD+ activities.

“REDD+ is an initiative for the reduction of emissions by deforestation and degradation and includes conservation and sustainable management of forests and the enhancement of forest carbon stocks in developing countries,” Vargas said, and the MRV models are important as they lend credibility to REDD+ activities concerning forest dynamics and carbon sequestration potential.”

Many nations would be interested in being a part of REDD+ activities so monitoring systems towards credible measurements are critical if they are going to implement the program — which is where the MRV models come in.

Providing important assistance to the project is Richard Birdsey, distinguished scientist with the U.S. Forest Service. Birdsey is a specialist in quantitative methods for large-scale forest inventories and has pioneered the development of methods to estimate national carbon budgets for forest lands from forest inventory data.

“He has led the establishment of several intensive monitoring sites in Mexico and has coordinated a USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) program there which aims to improve monitoring of forests for REDD+ and biodiversity conservation, among other objectives,” Vargas said.

The group will be using capabilities from NASA’s carbon monitoring systems program and Vargas said the agency is very interested to test those capabilities in verifying these specific issues.

IMG_4295The research team will be using information from NASA satellites, which can provide data related to photosynthesis of forests. “Remote sensing platforms provide such information and we can validate and cross-validate those estimates from direct forest measurements and using ecosystem process based models,” Vargas said.

The team will start the research looking at a few specific sites that had already been selected by CONAFOR, and then hope to scale the research to encompass a gradient of forests across Mexico.

Vargas said that the project has a strong collaborative component with scientists across Mexican institutions. “Our collaborators know their sites and are critical partners for day-to-day activities at the study sites. In collaboration with them we will work to produce value-added products and synthesis studies about carbon dynamics across forests in Mexico,” Vargas said.

Working in Mexico provides a great opportunity to look at different types of ecosystems and gradients. Mexico is a mega-diverse country where nearly 40 percent of its territory is covered by forests. The long-term impacts of land use and anthropogenic changes have fragmented and fundamentally transformed the nation’s landscapes, creating a challenge to measure and estimate the carbon sequestration potential of these forests.

“It is a mega-diverse country and highly heterogeneous in terms of climates and ecosystems. If you go to the northern part of Mexico, there you will have arid and semi-arid ecosystems similar to the southwest of the United States — like in Arizona, Texas and southern California,” Vargas said. “But as you move south, then you have coniferous forests, tropical dry forests and tropical wet forests mixed within a matrix of agricultural and urban developments.”

Vargas said that the spatial heterogeneity proves challenging as it pushes the models and the satellite observations to the limit. “We can’t measure everywhere all the time but we can identify some ecosystems and some sites from which we can get intensive information, and from that we hope to upscale to similar sites — specifically in this case to identify potential for REDD+ activities and verify the information retrieved from satellites and predicted by models.”

Because of the wealth of information available, Vargas said the team can “ask very high level questions about carbon dynamics in Mexico. Hopefully with that information we can understand how the systems works with the goal that similar methodologies can be applied in other places. Mexico is a test bed but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be applied in other places, specifically across forest in Latin America for implementation of REDD+ initiatives.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photos by Danielle Quigley and courtesy of Rodrigo Vargas

This article can also be viewed on UDaily.

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Tunisian Fulbright Scholar studying beneficial bacteria for legumes

May 29, 2012 under CANR News

At first glance, it wouldn’t seem like Delaware and the Sahara Desert have a lot in common. However, on closer inspection, the mid-Atlantic state and the arid regions of southern Tunisia in Africa are more similar than they first appear.

That is one reason why Mokhtar Rejili, a professor from the University of Gabes in Tunisia, is excited to be at the University of Delaware on a Fulbright Scholarship working with UD’s Janine Sherrier on the study of legumes native to his home country.

Of the similarities between the two seemingly disparate locations, Sherrier, a professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in UD’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, explained that Delaware has sandy soil and shoreline salt stress. “Our sandy soils dry out very rapidly and our crop plants can be subject to salt stress. There are also common stresses experienced by plants grown in the two locations, albeit to different levels of severity,” she said.

The scientists are collaborating on research to identify beneficial bacteria to help the plants grow more successfully under conditions of drought and salt stress. Rejili specifically studies legumes that grow in conditions of extreme drought and severe salt stress, and his Tunisian team identifies bacteria that interact with the plant roots growing on the outskirts of the Sahara.

Sherrier is recognized internationally as a scientific expert on bacterial interactions with legumes, and together, the two scientists are working on a research project that will help farmers in Tunisia and Delaware.

The scientists are conducting research that focuses specifically on the type of beneficial bacteria that associate with legume roots and provide nitrogen to the plant. Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for plant growth, and it is often provided to the plant by the application of chemical fertilizers or manure. This is costly for growers and contributes to environmental pollution.

The beneficial bacteria studied by the team can convert a small amount of the nitrogen that is naturally abundant in the Earth’s atmosphere into a form that can meet the nutritional needs of the plant. This reduces the cost of crop production for the grower and also protects the environment from damage caused by fertilizer runoff from agricultural fields.

“The plants form close relationships with the beneficial microbes. They develop a new organ on their roots for the bacteria to reside and provide the right environment and all the energy required for the bacteria to convert atmospheric nitrogen into fertilizer,” Sherrier said. “At a practical level, that means plants growing in soils without sufficient nitrogen can still have productive growth.”

Benefits to health and the environment

Rejili explained that this is especially important for extremely hot and dry areas, like southern Tunisia, where a chemical fertilizer would be of little help to the plants. Such fertilizers are often too expensive to even consider using and, worse, can be detrimental to human health.

“The fertilization of crops is limited to only the well-developed countries,” said Rejili, noting the high costs involved in producing fertilizer, only a small fraction of which is used by the plant. The remainder goes deep into the soil, where “it will contaminate the soil and the water, or it will evaporate into the atmosphere, leading to pollution,” he said, adding this poses “a big question to our health.”

Sherrier said that fertilizer use doesn’t pose a health risk just in Tunisia, it does so in America as well.

“The overuse of fertilizer impacts human health,” said Sherrier, explaining that a recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) survey of well water quality in Delaware’s southern counties showed that more than 50 percent of the wells had nitrogen contamination above the levels recommended for drinking water and required remediation.

Sherrier said that while Rejili is interested in helping out his home country, he is also concerned about improving crop production and health for Delawareans.

“People from Delaware love their lima beans, but the beneficial bacteria are not present at very high levels in our soils. Our growers add fertilizer to ensure a good yield. That’s expensive for them, and it’s not good for our environment,” said Sherrier, adding that Rejili has taken on a leadership role on one of her projects to identify beneficial bacteria from Delaware soils that could be added to the soil early in the growth season instead of chemical fertilizer.

Sherrier also explained that the damage to the environment is not just in the fertilizer application, it’s also in the way fertilizer is made. “There’s a huge energy cost associated with making fertilizer,” said Sherrier, explaining that the process requires high pressure and high temperatures, and uses 4 percent of the world’s natural gas supply annually.

“When you burn that natural gas, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” she said, adding that there are additional environmental costs in transporting the fertilizer.

Inexpensive option

Besides the environmental and health considerations of cutting down on fertilizer use, the beneficial bacteria could also be an inexpensive option for growers, something that is of particular importance in developing countries.

“We would like to provide whatever help we can to allow the people of Tunisia to support their own food production,” Sherrier said. “Food security is a huge concern for any country. This inexpensive approach to food production protects their environment and helps provide the people with a basic level of security that every human being deserves.”

Providing an inexpensive and reliable food source for developing countries is not the only benefit of this research, however. Being able to grow legumes in areas that have harsh landscapes, like southern Tunisia, will enable the growth of forage crops in areas prone to desertification. This will allow livestock to graze in the area, and will help stabilize a sandy landscape that is prone to degradation from unforgiving winds.

“If you have a few plants that can survive in that area, they can protect soils and prevent the region from converting into desert. This will help preserve the land for food or forage production,” explained Sherrier.

Beneficial bacteria

Sherrier worked closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC) to arrange for the team to study Tunisian plants in her Delaware laboratory. For some of the species, it is the first time that these legumes will be studied outside of Tunisia.

Rejili is evaluating the diversity of bacteria associated with these plants and performing experiments to determine which ones provide the most benefits. In a laboratory setting, the team is inoculating plants with individual strains of beneficial bacteria and evaluating the plant’s performance.

“The bacteria infect the plant root,” Sherrier said, “and when you talk about an infection, most people think, ‘Oh, no! You need to spray something to get rid of that.’ However, in undisturbed natural environments, the bacteria normally infect the plants, boosting their immune systems and helping the plants acquire essential nutrients. This is very similar to the benefits people gain from the bacteria which naturally reside in our digestive tract.”

Said Rejili of the plant interacting with the bacteria, “We can say they are beneficial interactions. So the plants give carbohydrates to bacteria and bacteria gives nitrogen to the plants. So there is an exchange.”

The two hope that when Rejili’s 10-month stay concludes, they can continue their collaboration. “This is a great starting point, and it’s really what the Fulbright progam is all about,” said Sherrier. “It’s helping to build bridges scientifically and culturally.”

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed on UDaily

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UD’s Wommack part of $25 million USDA food supply safety study

February 21, 2012 under CANR News

K. Eric Wommack, professor of environmental microbiology in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Delaware, is part of a five-year, $25 million U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) study aimed at preventing potentially fatal illnesses linked to Shiga toxin-producing E. coli bacteria (STEC) in the nation’s food supply.

STEC poses a serious threat to the food supply, resulting in more than 265,000 infections in the United States each year.

The coast-to-coast study includes a team of 48 investigators from multiple universities and government agencies, with the University of Nebraska and Kansas State University as the lead institutions.

Wommack became involved with the project after serving on a USDA grant review panel with Jim Keen, the lead project director from the University of Nebraska, who had been studying STEC for a number of years and was putting together the project proposal.  “It was really just good fortune on my part to be lucky enough to be involved with the group,” said Wommack, adding that he has not previously worked with STEC but can potentially bring a new angle to the research through his experience in microbial ecology.

As a microbial ecologist, Wommack said he is “interested in all the microbes that make up communities of microbes.” He equated this to an environmental ecologist, only instead of looking at “all the plant species within the make-up of the forest or the grassland, I look at all the microbes that comprise a microbial community.”

For this study, Wommack will examine the microbial communities that form around STEC to see if there is a pattern that scientists can pinpoint. This would allow the researchers to trace non-toxic levels of STEC by determining the kinds of microbial communities where it is most likely to occur.

“It is difficult to detect STEC when it is at the non-poisonous levels, but it is still there and so my work may show that there are other microbes that just happen to occur alongside STEC but are a whole lot easier to find. It is not like (STEC) is the only bacteria in a cow, so we are interested in looking at the larger communities that surround the pathogenic organisms.”

Wommack also will try to understand the ecology of STEC on a fundamental level.  “Although it is an organism that is an awful pathogen and kills people,” Wommack explained, “it is also a microbe that is out there and it has to live in whatever environment it is found in, and so most everything we know about STEC is when it is making people sick. We don’t really know much about it other than that — meaning its place in the ecology of microbial communities.”

Wommack said he is excited to get started on this research project, anticipating that he may begin work as soon as March. “It is hard to argue against knowing more,” he said. “Knowing and understanding more about the biology and the ecology of the organism will ultimately help us to control its incidence in the food supply.”

About Prof. Wommack

K. Eric Wommack is a professor in UD’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

He also has appointments in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences and in the marine biology and biochemistry program in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. His laboratory is based in the Delaware Biotechnology Institute.

Wommack received a doctorate in marine estuarine environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, a master’s degree in physiology from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and a bachelor’s degree in economics from Emory University in Atlanta.

He is a member of the American Society for Microbiology, the American Society of Limnology and Oceanography and the International Society for Microbial Ecology.

Article by Adam Thomas

Photo by Evan Krape

This article can also be viewed on UDaily

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University’s Kniel, Everts join study of produce safety

December 9, 2011 under CANR News, Cooperative Extension

Researchers at the University of Delaware are participating in a project that is focused on increasing produce safety and delivering more trustworthy salad fixings.

Total funding for the University of Maryland-led project amounts to $9 million, with $5.4 million in contributions coming from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and substantial industry funds.

The three-year study promises to be one of the most comprehensive studies of fresh produce safety ever conducted.

Produce safety has been a hot topic ever since 2006, when a deadly batch of spinach killed three people and sickened hundreds of Americans. The project will involve extensive testing and data collection by industry, supplemented by field experiments involving eight other university and federal laboratories around the country.

Kali Kniel, associate professor in UD’s Department of Animal and Food Sciences, and Kathryne Everts, professor and Cooperative Extension specialist in plant pathology at Maryland with a joint appointment at UD, are part of the University of Delaware team.

“Since the large outbreak of E. coli in 2006 which was traced back to spinach grown in the Salinas Valley of California, produce commodities have been under great scrutiny,” Kniel said of the project. “As we all know fresh fruits and vegetables are grown outside, which puts them at great risk for coming in contact with biological hazards like pathogenic bacteria and viruses. There are some processes that growers and packers can do to reduce the risk but the science is still not there to completely understand what those are. This project will help to resolve that for very important and ‘high-risk’ products, including leafy greens and tomatoes.”

Kniel explained the role that she and Everts will play in the study, saying, “Dr. Everts and I will be working with the farmers and packers to both develop metrics and to disseminate the science-based results of the project.  I am particularly looking forward to working with regional growers and packers to help them deal with the food safety challenges including increased biological testing and best practices for safe compost and water use.”

Robert Buchanan, a University of Maryland professor and director of its Center for Food Safety and Security Systems, is heading the research initiative.

In addition to UD and Maryland, other universities involved include Ohio State University, Rutgers University, the University of California Davis, the University of Florida and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. The USDA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will be involved in the research as well.

The initiative’s industry partners — representing more than 90 percent of the leafy greens and tomato production in the United States — will conduct about 200,000 separate tests during the project to measure the presence of pathogens.

“This project is very unique in that it has the support of the industry on a significant scale. We have a great team of scientists and great industry support,” Kniel said.

The research aims to create the scientific basis for detailed safe, hygienic practices in farming, packing, transporting and storing fresh produce.

The idea is to prevent water, air or ground sources of pathogen contamination by setting standards or benchmarks that can be applied in a variety of growing regions and countries.

The study will examine questions such as how far apart do you need to keep a lettuce patch from pigs or other farm animals to prevent bacterial contamination and what kinds of barriers are needed to prevent contaminated water from reaching crops?

Members of the research team said they believe the project will give regulators, farmers, packers and others along the supply chain the scientific and technological knowledge needed to develop and defend produce safety protocols, or “metrics” as the industry calls them.

At the production stage, the research will focus on air, water and other environmental factors related to potential contamination by pathogens; risks during harvesting, packing, and processing; as well as temperature and other handling concerns as produce moves to market.

Photos by Ambre Alexander

This story can also be viewed on UDaily > >

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ANFS Announces Fall Seminars

September 8, 2011 under CANR News, Events

The Department of Animal and Food Sciences has announced its Fall 2011 Seminar Series (ANRF 856) Schedule. Seminars are held on Mondays from 3:00 to 4:30 pm in 101 Allen Lab.  For more information contact the instructor: Dr. Serguei Golovan (046 Townsend, x7239, sgolovan@udel.edu).

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Undergraduate Research

August 12, 2011 under CANR News

Undergraduate researchers were busy at the University of Delaware this summer, and the results of their research were on display during the second annual Undergraduate Research and Service Celebratory Symposium, held Wednesday, Aug. 10, in Clayton Hall.

Representing every UD college and discipline, some 330 undergraduate research and service scholars and visiting scholars participated. The event featured 243 poster presentations and 87 oral presentations.

CANR student Matthew Fischel won first place in the first-ever Interdisciplinary Undergraduate Research in Sustainability Prize.  His topic of study was “Kinetics of Arsenite Exodation by Manganese Oxide Minerals:  Importance for Water Quality and Environmental Sustainability”, and his faculty sponsor was Don Sparks.

For the full UDaily article click here.

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Practice makes perfect at Allen Lab

August 1, 2011 under CANR News, Events

Conferring outside Allen Laboratory are (from left) Jack Gelb, chairperson of the Department of Animal and Food Sciences; Krista Murray, biosafety officer in Environmental Health and Safety; Marvin Clark, sergeant in Public Safety; and Joseph Miller, assistant director of Environmental Health and Safety.

When Bob Alphin discovered two coworkers injured and unconscious on the floor in one of the labs of the C.C. Allen Biotechnology Laboratory, it set in motion a process that soon involved emergency personnel from the campus and state agencies and other institutions.

In this case, the two victims — Brian Ladman and Erin Bernberg — were only pretending to be unconscious, but the pretense had a serious purpose: Testing the University’s emergency response protocols.

The scenario for the full-scale exercise was created by Michael Gladle, director of Environmental Health and Safety, Marcia Nickle, emergency preparedness manager in Campus and Public Safety, and Ladman, who is an associate scientist at Allen Lab, to give participants a chance to see how they might react in a true crisis.

The exercise, which took place Wednesday afternoon, July 27, at Allen Lab, involved not only staff from the lab and the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR), but also participants from UD Police, Environmental Health and Safety, Facilities and the Office of Communications and Marketing, as well as Aetna Hose Hook and Ladder Fire Company, the New Castle County Hazmat/DECON team, the Delaware departments of Agriculture, Public Health and Natural Resources and Environmental Control and Christiana Care Health System at Christiana Hospital. University Media Services taped the exercise for use in future training.

To read the full article please click here to go to UDaily. 

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Sweet watermelons

July 15, 2011 under CANR News

Delaware watermelon connoisseurs are enjoying the moment – local watermelons are now ripe and ready to enjoy. Local watermelons are sweeter and tastier than the out-of-state melons available earlier in the summer, claim their aficionados.

“Local watermelons do taste pretty sweet. And buying local produce when it’s in season helps to support our local growers,” notes Phillip Sylvester, agriculture agent for Kent County Cooperative Extension.

The state’s watermelon crop typically ripens by July 10 and continues through Sept. 25, with the most active harvest period in mid-August.  Delaware’s watermelon industry has declined slightly in recent years but is still strong.  There are more than 2,700 acres of watermelon in Delaware, down from 3,000 acres five years ago. Crop production is currently valued at $11 million annually.

Sylvester always plants watermelons in his home garden in Felton but the bulk of commercial growing takes place further south, in and around Laurel. The well-drained, sandy soils in western Sussex County are excellent for watermelon growing.

This area has been the seat of Delaware’s commercial melon industry since the 1850s, when schooners loaded with watermelon traveled the Nanticoke River to Baltimore and points beyond. More recently, the Laurel Farmers’ Auction Market opened in 1940 to bring wholesale watermelon buyers and sellers together. At one time the price of virtually every Delaware watermelon was negotiated at the Laurel Market. Today, supermarket chains send brokers directly to growers but the market is still used by small- and medium-sized buyers.

Sylvester grows “Crimson Sweet” watermelons because he says they have an exceptionally sweet taste. But this striped heirloom melon will never win any popularity contests, tasty as it might be, because of what some view as an unforgivable downfall – its seeds.

“I don’t care if a watermelon has seeds,” says Sylvester, “but most people do.”

In the 1990s, less than 1 percent of watermelons were seedless. Today, about 75 percent of the watermelons sold in the U.S. are seedless varieties. A seedless watermelon plant contains three sets of chromosomes and is sterile so it must be pollinated by a second plant to set fruit. As a result, growers must pay strict attention to the pollination needs of their seedless watermelon crops. Most growers rent or own honeybee hives but some have started to use bumblebees. UD bee researcher Debbie Delaney and Cooperative Extension fruit and vegetable specialist Gordon Johnson are working with watermelon growers this summer to see if bumblebees improve crop productivity.

Kate Everts also is conducting watermelon research but her projects focus on combating Fusarium wilt. This pestilent pathogen causes one of the most economically significant watermelon diseases worldwide. It causes wilt and plant death early in the season and again when the plant is in fruit. Once a field exhibits severe Fusarium wilt, it’s off limits for watermelon growing for 15 or more years.

Everts, who holds a joint appointment at the University of Delaware and the University of Delaware, collaborates closely with Extension specialists Emmalea Earnest and Gordon Johnson. Her research team focuses on several areas: they’re developing plants resistant to Fusarium wilt, exploring chemical disease measures, and looking at how cover crops can suppress this nasty fungus.

Sylvester is diligent about helping commercial growers obtain maximum yields but when it comes to his own watermelon plot, he adopts a laidback attitude. Though the ag agent know his way around a garden, sometimes pests or weather get the best of his watermelons. Every spring he tells himself “maybe we’ll have watermelons, maybe we won’t.”

However, this summer he hopes for a bumper crop because his 1 1/2-year-old son, Henry, shows a liking for watermelon. What could be better than a “Crimson Sweet,” grown in the backyard by Dad?

Article by Margo McDonough

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Happy National Pollinator Week

June 21, 2011 under CANR News

Debbie Delaney looked like she was feeling the heat on a recent 95-degree day at the University of Delaware apiary, despite the shade of black walnut and tulip poplar trees. It was hard to tell how the 22 hives of honeybees – some two million bees in all – were handling the steamy weather.

But Delaney, an assistant professor of entomology and wildlife ecology in the College of Agricultural and Natural Resources, had no worries. “Bees are much better at thermoregulation than humans are,” says Delaney. “Honeybees maintain strict temperature control. The colony always stays between 89 and 92 degrees, ideal for a honeybee, and the humidity never varies more than 5 percent. Worker bees flap their wings to cool the air and some periodically leave the hive to reduce the effects of body heat.”

Delaney has been researching bees for years but continues to be amazed at their abilities, including staying comfortable in the heat while we wilt. She’d like to see bees get a bit more respect — if not the all-out enthusiasm she displays.

She’ll have an opportunity to spread the word about bees this week, which marks National Pollinator Week. The event recognizes not only bees but all pollinators – birds, butterflies, bats and beetles. One in every three bites of food humans consume has been made possible by one of these pollinators.

Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit organization that sponsors the week, calls bees the primary pollinator of most plants. Delaney agrees, with a slight qualification.

“Bees are definitely the most important pollinator in our state in terms of the numbers and the importance of the crops they pollinate,” she says. “But bats also are important in a different way. Bat-pollinated flowers generally open at night and have distinct floral tube sizes and shapes that can accommodate bats.  So bats are very important pollinators for a certain subset of plants.”

Even while giving bats their due, Delaney rattles off the Delaware crops that bees do pollinate: apples, asparagus, blueberries, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cantaloupe, cucumber, eggplant, honeydew melon, nectarines, peaches, pears, peppers, pumpkins, okra, onion, squash, strawberries, tomatoes and watermelon. She’s quite sure she has missed a few. After all, bees pollinate more than 90 crops in North America.

Non-native honeybees are responsible for some of this pollination. But Delaware’s native bees deserve credit, too.

There are at least 200 native bees in the state, according to the state Department of Agriculture, which recently completed a five-year study of native bees. “Recent research has shown that native bees can play a major role in pollinating agricultural crops,” notes Delaney. “Native bees often will visit flowers in wet or cold weather when honeybees don’t want to come out of their hives. And farmers who use managed honeybees will see increased yields when native bees interact with the crops.”

Wild honeybees – descendants of honeybees introduced by European colonists – also play a role in agricultural pollination. Research on these feral bees may even help combat colony collapse disorder, a poorly understood syndrome that can wipe out entire hives of managed honeybees.

The Feral Bee Project, sponsored by North Carolina State University, asks beekeepers and “citizen scientists” to log the location of wild honeybee hives at the Save the Hives website.

“Colony collapse disorder in domestic honeybees continues to be a major concern,” says Delaney. “We still don’t know the cause or causes of this syndrome. But the Feral Bee Project may give us a better understanding of the role that natural resistance plays in fighting disease or environmental stress, as well as a better understanding of genetic components that contribute to ‘survivor stock.’”

Learn more

To find out more about pollinators and National Pollinator Week, go to the Pollinator Partnership website.

The Brandywine Zoo will be hosting “Pollinator Power” on June 25, a family friendly event from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Article by Margo McDonough

Photos by Danielle Quigley

This article can also be viewed online on UDaily by clicking here.

 

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Ducks in the dark

June 14, 2011 under CANR News

Orrin Jones is doing field work using night-vision riflescopes to study the behavior of the American black duck.

Chris Williams and his University of Delaware research team employ standard tools of the trade for waterfowl research – core drills for core sampling, binoculars for waterfowl viewing and lots of coffee for long stints in duck blinds. But Williams may be the first wildlife biologist to use apparatus more commonly seen on the battlefield – night-vision riflescopes.

Williams, associate professor of wildlife ecology in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is studying the behavior of the American black duck to determine if there are adequate food resources on the Mid-Atlantic coast to support this dabbling duck, which has been identified as a “species of concern” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Although there’s lots of data on the daytime behaviors of the black duck, up until now no one had a good idea what it was up to at night.

“We were aware that the American black duck isn’t exclusively diurnal because of anecdotal knowledge about its nighttime calls,” says Williams. “But we didn’t know the extent of its nocturnal activities because we didn’t have the tools to study this.”

Until recently, night-vision technology wouldn’t have been up to the challenge of detecting subtle movements in the dark-colored (and aptly named) black duck, which is just 13 to 19 inches in height. But night-vision technology has improved dramatically since the military began using it extensively during the Iraq war. The latest devices can amplify light up to 50,000 times, producing clear images even on moonless nights.

It’s critical for Williams to know what black ducks do at night, as well as during the day, so he can accurately determine how much energy the birds expend. With this data, Williams and his research team will be able to establish an area’s “carrying capacity,” the number of birds a habitat can support.

“Habitat loss is a threat to the American black duck,” notes Williams. “Nationwide, black ducks have declined by as much as 60 percent. We need to understand the carrying capacity for the black duck so we can make appropriate land management decisions.”

Graduate student Orrin Jones led the field research for the project, which took place in Edwin B. Forsyth National Wildlife Refuge, six miles north of Atlantic City.  American black ducks overwinter on the Jersey shore, as well as refuges and open land on Delaware’s coast, from November through March.

Field work is never a piece of cake but the black duck project could have qualified for that old reality show America’s Toughest Jobs. Jones, graduate student Jeremiah Heise (who is studying the Atlantic brant but helped with the duck research) and four technicians divvied up round-the-clock shifts, five days a week.

Because it was important to study the duck’s behaviors in a variety of habitat, from high marsh to mud flats, some study sites were only reachable by boat. After 15-minute paddles in a canoe or hour-long motor boat rides, Jones would settle in for the 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift and painstakingly record each time a duck swam, flew or preened. Weather ran the gamut – the infrequent mild spell, but more often, cold, rain, snow or outright blizzard conditions.

“We only missed one day of observation, during the 2010 Super Bowl blizzard, because the snow was too deep even using our 4×4 work trucks,” he says.

But for Jones field work is a piece of cake compared to what this summer holds – hour after hour inside a climate-controlled laboratory, where Williams’ research team is cataloging how much energy was available in the marsh core samples.

Working in the laboratory as part of the black duck research are Zariel Johnson, Alexandra Joesten, Amanda Dunbar and Marissa Goldstein.

“I enjoy the challenges of rugged field work; it’s one of the reasons I got into avian research,” says Jones. “It’s going to be hard to be stuck inside.”

Hard but necessary. It takes about 64 hours in the lab to analyze data from each quadrant of marsh studied, estimates Williams. All told, that’s 8,000 hours of lab work for Williams’ research team.

“The American black duck was once one of the more abundant waterfowl species in eastern North America,” says Williams. “I hope this research gives us a much better understanding of the black duck’s habitat needs.”

Article by Margo McDonough

Photos by Danielle Quigley

View this article online on UDaily by clicking here.

 

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