What’s in YOUR honey? It may not be the nectar you expected.

This month’s National Geographic has a brief article from an ongoing study of the DNA profiles of urban honey. While we can all observe honeybees visiting flowers in our own gardens, until recently we could only assume what nectar they were collecting for honey production. This tantalizing snippet completely blew me away.

Honey collection

The study, undertaken by an entomologist who founded the Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary, is sampling urban hives from major cities, including Boston, Portland (OR), New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC. For each of these cities, National Geographic reports the top three plants for honeybees based on relative DNA levels.

Here’s what I found amazing about this research:

      • The top sugar sources are from TREES. Not wildflowers. We don’t see bees visiting trees as easily as we see them visiting flowers, so our perceptions are biased. Over 75% of the sugar used for urban honey is from trees.

        Honeybee visiting flowering tree
      • The trees that are most popular for bee visitation are not necessarily native to those regions. Seattle bees, for instance, prefer linden and cypress trees, neither of which are part of the native coniferous forest. Likewise, the despised eucalyptus trees of San Francisco are one of the top three sugar sources.

        Flowers and leaves of linden
    • You’ll notice that I didn’t use the word “nectar” in describing what bees are collecting. That’s because much of the sugar they are gleaning isn’t coming from flowers. It’s coming from sap-sucking insects like aphids that produce honeydew. Bees apparently collect honeydew as well as floral nectar.

      Aphids!
    • Urban areas usually have higher plant diversity than rural areas, given the variety of woody and herbaceous plants that people use in their gardens and landscapes. The researchers speculate that this higher plant diversity may be one reason that urban hives are healthier and more productive than rural ones.

      Garden beehive

Many gardeners operate under the assumption that native plants are the best choice for gardens and landscapes. Though certain landscapes (like those undergoing ecological restoration) should only be planted with natives, there is no evidence-based reason that we shouldn’t be using non-invasive, introduced species as part of our planting palette.  In fact, research has demonstrated that tree species nativity plays only a minor role in urban landscape biodiversity: most animals learn to use new resources in their environment. Honeybees, considered to be “super-generalists” insects, are demonstrating that in spades.

Our New Year’s Resolution – to keep you informed and entertained every week.

Happy New Year!

The Garden Professor’s collective resolution is to have at least one new blog post a week for 2018. So I’m kicking things off with a little fact checking on the claims made for a product that’s “a complete ecosystem in a bottle.” The company touts its strong connection to science (“our products revolve around biology”). There is a long list of ingredients and claims – way too much for one post. We’ll start with the first four this week.

All this can be yours if the price is right!

Ingredient claim #1: “Chitin/chitin degrading Bacillus: Chitin is a natural polymer that is found in crustaceans, such as crabs, lobsters, shrimp and oysters as well as other organisms, such as insects, worms and fungi. When added to the soil ecosystem, chitin (also referred to as chitosan) promotes the growth of chitin-degrading bacteria. These bacteria, in turn, create a hostile environment for pathogenic fungi and parasitic nematodes. Chitin also acts directly on plants to promote tissue repair and disease resistance.”

Fact check #1: A couple of technical points: oysters don’t have chitin. And they’re not crustaceans. They are MOLLUSKS. They have shells with CALCIUM. And chitosan is not the same thing as chitin. It’s an industrially produced material that comes from chitin.

Not a crustacean.

Chitin is indeed found in arthropods, which include crustaceans and insects. Now, most of us don’t have crabs, lobsters and shrimp roaming our landscape, but we do have insects. Lots of them. They produce a lot of chitin when they molt and when they die. Do you really think we need to add more chitin for Bacillus to consumer? I sure haven’t seen any science supporting that practice.

What about the Bacillus species that degrade chitin? Well, if you’ve got insects in your landscape, you can bet you’ve got microbes that break down chitin as well. Otherwise you’d be up to your garden boots in chitin carcasses. So why do we need to add more bacteria?

Imagine billions of these in your garden…

Finally, there’s no evidence that chitin applied to plants in the landscape has any effect whatsoever. You might get responses in the lab, and chitosan (not chitin) might have some direct application. But like many other elicitors, you have to get it inside the plant to have a cellular effect. And plants are particularly adept at keeping things like decomposing bug bits outside of their tissues.

Ingredient claim #2: “Compost tea: The disease suppressive characteristics of compost have long been known and therefore the liquid extracts from compost, known as compost teas are being use to battle plant disease while stimulating plant growth. Beneficial organisms including bacteria (primarily from the genera Bacillus, Pseudomonas, and Penicillium) along with some yeast and fungi form a physical barrier against disease causing agents and provide a competitive environment in which the pathogenic species lose out. In addition, compost teas stimulate plant growth, translating into a healthier plant, which is more resistant to attack from disease. Compost teas have shown effectiveness in the control of late blight, grey mold, downy and powdery mildew, fusarium wilt, and apple scab among many others.”

The visuals are more interesting than the product.

Fact check #2. Just because compost has disease suppressing characteristics doesn’t mean that water leaching through it will have the same. We’ve been hearing for years that compost tea suppresses disease. Where’s the definitive research? It’s a topic I’ve been following for nearly two decades and there’s still nothing that’s consistently effective. (Another technical point here: it’s illegal to make pesticidal claims of a product that’s not registered for that use. Company lawyers may want to review that.)

There are many species of bacteria, including the ones mentioned, that form protective and beneficial biofilms on plant tissues such as fine roots. You can find these bacteria in compost and other sources of organic material – that’s their food source. You won’t find many of them in compost tea.

I’d love to see evidence of anything stimulating plant growth other than plant growth regulators (or hormones as they’re sometimes called).

Aren’t marketers getting tired of compost teas yet? I’m getting tired of hearing about them. I reviewed the science about them 10 years ago and haven’t seen anything to warrant an update.

Ingredient claim #3: “Essential oils: or essences they are called, are highly concentrated substances extracted from various parts of aromatic plants and trees. Essential oils are combined with other carrier oils and teas for stabilization. Essential oils are used against plant pests and disease by interfering with their reproduction and feeding habits while protecting beneficial predatory organisms.”

We like them, ergo they work.

Fact check #3: Essential oils have no documented benefit when applied outdoors. They can be effective in closed spaces, like homes and greenhouses, but they dissipate quickly outside. What I really want to see, however, is the mechanism by which oils can identify – and actually protect! – beneficial insects while killing pests. (Hey, lawyers…we’ve got another pesticidal claim here…)

Ingredient claim #4: “Streptomyces griseoviridis: Is a naturally occurring soil bacteria. The microbe deprives pathogenic fungi of living space and nourishment by colonizing roots in advance of fungi. In addition the microbe secretes various enzymes and metabolites which inhibit pathogenic growth. Streptomyces griseoviridis has been shown to promote the growth and yield of all plants. Streptomyces griseoviridis is used for the prevention of root and stem rot, Pythium, Rhizoctonia, Helminthosporium, Sclerotinia, among others.”

All those stickers keep the bad guys from colonizing.

Fact check #4: While this is a naturally occurring soil bacterium, it’s not clear where it naturally occurs. EPA information states it was first isolated in Finland from peat bogs. Is this something we should be introducing to our own soils? Its effectiveness in disease control and plant performance is sporadic and confined primarily to greenhouse application on crop plants. The diseases listed are common in greenhouses, but not necessarily in gardens and landscapes (presumably because there are natural controls outdoors in healthy soils). There is certainly nothing to support its use in gardens and landscapes, especially considering that many native, beneficial bacterial species can colonize plant roots and act as a protective biofilm.

Stay tuned for next time!

Dowsing for dollars

Recently I was at the Northwest Flower and Garden show and spoke to a gardener who was excited about some new information from his garden club meeting. Their speaker was a dowser – who promotes dowse gardening.

Traditional dowsing for water

Now this was a new concept for me. I’ve heard of dowsing, of course, in the context of finding underground water. But dowse gardening?

Fortunately, my gardening friend shared his handout with me. I did a little Internet sleuthing and found the author, whose goal was to combine her two interests: dowsing and gardening. In a 2003 column, she stated “My main focus is ways of using subtle energy to get good crops or gardens.”

For me, this was an immediate red flag. It’s very much like the author’s motivation in The Sound of Music and Plants. Searching for a topic for an undergraduate research topic, she asked “What in the world can I do with music and plants?” Trying to force two unrelated subjects together without preliminary data to suggest the pairing is not a logical approach to scientific inquiry.

Anyway. Back to dowse gardening. It would take me weeks to dissect all of the claims made in the handout. In brief, the presentation explains how to find energy, how to receive and broadcast energy, and how to use “subtle energy” to grow healthier plants and control pests.

This circle garden just looks sad and lonely.

Unfortunately, the specifics on exactly how this happens were not given. But attendees were advised to create circle gardens (they are energy outgoing), to use earth energies to determine where and where not to grow plants, and to use prayers and crystals to improve seed sprouting. At least in this last case there were data:

“Prayers over seeds -30% increase in sprouting and production – energy! Next step – crystals pointed at sprouting seeds, 50% increase in sprouting and production – energy!”

And finally, there were all kinds of products that were recommended, including

  • French coils for “inducing beneficial energies in trees and larger perennials”
  • Energized water made by a process “that can transform our banal tap water back to its natural potent state as the elixir of life”
  • Sonic Bloom – an “organic fertilizer applied with sound”
  • Slim Spurling’s Light Life Tools which “support the work of environmental clearing, air pollution clearing, energy balancing, water improvement, alternative agriculture methods, insect control without sprays, beneficial insect enhancement, alternative health methods, personal self-care, computer radiation reduction, EMF pollution reduction, personal life improvement as well as business improvement”
  • Intrinsic Data Field Analyzer – “a consciousness interactive instrument that has been used experimentally to detect and balance the IDFs of plants, animals, minerals, and virtually all animate and inanimate objects”
What you’ll need to detect subtle energy

As a scientist, it’s easy for me to discount all of this as silliness. But the fact remains that many people, including gardeners, long for mystical approaches to life. And unfortunately there are always going to be hucksters waiting to take advantage of that longing.

The Garden Professors rise again

It’s been over a year since I’ve posted to our blog.

I feel bad about that. But there’s always something else competing for my time, and the blog slipped away from the top of my “to do” list.

No more.

Today the federal government has clamped down on the ability of its scientists to communicate with the public. This is real – and it is frightening.

There’s not much I can do about that edict in my position as a state Extension specialist. But as a state Extension specialist I have a responsibility to translate and transmit information to the public relevant to my discipline. So here’s my offer.

If you are, or if you know, a federal scientist who has information relevant to my discipline (applied plant and soil sciences) that you want the public to see, send it to me. I will post it here, and in our social media, keeping the source anonymous.

Science will NOT be suppressed. Yes, that sounds dramatic, but I don’t think any of my colleagues foresaw what is happening with the new administration. It’s time to act.

Thanks to "The scientist, Photos and The o'jays on Pinterest"
Thanks to “The scientist, Photos and The o’jays on Pinterest”

Watch a silly product morph into a lawsuit

A few years ago someone emailed me information on another garden miracle – this time a product called Mighty Wash. I found my notes on this product as I wondered what I should post about today. The sales information at the time advertised Mighty Wash as “frequency water” (which we’ll get to in a minute). Here’s part of the original advertisement:

Mostly water - plus "pink sauce" according to lawsuit documents
Mostly water – plus “pink sauce” according to lawsuit documents

“Mighty Wash is a new revolutionary way to solve your spider mite problem in all stages of development from eggs to adults…Mighty Wash is a ready to use “Frequency Imprinted” foliar spray. It is imprinted with special frequencies which target fleshy bodied insects. The use of frequency is nothing new to our world, and as you probably know all things have a frequency. What makes our products special is the fact that our proprietary frequencies are holding and stable for at least 2 years and running.

“One attribute of our Mighty wash is that it paralyzes the insect on contact not allowing it to flood out eggs and begin the resistance process! Essentially there is no resilience that can be gained from or product unlike so many others, and without the use of any chemicals. Mighty Wash does have very low levels of our naturally derived botanical oils, along with frequency make it the cleanest solution to your spider mite problem.”

Mites "flooding out eggs" [Photo source Wikipedia}
Mites “flooding out eggs” [Photo source Wikipedia]
When I looked for the manufacturer’s current information (an LLC called NPK), I couldn’t find reference to “frequency water” and its miraculous properties. After a bit of internet digging, I discovered that Mighty Wash was the subject of a bitter trademark dispute.  For me, the best thing about this dispute is the deposition, which states exactly what the original makers of Mighty Wash claim their products do:

“Yeti invented and manufactures three plant washes using a confidential and proprietary formula and process that includes electronic frequency imprinting.”

They accused the defendant of making knock off products “not manufactured using Yeti’s proprietary formula and process” resulting in products “substantially less effective than Yeti’s Products.”

Leaving the legal battle for a minute, let’s see try to figure out how this product is manufactured. “Frequency Water” is water that’s been exposed to vibrational energy or to minute quantities of dissolved substances. That’s the “electronic frequency imprinting” which is referred to in the legal complaint; it’s also called “water memory” and is the foundation for explaining how homeopathic dilutions work.

Homeopathic medications are diluted until nothing is left except water [[Photo from Wikipedia]
Homeopathic medications are diluted until nothing is left except water and presumably the memory of the substance [Photo source Wikipedia]
It will come as no surprise to readers of this blog that there’s no reliable, published science behind any of this. What is surprising is the amount of money these companies make on selling water in a spray bottle. Mighty Wash and related washes (PM Wash, Power Wash, and Ultimate Wash [which is “Mighty Wash without food coloring”]) must generate healthy sales for two companies to squabble over the trademark of a product that is basically…water.

And the Irony Prize goes to the charges of fraud and false advertising leveled at NPK by Yeti Enterprises.

Academic freedom vs. science-based advice

Those of you that have followed The Garden Professors for some time know that Jeff Gillman and I are relentless in our pursuit of gardening myths to explode. Social media – Facebook in particular – seems to be a natural breeding ground for dumb and/or dangerous home remedies that go viral. Most of these have no basis in actual science and are easy to dismiss. Other recommendations may have some science behind them, but a careful review of the literature often shows that the bulk of research does not support that particular practice or product. These ones are trickier to deal with, and nothing has been trickier for either me or Jeff than compost tea.

Nurseries often carry compost tea products (this one is now defunct)
Nurseries often carry compost tea products (this one is now defunct)

The two of us have posted extensively on this topic in the last six years: just use the search function over in the left hand column of this blog and type in “compost tea”. You’ll find enough reading to keep you busy for a while. I summarized the state of the literature a few years ago in the now-defunct MasterGardener Magazine and to be honest the accumulated literature hasn’t changed much in terms of generating solid science supporting compost tea use. But its popularity seems to be increasing among landscape professionals and gardeners alike.

Informed Gardener page

I get a lot of questions on compost tea from Master Gardeners in particular, who are bound by their positions as university volunteers to use science-based information. One of their major resources is the state university associated with their program – and recently this has become a problem for WSU Master Gardeners. Because on the Washington State University website you can find one professor who cites the lack of credible, consistent science on compost tea usage and another professor who provides workshops and webinars on making and using compost tea. Master Gardeners are understandably confused about what they can recommend and irritated that their university provides conflicting information. Why, they ask, does the university allow this to happen?

GP page

The answer is found in one of the most important values that universities protect: the academic freedom for faculty to speak their minds. Ideally this means that faculty can speak up about topics that are unpopular with university administrators without fear of reprisal, but it also means faculty have a soapbox on pretty much any topic they wish. And that’s whether or not they have any expertise or credibility on that topic. (For a particularly egregious example, one needs look no farther than prestigious MIT who has a research scientist with no expertise in biology or chemistry but who publishes articles in marginal journals linking glyphosate – the active ingredient in Roundup – to just about every known human malady.) Universities tend not step into this fray as it is a slippery slope – who decides what faculty speech should be censured and which should not?

GP group

How can Master Gardeners and others decide what information to believe? Well, that’s actually the mission of this blog and our Facebook page and group – to provide the best current gardening science and to help the public increase their scientific literacy skills. Science is not immutable – it advances as credible, published evidence accumulates. When and if compost tea ever becomes a consistent, effective product, we will be the first ones to share that information.

Moss magic

In my opinion, no coastal Pacific NW garden is complete without moss softening the edges of a rock garden or nestling between paving stones. Now that the rains have returned, mosses are lush green sponges, absorbing sound as well as water. They are the finishing touches to our native landscapes.

Bloedel Reserve moss garden
Bloedel Reserve moss garden

A few months ago, however, mosses looked quite different. With our particularly hot and droughty summer, mosses were brown, dry and brittle just like our lawns. But unlike those dead blades of grass, the mosses were only in a state of environmental dormancy. All it took to revive them was water.

Here’s a patch of moss in our home landscape during a hot dry spell. It’s dry and brown:

Dormant moss
Dormant moss

Here’s the same patch of moss 20 minutes after I watered it:

It's a garden miracle!
It’s a garden miracle!

How can mosses recover so quickly? Well, mosses are one of the most primitive groups of land plants still in existence. They lack a true vascular system, so their “roots” are only anchoring structures – they don’t absorb water. Instead, water and nutrients are taken up over the leaf surface. As soon as water hits the leaves, it’s absorbed and literally throws the switch to turn everything back on. Leaves expand, chloroplasts start to absorb sunlight, and the photosynthetic machine is humming along.

In fact, my undergraduate major advisor was a bryologist (one who studies mosses). Jack Lyford’s lab was stacked ceiling-high with shoe boxes. Each box contained a different species of moss – completely dried out of course. All he had to do was take out a piece and place it in a dish of water. Within minutes it was fully functional and ready for study.

So make room for some moss in your garden. It’s a tough and fascinating little survivor.