Eggplants getting their buzz on

eggplantflower

I was checking my eggplants today, and watching the bumble bees getting busy with the large purple flowers. As they flew in, buzzing away, they landed on the flower and kept buzzing — but the note changed, dropping in pitch. The bumble bee hummed away for a while, then flew off to the next flower.

I was watching buzz pollination at work. Egg plants, and a lot of other flowers, don’t leave their pollen hanging out in the open where any ant or fly that happens by could eat it. Rather they wrap them up in little packages that, when vibrated at just the right rate by a buzzing bumble bee, sends the pollen shooting out, so that bumble bees, which pollinate effectively, can access the pollen, but other insects, that would just eat it all, can’t.

In the garden, it isn’t easy to catch a glimpse of the pollen spewing forth, but luckily there are videos. Thank goodness for youtube. Watch it, and next time you are in your garden and hear a bee land in the flower and suddenly change the tone of its buzz, know you are seeing — and hearing — buzz pollination at work.

Cross-pollination making you cross?

No, your cucumbers have not hybridized with your melons.

I’ve been fielding different versions of the same question a LOT lately.
Three different people have sent pictures of “cucumelons” telling me they planted cucumbers next to their melons, and now the cucumbers look strange, so they’re concerned that they have cross pollinated with the melons. One person planted what was supposed to be a red raspberry next to their yellow raspberry, but the new plant is producing yellow fruit, so they think that it must be cross pollinating with their yellow plant, causing the fruits to turn yellow. Not to mention similar queries about tomatoes, peppers, and watermelons. It seems like every time a piece of produce turns out looking differently than what people expect, they blame pollen from the plant next to it.

I’m sure the highly educated readers of The Garden Professors know this already, but to clarify, there is a very simple reason why you don’t need to worry about one plant pollinating another plant and changing the quality of your produce UNLESS you are planning on saving seeds to grow for the next year.

When a flower is pollinated and starts developing into a fruit full of seeds, it is only the seeds themselves that combine the genetics of the two parents to develop into something new. Everything else – the flesh of a tomato, or cucumber or melon or raspberry – is produced solely by the mother plant, and the daddy of those seeds inside doesn’t matter a bit. Think about when a woman is pregnant… the identity of the father of the child inside her doesn’t change the character of the skin of her belly.

If you want to save seeds of your plant for next year, it is another matter, and you should be sure to isolate or (better yet) hand pollinate different varieties of the same species from each other to make sure they don’t hybridize unintentionally. You still don’t need to worry about your cucumbers and melons, however – they won’t hybridize by chance in your garden. If a plant doesn’t produce the right colored fruit or flower, most likely it was just mislabeled at the nursery. Grow a strange looking cucumber, chances are it was left on the plant too long. Cucumbers are harvested and eaten when young and immature, leave them too long and they get… strange looking. No need to blame it on the melons next to them.

There IS one exception to this, one common plant in the garden where the source of pollen makes a huge difference in what you harvest: Corn. Corn is the exception because what we’re eating is the seed itself, not the fruit produced by the mother plant surrounding the seed. That’s why if your sweet corn gets a dose of pollen from the field corn the farmer is grown next door, it comes out starchy and not sweet.

It also makes breeding colorful corn for fall decorations REALLY fun… Because when you see a multicolored ears of corn like this from my garden last year:

multicolored corn
You can carefully pick out just the seeds showing the colors you like best, say the palest blues and pinks, sow them together the next year, and get something looking like this:

pink and blue corn
Or plant all the darkest kernels together and get this:

black corn

Are Pretty Flowers Useful?

Yesterday I had the opportunity to listen to Marla Spivak, a very highly regarded bee scientist, talk about how bees defend themselves from disease.  Very interesting stuff.  I took a lot of information away from the talk, two bits of which I want to share with you.

The first is a vocabulary word — propolis – go ahead, google it (I don’t think too much inappropriate stuff will pop up) – it’s an antimicrobial “ointment” which bees create from stuff like the resins on tree buds.

The second is that the number of bee colonies is the US has been going down in the US since 1945 for a number of reasons.  One of the most important of which is the fact that we like to kill flowers, such as dandelions and clover, which bees like, and then we plant crappy flowers – at least as far as the bees are concerned.  The whole crappy flower thing isn’t something that I’d spent much time thinking about, so it was kind of an ah-ha moment for me.

Here’s how it works.  People tend to like double flowers.  Double flowers usually occur because the male parts of the flowers – the parts which normally contain pollen – instead develop into petals.  It’s a mutation – very pretty – but it inhibits the flower from reproducing itself through seed and it certainly isn’t great for bees who rely on pollen for food.  So when we plant our gardens we are removing plants that bees may love because we consider them weeds.  Then we replace these flowers with what amounts to plastic fruit.  My opinion – this is probably more significant to the lives of both honey bees and native bees than whether we plant natives or exotics.

So let your yard go wild!  The bees will thank you.

Bees and Pesticides

I had the opportunity to read a disturbing post over at Garden Rant the other day about the insecticide clothianidin and how the EPA required its producer, Bayer, to run tests on the safety of using plants grown from seeds treated with clothianidin for bees.  Tests which were, apparently, never carried out appropriately.  This post sent me over to another site, AlterNet, which explained the problem in detail.  In a nutshell what happened is that the EPA asked Bayer to run some tests on how its new pesticide might affect bees. Bayer was unresponsive at first, but eventually did run some tests (which were not what you would call robust) which showed that bees did fine when flitting around in a field of plants which came from clothianidin treated seeds  – at least for as long as the test was carried out.

Then one of our commenters asked for our opinion, and heaven knows, I am always more than happy to offer my personal opinion!  So here it is.  I am extremely unhappy with both Bayer and the EPA in this instance.  They didn’t do what they were supposed to do.  It’s as simple as that.  Tests were supposed to be run to demonstrate that it is unlikely that clothianidin affects bees.  This wasn’t done in a reasonable period of time.  Period.  As long as stuff like this occurs nobody is going to trust the EPA or the chemical manufacturers.  In terms of whether the tests were sufficient (basically some hives in a field of treated plants), well, I would have liked to have seen more depth, but they didn’t seem to be bad studies.

The implication is that, because we don’t have enough testing, clothianidin could be causing bee colonies to collapse.  This goes hand in hand with the suspicion that imidacloprid is leading to colony collapse since both of these chemicals are neonicotinoids.  We know that these pesticides can get into flowers where bees come into contact with them.  The question is whether the bees contact enough to cause hives to collapse (There is no question that these chemicals, at some level, are poisonous to bees – just as almost anything can be poisonous to humans at a high enough dose – even water).

One thing that is lost in this discussion is that SEED TREATMENTS were being examined.  A seed treatment is when the seeds which are planted are treated with a pesticide (in this case clothianidin) to protect the seed itself and the young plant from insects.  As the plant grows the insecticide will break down and become diluted – And so it is probably not going to be present at high levels in pollen that the plant (which comes from the treated seed) produces.  Still, there is potential for this to happen and so it is best if the plants which come from the seed are tested – hence the EPA’s request.

Historically, there are pesticides which have clearly and unambiguously lain waste to bee hives, the most infamous of which was Penncap-M.  This was a unique pesticide because it was a microencapsulation of the very dangerous insecticide methyl parathion.  The microencapsulation process made this pesticide last longer, and made it somewhat safer to handle, but it also made the pesticide into tiny little beads – about the same size as, you guessed it, pollen.  In fruit trees in particular this stuff would become attached to the bees (just like pollen does) and you can imagine the disastrous results.  The answer was to limit the use of this poison to certain times of the year and certain situations when bees were not likely to be around.  Why wasn’t it just banned outright?  Because it worked well and, when used appropriately, it didn’t affect bees (Here I’m giving you the official line – In my opinion its use should have been even more restricted than it was).   Penncap-M is not closely related to the neonicotinoids chemically, though it does affect insects’ nervous systems as many insecticides, including the neonicotinoids, do.

You can count me as one of the people who suspect that the neonicotinoids have something to do with colony collapse.  I’m not a bee researcher — but it is easy to see how the use of these chemicals might weaken a hive to the point where mites or disease could come in.  One of the things that drives me a little nuts though are those people who think that banning neonicotinoids is going to save our bees.  It seems quite obvious at this point that these chemicals are definitely not the sole cause of the disease and perhaps not even one of the major contributing factors.  They essentially banned these pesticides in parts of Europe, and guess what?  They still have bee colonies collapsing.  An interesting side note is that historically large-scale losses of bees isn’t as odd as we might think – in fact, we might have seen this disease (CCD) before.  Perhaps even in the 1800s.  In short, it seems that the answer to this problem is not as simple as banning some pesticides (though restricting their use may be a piece of the solution).  I wish it were.

Bee studies, blogs, and biases

My original posting last Wednesday (“Ignorance and the so-called “bogus” bee study“) has generated some vigorous discussion, which is exactly what I hoped it would do. At some point, one of our readers posted the link on the original blog site, where it generated the following response:

“The issue on CCD and these studies that point to “causes” other than pesticides comes down to a question: What came first? The pesticides or the problem. Farmers almost always have the gut answer correct. In this case the farmers are the hundreds if not thousands of beekeepers who are certain that neonicotines are root cause of colony collapse disorder. I’m not a PhD, admittedly, but I’ve yet to read anything that points to an answer other than the pesticides.

“And for Linda to suggest that science can’t be “bought” at universities is an incredibly naive statement. I’m not saying Jerry was bought out, not at all. But I do think, overall, there’s a ton of pressure from the chemical industry for scientists to find an answer, any answer, that doesn’t point back directly to pesticides.”

I responded to this posting on the blog this morning, where it sat waiting for approval by the moderator:

“There are dozens of peer-reviewed studies on colony collapse disorder that can be easily accessed by anyone who is really interested in the science. Here’s a quote from a 2009 article:

“Of 61 quantified variables (including adult bee physiology, pathogen loads, and pesticide levels), no single measure emerged as a most-likely cause of CCD.”

From “Colony collapse disorder: a descriptive study.”

Authors: Engelsdorp, D. van; Evans, J. D.; Saegerman, C.; Mullin, C.; Haubruge, E.; Bach Kim Nguyen; Frazier, M.; Frazier, J.; Cox-Foster, D.; Chen, Y. P.; Underwood, R.; Tarpy, D. R.; Pettis, J. S.

Available at: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0006481.”

Then….it was deleted.

For whatever reason, the moderator of this blog didn’t want to post my response. So I’ve reposted it above, and have a couple of other observations:

1) “Gut answers” aren’t science. Sure, gut feelings can convince researchers to explore some particular question, but they are inspirations – not necessarily answers. As my husband pointed out, people once had “gut feelings” that the earth was flat and that the sun orbited around the earth. Enlightenment happens.

2) Let’s see some specific examples where science has been “bought” at universities. I’m sure there are a few bad apples (especially in pomology – HA!), but to my knowledge none of my colleagues have pandered to chemical companies and falsified data for publication. This is a serious charge – and if it’s true, we all deserve to see hard evidence.

As always, feel free to post YOUR comment. We won’t censor you, even if you don’t agree with us.

Ignorance and the so-called “bogus” bee study

I’m angry.  Really, really angry.  And it’s all Kenny’s fault.

Kenny S., one of our long-time blog followers, alerted me to a blog posting dismissing a new study on colony collapse disorder (CCD). The post was devoid of any evidence of bogusness, other than a link to “great reporting” by New York Magazine. Aside from the general snarkiness of this article, we’re breathlessly informed that Fortune magazine (a hotbed of scientific inquiry) uncovered an unholy connection between the lead author (Dr. Bromenshenk) and Bayer.  That article recounts Dr. Bromenshenk’s sins, which include (1) accepting research money from Bayer, (2) not serving as an expert witness in a legal case against Bayer and (3) not studying every single possible cause of CCD.

Next I looked at the contested study, which is in an online journal.  Apparently none of the reporters/bloggers have bothered reading this, because they could easily discover the following:

1) there are 18 authors from many institutions, not just Dr. Bromenshenk and “Army scientists”;

2) the methodology was specific for protein analysis (not for pesticides nor any other nonliving factor);

3) funding was not provided by Bayer or any other corporation;

4) competing interests, such as Dr. Bromenshenk’s company, are openly acknowledged;

5) the article does not suggest anywhere that pesticides are blameless in CCD.

The body of the article is pretty technical and I’m not an entomologist. Still, this is in a peer-reviewed journal (albeit online rather than print).  You can see the review process and the list of academic reviewers if you were so inclined (as anyone who writes about science should be). Thus, qualified scientists (in addition to the 18 authors) find this to be a legitimate study.

Let’s look at Dr. Bromenshenk’s research history.  (For the record, I don’t know him and had never heard of him until yesterday.)  He’s published at least 26 scientific articles (in journals including Science) on various aspects of bee biology for the last 27 years.  To do these studies, he needs funding.  Guess what?  Universities don’t provide funding.  Magazines don’t provide funding.  Bloggers don’t provide funding.  Other than a handful of relevant government agencies (like NSF or USDA), most big grants come from corporations.  Like Bayer.

Now this is why I’m mad. There’s widespread perception among nonacademic types that corporate grant money “buys” results. That’s insulting. Most scientists do what they do because they love the thrill of discovery. There’s no thrill if you’ve rigged the results. Moreover, if you rig the results you’re going to be found out…eventually. A scientist with 27 years of credible, scientifically reviewed research is hardly a data rigger. And he’d have to convince 17 coauthors to go along with the scam.

Near the end of the Fortune article (and ignored by subsequent articles and blogging) was Dr. Bromenshenk’s efforts to get Bayer and the beekeepers to talk to each other. Though he was able to get Bayer to appoint a beekeeper advisory board (to assist with experimental design) in an effort to increase “trust and transparency” with the public, it hasn’t been terribly successful.

So here we have a man who’s devoted more than a quarter of a century to studying bees, who has published extensively in the peer-reviewed literature, who is trying to shed light on why bee colonies are dying, and who has tried to bring the pesticide industry and environmentalists to the same table.  You tell me why he’s being pilloried.