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UC Master Gardeners' 5 tips to boost beneficial bees

With a little care and planning, anyone can make their little corner of the earth safe and friendly for bees.

UC Master Gardener volunteer Clare Bhakta of San Joaquin County shared bee-friendly strategies during a community workshop in August, extending the reach of research information developed by UC Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"Lure bees in," Bhakta said. "If you make it comfy, they will come."

UC Master Gardener Clare Bhakta leads the "Buzz about Bees" workshop in San Joaquin County.

Bhakta is a newly minted Master Gardener, having graduated in June from the intensive training program presented by UC advisors and specialists. She is part of the San Joaquin County MG speakers bureau; the "Buzz about Bees" was her inaugural engagement.

"We want bees in our gardens," Bhakta said. "Ninety percent of flowering plants and 75 percent of human crops depend on pollinators, including bees. Bee pollination makes about $15 billion in human food in the United States each year."

What's good for bees also attracts other pollinators. Here a yellow butterfly lands on lantana in the San Joaquin County demonstration garden, 2101 E. Earhart Ave., Stockton.

About 1,600 species of bees are found in California, many of them natives. Most of the bee species live independently, occupying holes in trees trunks or branches, or in the ground. Their sizes range from inch-long metallic black bumble bees to tiny sweat bees 3 millimeters in length. These species rarely sting since they don't have hives to protect. 

California's most recognizable bee is the European honeybee, imported from the Old Country by settlers in the 1600s. The insects serve as efficient pollinators and produce more honey than they can use themselves - offering humans an abundance of natural golden sweetener with antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.

Bees work hard to produce honey. It takes 2 million flower visits - about 55,000 flight miles - to make a pound of honey. An individual worker bee lives just six weeks and produces about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

Sharon Butler is the president of the Ripon Community Garden. She attended the UC Master Gardener workshop to get research-based information on bee-friendly gardening.
 

Sharon Butler, president of the Ripon Community Garden, attended the free workshop. The 2.5-acre garden at the corner of Vera and Doak avenues has dozens of raised garden plots. The community just added several bee hives. Butler asked at the workshop about an unexplained phenomenon in their first honey harvest. 

"A couple of racks had dark spots with honey that had a cinnamon taste," she said.

Bhatka said the variation was probably the result of nectar from different plants.

"I wish I knew what plant it is, I'd plant a lot more," Butler said.

The Ripon Community Garden allows local families to grow food, and allocates four beds to grow fresh vegetables to distribute to local senior citizens.

Creating a bee friendly garden may go against the grain for tidy gardeners. Bees don't prefer the well-trimmed plants and homogeneous color scheme of a formal outdoor space.

"Bees love herbs," Bhakta said. "I let my sage go crazy this year and I couldn't believe how tall they got."

Marbles give bees a place to land and sip water.
Bees like a wide variety of plants that bloom from early spring to late fall planted in clumps to minimize their travel time. Sweetly aromatic blooms, particularly blues and yellows, will attract the most bees. 

For best results, don't over garden. Follow these five tips from the UC Master Gardener program:

  1. Rather than cover all soil with mulch, leave open areas for ground nesting bees.

  2. Keep a few dead tree stumps or branches. Particularly if it has holes, it makes an ideal nesting site for solitary bees.

  3. Let plants "go to seed," even when they begin to look overgrown and leggy.

  4. Provide a shallow water source. Filling it with pebbles or marbles allows the bees access to the water.

  5. Avoid using pesticides. Visit the UC Integeted Pest Management website for environmentally sound methods of controlling pests and weeds.

 

Posted on Monday, August 28, 2017 at 8:37 AM

Powers of microbes: UC Davis graduate students get creative to teach farmers about soil microbiology

If you grew up in the 1980s or 1990s (or were a child at heart during that era), the famous Powers of Ten film likely left an indelible mark in your mind.

The film starts with a couple lounging on a picnic blanket and zooms out to the outer reaches of the universe, then back in to peer into the microscopic world of the human body: from white blood cells to DNA, and finally down to the proton of a carbon atom.

In its short 9-minute run time, Powers of Ten manages to inflame an existential angst about the size of a single human life while at the same time connecting the viewer to the beauty of the universe and the human body.

As a high school student watching the video, it filled me with the same sense of awe that I felt the first time I heard Carl Sagan's famous quote that “we are all made of star stuff.” 

Powers of Ten reminds us that looking at the world from different perspectives, from the very tiny to the immensely large, helps create a better understanding of the natural world, our place within it, and how we can impact it for good.

Had Powers of Ten returned from outer space by zooming into a piece of soil rather than a the human body, it would have explored the billions of living creatures in one handful of soil, slowly scaling down from millipedes to earthworms to ants to nematodes to protozoa, and finally down to the soil's bacteria and fungi that make up the base of the soil food web.

The video might then have looked a lot like the recent workshop at the Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility, which served as a science fair for farmers and researchers to learn about the minuscule but powerful soil microbe.

PhD student Daniel Rath teaches principles of soil aggregates at Russell Ranch's recent Soil Health Workshop
Through hands-on demonstrations using everything from soccer balls to building blocks, sponges, and food coloring as props, graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in UC Davis' Soil Microbial Ecology Lab lead by soil microbiologist and professor Kate Scow explained the role and importance of these invisible players in soil to the people who depend on direct observation for much of their work: farmers.

While farmers often have a baseline knowledge about soil microbiology and its importance on the farm, “the science is evolving so quickly at this point, that it can be hard to keep up,” said attendee Margaret Lloyd, UC Cooperative Extension advisor  who works with small-scale farmers in Yolo and Sacramento counties.

The workshop coupled foundational principles of soil microbiology with practical on-farm management situations, making the case for farmers to actively consider soil bacteria, fungi, and other micro organisms in their decision-making process.

Jessica Chiartas, a fourth-year graduate student in soil microbiology and one of the workshop organizers, is somewhat of a soil science evangelist.

Her hope was to help workshop attendees better understand that “soils are not just physical, chemical systems. A majority of the processes that take place underfoot are biologically driven. Soils are living and breathing bodies and much like us, they need to be fed, covered, and protected from disturbance” in order to function in the long term.

PhD student Jessica Chiartas demonstrates how carbon sequestration differs in different soil types

Scaling down

The scale of microbial activity in soil makes it challenging to help farmers dig into just what scientists are talking about when they talk about microbes. 

“It's important to talk about the scale of microbes,” Chiartas said. “So much of what goes on in soils is mediated by microbes and the scale that they operate on is far different than the scale we measure them at. Our typical method of soil sampling and analysis is analogous to harvesting whole fields of crops, chopping them up, throwing them in a heap and then trying to glean information about the individual plants.”

The presenters at the soil health workshop used vivid analogies to translate the abstract results of scientific research and hard-to-imagine scales into concrete, relatable concepts.

A single gram of soil may contain a billion bacteria, and several miles of fungal hyphae, the web-like growth of fungus. Translated into human scale, the numbers are mind boggling.

If a single microbe were a 6-foot-tall person, then a single millimeter of soil would be as tall as the empire state building. A typical soil bacterium contains as many DNA letters in its chromosome as two copies of “War and Peace.” A stack of copies of “War and Peace” equivalent to bacterial DNA from a single teaspoon of soil would be larger than the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Radomir Schmidt explains microbial biodiversity

A soil information revolution

The metaphors of scale are a fun thought experiment, and they could provide a jumping-off point for a discussion between farmers and scientists essential for improving our current understanding of soil as a living system. Climate change is expected to amplify the  effects of soil erosion, compaction, nutrient leaching and other issues common in our current agricultural systems.

“We need improved management that works with the soil ecosystem to increase crop production while enhancing soil health,” said Radomir Schmidt, a postdoctoral researcher and workshop organizer. ”That's going to take a concerted effort and open dialog between farmers, scientists, and citizen scientists to discover, test, and implement these methods in the real world.”

We are now in the era of “soil information revolution," Schmidt said. As our knowledge of the soil microbiome expands, implementing this knowledge in agricultural practice is more and more possible.

This graduate student cohort is well-positioned to make the necessary connections, learning from farmers while helping them zoom in to see the essential lifeforms that impact their farm, then zoom out to help make decisions that are good for the farmer, good for the crop, and good for the microbe.

Farmers in the Davis area will have another opportunity to learn soil health fundamentals at a workshop this fall hosted by the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program and Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility. Details about the workshop will be posted here.

Postdoctoral researcher Radomir Schmidt discusses the scale and diversity of microbes in different agricultural management systems
Posted on Wednesday, August 23, 2017 at 9:08 AM

August 19th is National Honey Bee Day: Dr. Elina Niño reminds us to help honey bees cope with pests

National Honey Bee Day is celebrated on the third Saturday of every August. This year it falls on Saturday the 19th. If you use integrated pest management, or IPM, you are probably aware that it can solve pest problems and reduce the use of pesticides that harm beneficial insects, including honey bees. But did you know that it is also used to manage pests that live inside honey bee colonies? In this timely podcast below, Elina Niño, UC Cooperative Extension apiculture extension specialist, discusses the most serious pests of honey bees, how beekeepers manage them to keep their colonies alive, and what you can do to help bees survive these challenges.

https://soundcloud.com/ucipm/help-honey-bees-cope-with-pests

To read the full transcript of the audio, click here.

Successful IPM in honey bee colonies involves understanding honey bee pest biology, regularly monitoring for pests, and using a combination of different methods to control their damage.

Visit the following resources for more information

For beekeepers:

For all bee lovers:

Sources on the value of honey bees:

 

 

Posted on Thursday, August 17, 2017 at 9:14 AM

4-H and Google team up to teach youth computer science

California is one of 22 states in the nation where a new Google career education program was launched today. The Internet search giant has donated $1.5 million to the National 4‑H Council to build skills youth will need for the future, like computer science, computational thinking, communication and collaboration, reported Christopher Walljasper on AgWeb.

Google.org choose to partner with 4-H to provide education to the nation's youth.

The funding lays the foundation to launch the 4‑H Computer Science Career Pathway, which will reach more than 100,000 kids in its first year. 4-H members in Alabama, California, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia will have access to new devices, curriculum and training.

President of National 4-H Council Jennifer Sirangelo said the career pathway will translate abstract concepts to relatable, practical experiences the 4-H members can use to explore the field of computer science, beginning from interest to studying computer science to choosing computer science for a career.

"We're excited to partner with all the enthusiasm and energy of the Googlers," she said.

Charlotte Smith of Google.org noted that 4-H is the largest community based organization in America.

"We already have 22 states signed up. That's more than we dreamed of," Smith said.

Smith said Google wants kids to develop the skills they will need in the future.

"We don't know what the jobs of tomorrow will look like," Smith said. "Some of them might require computer science skills, but it's much more than that - problem solving, collaboration. We want to give kids as many kinds of tools as we can so they can succeed in any discipline and any field."

Posted on Friday, August 11, 2017 at 3:01 PM

Sunpreme raisins a hit at the UC Kearney Grape Day 2017

Excitement over the new Sunpreme raisins was evident at UC Kearney Grape Day Aug. 8, 2017. As soon as the tram stopped, dozens of farmers and other industry professionals rushed over to the vineyard to take a close look and sample the fruit. Raisins pulled from the vine were meaty with very little residual seed. The flavor was a deep, sweet floral with a muscat note.

Sunpreme raisins, bred by now-retired USDA breeder David Ramming, promise a nearly labor-free raisin production system. Traditionally, raisins are picked and placed on paper trays on the vineyard floor to dry. The development of dried-on-the-vine varieties opened the door to greater mechanization. Workers would cut the stems above clusters of grapes, which then dry out in the canopy and are harvested mechanically. The new wrinkle with Sunpreme is that grapes ripen and then start to dry on their own - no cane cutting needed.

Sunpreme raisins drying on their own in a Kearney vineyard.

UC Cooperative Extension viticulture specialist Matthew Fidelibus and UCCE viticulture advisor George Zhuang are now studying the performance of Sunpreme grapes on different rootstocks and trellis systems at the UC Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center.

"We didn't know a lot about this variety," Fidelibus said. "We've found it to be very vigorous."

Fidelibus said the raisins take about a month to dry, and one challenge is the tendency for dried raisins to drop off the vine.

"We want to keep the self drying and stop self dropping," he said.

UCCE specialist Matt Fidelibus is conducting rootstock and trellis system experiments on Sunpreme raisins.

Ramming discovered the Sunpreme variety in a Thompson seedless table grape variety trial in the mid-1990s. He was going down the row, saw clusters of raisins and screeched to a stop. He had discovered Sunpreme. The variety is not yet available for commercial production. 

UCCE viticulture advisor emeritus George Levitt, left, chats with retired USDA breeder David Ramming at Grape Day 2017.

Fighting nematodes with new solutions

UCCE nematology specialist Andreas Westphal in front of a Sauvignon Blanc vineyard where nematode treatments are under study. UCCE farm advisor George Zhuang is holding the chart.

Also during Grape Day 2017, UC Cooperative Extension nemotology specialist Andreas Westphal outlined research underway to keep nematodes at bay.

"There's no methyl bromide in commercial planting," Westphal said. The very effective fumigant was banned because of it's tendency to deplete ozone in the atmosphere and the risk to human health because of its toxicity. Many farmers have turned to Telone as an alternative, however it is expensive and its use is limited by a township cap.

Westphal is comparing alternative treatments for clearing the soil of the tiny worms that feed on vine roots and inhibit vineyard productivity. 

"Some companies are coming up with new chemistry," Westphal said. "Our challenge in the perennial world is that the roots go so deep."

UCCE specialist Andrea Westphal addresses the crowd.

Seven new products and Telon were drenched in different replicated research plots. Some areas were left alone to serve as control. Three times the number of Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in the plots compared to a typical vineyard so researchers could take out plants twice and examine the roots for evidence of pests.

"We are excited to see significant growth differences among the treatments," Westphal said, pointing out a row that was visibly shorter and less vigorous. "It amazed me. Three years after treatment, and it never grew back out of it."

Work is still ongoing, but Westphal said he believes some chemical treatment could be available in the future to help reduce nematode pressure.

To deal with nematode populations, Westphal encouraged growers to sample soil and communicate with the diagnostic laboratory to determine what pest nematodes are in their vineyards, and then use that information for root stock selection.

"Growers should not forget the value of nematode-resistant rootstocks," he said. "Plant material needs to be chosen very carefully when different species of nematodes are present."

Posted on Friday, August 11, 2017 at 11:38 AM

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