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College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture–Research & Development


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Learning From Insects

When Cassie Gibbs came to the University of Maine in 1971, a photograph hanging in an office in Deering Hall captivated her. She was studying it one day when Geddes Simpson, head of the Entomology Department, informed her that the woman was Edith Marion Patch, UMaine’s first female entomologist.

From that day forward, Gibbs — UMaine’s second female entomologist — made it her mission to learn all she could about Patch. Simpson fueled Gibbs’ fascination by regularly leaving on her desk letters, laboratory notebooks and children’s books authored by Patch. The collection grew steadily during Gibbs’ years as a noted aquatic entomologist, filling boxes and folders that she tucked away in her office.

It wasn’t until Gibbs retired in 1995 that she set out to document the life of Patch — a distinguished, nationally recognized aphid taxonomist, naturalist and educator — who became the first female president of the Entomological Society of America in 1930, during a time when women were a rare sight in the scientific community.

Twenty years later, Gibbs has published the biography, “Without Benefits from Insects: The Story of Edith M. Patch of the University of Maine,” a publication of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station.

Its publication coincides with the 150th anniversary of the University of Maine.

“Edith Patch is recognized as the first truly successful professional woman entomologist in the United States,” said Gibbs. “She was among the early scientists to write and speak of the threats to the environment from the widespread applications of chemical insecticides and to bring this to the public’s attention.”

Nearly 60 years after her death in 1954, Patch’s legacy is thriving, kept alive by her world-renowned scientific writing, a nonprofit organization named in her honor and a group of individuals dedicated to passing on Patch’s lessons to generations to come.

An extensive collection of archival records on Edith Patch, including some of the first memorabilia given to Gibbs, can be found in Fogler Library’s Special Collections at UMaine. The Patch homestead, once bursting with colorful gardens and buzzing insects, still sits on College Avenue on the Orono/Old Town line.

Patch’s faculty office was in Holmes Hall. A residence hall now on campus is named in her honor.

Bug enthusiasts may still see her extensive, internationally recognized insect collection, The Patch Collection, at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

But the most recognizable essence of Patch can be found in her writing.

Patch had an incredible gift — the ability to communicate scientific ideas to all ages. She believed that nature was a child’s greatest mentor and that appreciation of the natural world did not belong solely to the scientist. She charmed nature lovers young and old with her enthusiasm for some of the world’s tiniest creatures, publishing many internationally recognized children’s publications, scientific papers and books throughout her lifetime.

“One of Patch’s greatest strengths was her understanding of the power of story. As a scientist, she herself was drawn to investigate nature’s ever-unfolding story,” said Mary Bird, member of the organization Friends of Edith Patch, dedicated to celebrating and continuing the legacy of Patch.  “As a teacher, she realized that it is through story that each of us can find our own ways to connect with the living world around us and to make meaning of what we find there. She skillfully engaged her audiences, youth and adult, lay and scientific, in exploring and learning from nature’s stories.”

Patch’s career as an entomologist emerged in July 1903 when Charles Woods, the director of the then Maine Agricultural Experiment Station (MAES), invited Patch to Orono. At the time, Patch was in her second year teaching high school English in Minnesota after being unable to secure a position in the field of entomology. Woods offered her an unpaid position teaching English and entomology, with the potential to establish a department of entomology the following year.

Patch packed her bags and moved to Maine.

Woods faced ridicule for his decision to invite Patch to UMaine, but his response was telling: “So far as the people on my staff are concerned, I am not at all concerned whether they are attired in trousers or skirts, just as long as they do the work.”

A year after her arrival at UMaine, Patch received a formal appointment as assistant professor of entomology.

Though being one of the only female scientists in a male-dominated profession often presented difficulties, Patch persevered with grace and patience. She had practice. Growing up, she was on a baseball team with boys and girls. She had attended a coeducational university — University of Minnesota — to earn a bachelor’s degree in English. She grew up walking side-by-side with males, so why would a professional position be any different?

Patch was expected to adhere to certain societal etiquettes, only some of which she followed. But her polite, often wordless deviation from the norms of her time helped pave the way for the success of women in science.

When Patch was discouraged from attending an after-dinner address during a meeting of the Entomological Society of America because the men would be smoking (women were not allowed to be in the presence of a man while he smoked during this time), she figured out where the meeting was, walked in and quietly took a seat. The smoke-filled room fell silent as the men looked side-to-side, eyebrows raised. Within seconds, every cigar and pipe in the room had been put out.

She was present at all subsequent meetings.

Jennifer Lund, a UMaine entomology graduate student, says she is grateful for the legacy Patch left behind. Lund received one of the 2015 Edith Patch Award, which honors outstanding undergraduate and graduate women for distinguished work in the fields of science, agriculture, engineering and environmental education.

“I am so very honored to win an award that is named after such a phenomenal female entomologist and scientist,” said Lund.  “I often think about how my research here has been influenced by all the entomologists that have come before me but especially Edith Patch who paved the way for female entomologists at the University of Maine so early in the university’s history.”

Patch specialized in aphids — small sap-sucking insects commonly known as plant lice. Their complex life cycles, multiple host plants and ability to transmit pathogens made the group particularly difficult to study.

Her fascination for aphids began when she was an undergraduate student in Minnesota, under the direction of Oscar Oestlund. Researchers from Belgium to Brazil began seeking her counsel on how to manage aphid populations that had been infesting their agricultural crops. Before long, she had become the world’s aphid specialist. Today, her publication, The Food-Plant Catalogue of Aphids of the World, is still referenced as the most comprehensive record of aphids and their host plants.

Before completing her master’s degree in entomology at the University of Maine in June 1910, Patch had already published seven papers on aphids and related species, five of which appeared in national journals. The seventh became her dissertation for her Ph.D. in entomology from Cornell University in 1911. Patch’s research at Cornell focused on the evolutionary origins of the wing veins of aphids and their close relatives the psyllids, aleuronids, and coccids.

During her time at Cornell, Patch collaborated with John Henry Comstock, a distinguished researcher and author of her beloved first insect book, the Manual for the Study of Insects. She purchased the manual during her final year of high school after winning a $25 prize for an essay she wrote dedicated to the monarch butterfly.

Patch became lifelong friends with Comstock and his wife Anna Botsford Comstock, an illustrator and author of natural history books for young people.

After establishing her career as an entomologist, Patch purchased her home, which she named Braeside. The name — derived from the Scottish word brae — translates to bank, referring to its location on the edge of the Stillwater River. Built in the 1840s, the house was sited on a 50-acre plot of land surrounded by exquisite wild gardens bustling with insect life. Here, she spent much of her free time observing and writing about the natural world.

Her home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. For the past 15 years, the Friends of Edith Patch organization has raised nearly $200,000 for the rehabilitation of Braeside. Once restored, the facility will house the Edith Patch Environmental Observatory, which will feature a museum, educational resource center, and facilities for environmental research, education and policy. The property surrounding the historic home will mirror the gardens depicted in many of Patch’s writing for children.

Patch published her first children’s book — Dame Bug and Her Babies — in 1913. The book, a collection of 18 stories about insect mothers and their offspring, sold for 75 cents, plus postage. This marked the beginning of her lifelong mission to write biologically accurate stories that invoked curiosity in young readers. Many publications followed, including Little Gateways to Science, which told the story of 12 birds and the inauspicious effects human activity can have on the natural world.

“With academic specializations in both English and entomology, she thoroughly understood that the work carried out in lab and field would be meaningless if it could not be connected in real and meaningful ways to those whom it was designed to serve,” said Bird. “She used her skills as both a scientist and a writer to create pathways into understanding and appreciation of science and the world it seeks to explore and explain.”

Dedicated to educating the next generation of scientists, Patch’s expertise often took her away from Orono. She traveled all over the country giving talks about her work, and, in 1927 took a six-month research trip to the Rothamsted Experimental Station in Harpenden, England to study the migratory aphid, Myzus pseudosolani, which had become a concern in New England.

Patch was not only a distinguished scientist and world-renowned author, but also one of the first environmentalists of her time. In a compelling speech given in 1936 for the Maine Agricultural News Radio Program titled “Aphids, Aphids, Everywhere,” Patch explained the dangers of excessive use of insecticides. Using the life cycle of the aphid as an example, she pointed out that there are many natural factors controlling aphid population and that it is not necessary to rely on insecticides to keep the insect populations in balance.

This speech was given 26 years before the dangers of insecticides were echoed in Rachel Carson’s famous book, Silent Spring, which is given considerable credit for igniting the environmental movement in the 1960s.

“Even as a girl of 7 in Minnesota, she (Patch) was a lover of all natural things, and she remained a naturalist until the day she died. The naturalist tradition is a long one. It always has included a love of — and appreciation for — the beauty of nature,” said James Slater, who delivered the Entomological Society of America’s 1996 founders’ memorial and lecture honoring Patch.

Patch’s environmental concerns resonated again during her address at the Entomological Society of America’s annual meeting in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She pleaded to the audience — filled with scientists like herself — to look closer at the adverse effects chemical insecticides can have on non-targeted insect populations and their surrounding ecosystems. Her statement — “the welfare of humankind depends on the protection of insects” — sounded the alarm and made newspaper headlines nationwide. This speech was later published as a bulletin of the Brooklyn Entomological Society in 1938, titled “Without Benefit of Insects,” and became one of her most-noted publications.

After a long successful career, Patch retired in July 1937 after 34 years at UMaine. She was named entomologist emeritus and was awarded an honorary doctorate of science degree at UMaine’s 66th annual commencement. She was flooded with correspondence from researchers and friends thanking her for her many contributions to science. At the time of her retirement, she had published 15 children’s books and 78 scientific articles.

Though she no longer held a formal position at the university, Patch remained active in the scientific community. In a speech addressed to the Garden Club Federation in 1939 titled, “Our insect friends,” she continued to stress the importance of insects as pollinators and the benefits they have to our agricultural system.

“We have a lot we can learn from Patch. She wanted children to be loving towards the natural world, not destroying it or invading it in any way,” said Nancy MacKnight, member of the Friends of Edith Patch organization.  “She taught us that if you want to do something, you have to persevere. Patch tried to get a job in entomology, and she couldn’t. Maine was the only place that offered her anything connected to entomology, and it was unpaid for a year. It took a lot of courage to enter a man’s field at that time. We owe a lot to Edith Patch.”

Contact: Amanda Clark, 207.581.3721

Image Description: Edith Patch

What’s Buzzin’

A group of University of Maine researchers is working to enhance native and honey bee populations by increasing beneficial pollinator flowers across Maine’s landscape. This is not a new idea — what is new is their choice of research location. Some might describe one of their sites as trashy, but the researchers think it’s just what they need.

The researchers — Alison Dibble, Lois Stack, Megan Leech, and Frank Drummond — are planting pollinator demonstration gardens at the inactive Pine Tree Landfill in Hampden and at G.W. Allen’s Blueberry farm located in Orland. Both plots will be used to educate farmers and community members about strategies that they can adopt to help keep bee communities thriving in the state.

“This project is important because one of the many hypothesized stressors that have been implicated in bee decline, including honey bees and native bees, is not having enough floral resources, which provides the pollen and nectar essential for bees,” says Drummond, professor of insect ecology.

Funded by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, the two-year project’s objective is to identify plantings — annuals, herbaceous perennials and woody shrubs — that are most beneficial to bees across Maine’s terrain, which is dominated by forest ecosystems that are not particularly conducive to bee life.

By enhancing habitats to fit the needs of pollinators, the researchers are giving back to the tiny buzzing insects that provide our agricultural systems with the crucial service of pollination.

As bees forage for food, they pollinate flowering plants by depositing pollen on the flower’s stigma, the receptive part of the plant’s female reproductive organ. The pollen will then germinate and fertilize the flower to produce fruits and seeds.

Conservation biologists in Maine, as well as worldwide, have raised concerns about declines in bee abundance and species diversity. Due to conversion of landscape for residential and commercial uses, natural bee habitats are being eliminated, which could have serious implications to various agricultural crops in Maine, such as blueberries.

According to David Yarbrough, professor of horticulture and a wild blueberry specialist for University of Maine Cooperative Extension, last year’s harvest of wild blueberry crops in Maine brought in a $250 million monetary return.  In 2014, Maine produced and harvested more than 104 million pounds of blueberries made possible, in part, by the free services bees provide.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, bees provide pollination to 80 percent of all flowering plants and 75 percent of fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S. About 25,000 species of bees are known throughout the world and Maine is home to more than 270 species of native bees.

During the demonstrations, researchers and educators will discuss plants that are best utilized by bees and will stress the need to avoid flowers and shrubs treated with systemic insecticides because they can be detrimental to bees, says Drummond.

“It’s not just about planting flowers: it’s about planting flowers that are safe for the bees,” he says. Both sites will help researchers, farmers and educators better understand how these plots should be managed in order to be successful both agriculturally and ecologically. The first demonstration date has not been set, but the researchers are aiming to hold one in mid-August.

Pine Tree landfill, the first site for the demonstration, is managed by Casella Waste Services, which owns more than 400 landfills in the Northeast. If all goes well, the company hopes to host more pollinator gardens on their landfills, transforming unused land into flower-filled paradises for bees.

“I think the landfill is a great location for this project because it’s a piece of land that is not currently being used. Right now they use the methane that comes from the landfill to produce energy. So if we can use the same land for something else that is a good cause, it’s a win-win,” says Leech, a graduate student working with Drummond.

Leech’s master’s thesis is focused on flower nutrition, specifically whether bees visit flowers with higher nutritional value more frequently. She’s also looking at other floral characteristics that would impact flower nutrition such as nectar and pollen. The idea for her thesis sprouted while working on Dibble’s bee module project, when she observed bees showing a preference for some flowers over others, and wondered if it was related to nutrition.

The bee module — a five-year project started in 2012 — is aimed at determining which plants elicit the most bee visitations in order to create a baseline of what plants should be selected for the pollinator demonstration sites. In order to collect the data, Dibble setup 36 plots within 100-foot-by-100-foot areas on three Maine blueberry fields and at the University of Maine Rogers farm. By placing plots side-by-side, researchers were able to collect observations of bee visitations on a variety of different planting selections, which will help to better inform their recommendations to farmers.

The data they collect, which will focus on the success of flowering plant germination and bee visitation preferences, will be looked at over the next two years to determine if the increase in floral resources was beneficial to the bee populations.

Promoting the health of bee populations is relatively inexpensive in terms of the alternative, which is trying to pollinate plants without bees. If farmers planted pollinator plots next to their agricultural crops, they could decrease rental costs for honeybees, which are usually imported by farmers during the planting season, says Drummond.

Drummond hopes the project will encourage nonfarmers to invest in pollinator plantings for municipalities, private homes and state agencies, so — on a landscape level — bee numbers can increase.

“In the past, we’ve mostly been focusing on the farmers. But what makes this project more unique is that we are trying to provide outreach for the nonfarmers who can also have an impact on improving bee communities on the landscape,” says Drummond.

Contact: Amanda Clark, 207.581.372

Image Description: Bee on flower

Fungus Joins the Fight

University of Maine researchers are one step closer to controlling the ever-growing invasive fire ant populations, Myrmica rubra, that have been spreading throughout Maine for the last 15 years.

Due to the highly competitive and aggressive behavior of these fire ants, eradication has proven to be almost impossible. UMaine researchers are turning their attention to a different kind of control to try and combat these tiny stinging insects. Their weapon — pathogenic fungi.

“We are attempting to try and grow this newly discovered fungi in the lab in order to look at its utility for management of the ants, but it may be too difficult to reproduce which would hamper its development as a biological control mechanism. We aren’t convinced, but we are looking into it,” said Eleanor Groden, UMaine professor of biological sciences. “It has some potential.”

By encouraging the growth of the pathogenic fungi, these researchers hope to scale down the populations of invasive fire ants, which will alleviate Maine residences from the painful stings the tiny insects administer.

In an article that appeared in the Journal of Invertebrate Pathology, titled “Ophiocordyceps myrmicarum, a new species infecting invasive Myrmica rubra in Maine” researchers Rabern Simmons (now at the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida), Groden, Jennifer Lund and Tamara Levitsky isolated and described a newly discovered fungus which they identified as being a member of the genus Hirsutella. The fungi is the first species in this genus to be isolated from the North American European fire ant in New England, though there are two other pathogens within the genus which infect M. rubra in the United Kingdom.

The researchers suspect that the relatedness of the taxa infers that O. myrmicarum is a native of North America or a relatively recent immigrant along with the invasive European fire ant. They also hypothesize that the dramatic increase in fire ant populations over the last decade could be causing increased transmission of the fungi and could explain why we have only observed the fungi in Maine, not in European ant populations.

Ants were collected live from Acadia National Park near Breakneck Ponds, Mount Desert Island, in fall 2010 and 2011. The researchers isolated and maintained the ants in cultures in order to collect morphological data. They then used techniques such as DNA extraction, amplification, sequencing and phylogenetic analysis to determine if it was, in fact, a new species.

The researchers conducted an exposure trial in seven separate chambers, four of which were inoculated with the fungi. Of the four chambers exposed with O. myrmicarum, all individuals died within 30 days, whereas no ants in the remaining three chambers died during the same period. Once dead, the infected ants were transferred to well plates to be monitored for several weeks, during which 20 of the 73 dead ants produced the reproductive structure of the fungal pathogen.

The exotic ant species was first documented in New England in the early 1900s. According to the researchers, the native populations — ranging from Great Britain to Siberia and the Black Sea to the Arctic — remain relatively low in population density. But in New England and other various locations throughout North America, the population density is high for the invasive species.

“There are a lot of steps between what we are doing and determining if a strategy like this would be viable. But, it’s very exciting,” said Groden.

Contact: Amanda Clark, 207.581.3721

Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lund

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Image Description: fire ants

Lambing Season Underway at Witter Farm

Spring has arrived at the University of Maine’s J. Franklin Witter Teaching and Research Center where lambing season has begun.

About 20 students in the Animal and Veterinary Sciences Program are providing prenatal, delivery, and post-delivery care for the flock of registered Icelandic ewes at the Orono farm. Since the season began in early April, the students have overseen five sets of births. Five more births are expected in the next few weeks.

James Weber, associate professor in the School of Food and Agriculture and the university’s attending veterinarian, is coordinating the student participation. He says the students are responsible for 100 percent of the animal care and are heavily invested.

“A student who was assigned to lambing watch texted me one night to say she thought the ewe was going to give birth,” Weber says. “By the time I arrived at the farm, there were 15 other students there. And this was at 9 p.m.”

The experience provides an educational, hands-on opportunity for the students, especially the seven who plan to attend veterinary school next year, Weber says.

Witter farm currently is home to 10 ewes, two rams and 11 lambs, as well as cows and horses. The sheep have recently returned to campus after the farm’s herd was sold six years ago because of financial constraints, Weber says.

Weber’s $200,000 USDA grant for research on a deadly sheep and goat parasite helped bring the lambs back to the farm. The three-year Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) study aims to develop and implement a winter management protocol for Haemonchus contortus, or barber pole worm, in northern New England.

During the region’s cold winters, the parasite is confined to the animals’ digestive tract. In the spring, overwintering larvae mature to adults that contaminate pastures and can sicken or kill pastured animals. The researchers hope to reduce the effect of the pests on grazing sheep through winter treatments, or by delaying return to pasture until the first generation of adult worms die within the host.

Weber and his team will take the data they find at Witter and test it on commercial farms in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. They also plan to teach the protocol, as well as conventional diagnostic and treatment tools, to commercial sheep and goat farmers throughout the region.

In addition to contributing to research and veterinary care education, the sheep have provided an opportunity for students to market and sell wool to local spinners, Weber says. The students also may market some of the lambs that aren’t needed for the study.

The farm is frequently visited by locals, as well as children on field trips, who enjoy seeing and learning about the animals. Witter Farm is open daily to visitors.

Photos and more information is on the students’ Ewe Maine Icelandics Club Facebook page.

UMaine Awarded $150,000 Grant for Food, Agriculture Research, WABI Reports

WABI (Channel 5) reported the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture have awarded a $150,000 research grant to the University of Maine to help fund the university’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative. The project aims to develop a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) method to better understand food-borne pathogens, according to the report. U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King announced the award in a press release. “Federal funding is crucial to supporting our university system and this announcement is great news for the University of Maine. Their continued exemplary research and the advancements these programs produce are an important contribution to the Maine economy,” the senators said in a joint statement. The full release is online.

Turning Down The Heat

A new pepper variety has been developed with a high capsinoid content to make it less pungent while maintaining all the natural health benefits of the fruit, according to researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Maine.

The researchers — Robert Jarret from the USDA/Agricultural Research Service in Griffin, Georgia, and Jason Bolton and L. Brian Perkins from the University of Maine School of Food and Agriculture — developed the new small-fruited Capsicum annuum L. pepper through traditional breeding methods in an effort to make the health benefits of hot peppers available to more consumers.

In hot peppers, capsaicinoids are the compounds associated both with their signature heat and health benefits, which include being a source of antioxidants. But that pungency can limit their use in foods and pharmaceuticals.

Capsinoids, closely related compounds of capsaicinoids, provide the same benefits without the pungency.

Starting in 2006 with a USDA seed grant, Perkins, a UMaine assistant research professor and director of the Food Chemical Safety Laboratory, and Bolton, then a food science graduate student, screened about 500 subspecies of Capsicum annuum. They forwarded their data to Jarret, who selected those with the highest concentrations of capsinoids.

Jarret then began to classically breed the selected varieties at the USDA facility in Georgia. Perkins screened the results and they repeated the process, selecting the best capsinoid producers from each generation.

The culmination of their work is germplasm 509-45-1. The peppers are very small, with each plant producing up to 1,000 peppers. According to Perkins, there will likely be additional selection to prepare the plants for marketability, both as a food product and for medical experiments.

Currently, small quantities of seed are available from the USDA for research purposes.

Contact: Margaret Nagle, 207.581.3745

Image Description: Peppers

How Sweet It Is!

The Maine maple syrup that enhances the flavor of pancakes and ice cream also adds to the statewide economy.

University of Maine economist Todd Gabe says, including multiplier effects, Maine’s maple industry annually contributes about $49 million in revenue, 805 full- and part-time jobs and $25 million in wages to the state’s economy.

Multiplier effects occur when an increase in one economic activity initiates a chain reaction of additional spending. In this case, the additional spending is by maple farms, businesses that are part of the maple industry and their employees.

“The maple producers were really helpful in providing me with information about their operations, which allowed for a really detailed analysis of their economic impact,” says Gabe, whose study was released in February.

Each year, the industry directly contributes about $27.7 million in revenue, 567 full- and part-time jobs, and $17.3 million in wages to Maine’s economy, Gabe says.

Maple producers earn about 75 percent of the revenue through sales of syrup and other maple products, including maple candy, maple taffy, maple whoopie pies and maple-coated nuts, he says.

Retail sales at food stores and the estimated spending of Maine Maple Sunday visitors on items such as gasoline and meals accounts for the remainder of revenue. This year, Maine Maple Sunday will be celebrated Sunday, March 23 at 88 sugar shacks and farms across the Pine Tree state.

Maine has the third-largest maple industry in the United States. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, maple syrup is produced in 10 states — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin.

In 2013, Maine accounted for 450,000 gallons, or 14 percent, of the 3,253,000 million gallons produced in the U.S. Vermont (1,320,000 gallons) and New York (574,000) were the top two producers. Among the three top-producing states, Maine had the highest growth rate (25 percent) of production between 2011 and 2013, Gabe reports.

In Maine, the maple production industry appears to be dominated by a few large operations; the 10 percent of maple farms with 10,000 or more taps account for 86 percent of the total number of taps in the state, he says.

While the maple producers that participated in Gabe’s study had an average of 4,109 taps, almost 40 percent of Maine’s maple producers had fewer than 250 taps. The study participants have been tapping trees and boiling sap for an average of 24 years.

Depending on temperature and water availability, the length of the sap flow season varies; in 2013 it ran from March 4 to April 12 in Maine.

Close to 40 percent of the maple producers that are licensed in Maine returned surveys for the study, which received financial support from the Maine Agricultural Development Grant Fund and the Maine Maple Producers Association.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777

Image Description: maple syrup survey

Making Sense of Maple Syrup

Understanding more about the relationship between weather and maple sap flow, and how Maine syrup producers will adapt to climate change is the focus of research being conducted by a University of Maine graduate student.

Jenny Shrum, a Ph.D. candidate in the ecology and environmental sciences graduate program in the UMaine School of Biology and Ecology, is attempting to unravel the biophysical relationships between weather and sap flow. The goal is to better understand what drives flow and how expected trends in climate may affect the processes and harvesters in the future.

Shrum plans to collect on-site weather station data and sap flow rates at three test sites and to interview small- and large-scale producers to determine if those who have been managing sugar maple stands for years will be more or less resilient to climate change, and if large-scale producers will be better equipped to adapt. Her research is supported by the National Science Foundation and EPSCoR through UMaine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative and its Effects of Climate Change on Organisms research project.

The physiological process for sap flow is not completely understood, Shrum says. It involves a complex interaction between freezing and thawing of the xylem tissue within the tree, and the molecule sucrose which maple trees use to store carbohydrates between seasons.

“When the tree defrosts, the frozen liquid in the tree becomes fluid and that provides a medium for the sugars that are stored in the trunk to get to the branches,” Shrum says, adding that in order to continue flowing, the ground also has to be defrosted so the tree can pull in water during the next freeze cycle and recharge the positive pressure in the trunk to restart sap flow.

Sugar maple trees grow as far north as New Brunswick and as far south as Georgia, yet maple syrup is only produced commercially in the 13 most northern states because of the colder weather, Shrum says.

In Maine and other northern areas, more than one freeze-thaw event happens during the winter. This lets the process repeat and allows the season to last between six and eight weeks as opposed to a few days, which is likely in southern states such as Georgia and Missouri, where maple trees grow but aren’t commercially tapped. Warm weather or microbial build-up in taps usually ends the season, according to Shrum.

In Maine, the season usually starts sometime between the middle of February and the middle of March, and continues for about six weeks, Shrum says.

“This winter has been really weird; we’ve had really warm weather and really cold weather and as far as sap flow, that might be a good thing,” Shrum says. “But not enough is known.”

One change that has been proven is the start time of the sap season.

“Studies are starting to show that the preferred block of time for tapping is starting earlier if you base it on ideal temperatures,” Shrum says, citing a 2010 Cornell University study by Chris Skinner that found that by 2100, the sap season could start a month earlier than it does now.

For big-time operations, Shrum says an earlier season probably won’t be a problem because they can just tap their lines earlier, but she’s not sure how smaller Maine operations will adapt.

“They might not be able to change their season,” she says. “A lot of the smaller operators have multiple jobs; they make money off maple syrup, but also in other fields such as woodcutting or construction. It just so happens maple syrup is a block of time when they’re not doing anything else, so it makes sense. But if that season changes, it might not fit into their schedule as well.”

Shrum will interview a variety of producers — small- and large-scale operators, people who have been tapping trees for 30 or more years and people who started within the past five years — to learn the reasons for tapping and better understand resilience within these groups.

To record weather and sap flow data, Shrum, who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Humboldt State University, will deploy weather stations at maple tree stands in Albion, Dixmont and Orono. She’s also using iButtons to record soil temperatures and time-lapse photography of the buckets to record hourly sap flow rates. She can then relate flow rates to variables the weather stations record, such as temperature, precipitation and sunlight.

Although climate change is likely to affect sap flow, Shrum is confident there will always be maple syrup made in Maine.

“None of the climate change scenarios that have come up result in maple trees not growing in Maine. We’re definitely still going to have freezing events in Maine; it’s not going to get so warm that that’s not going to happen,” she says.

Shrum says maple syrup could become a big commodity in Maine if more of a market was created through government incentive plans, and if the state decided to make it a priority — similar to Vermont.

“Everything is good about maple syrup. There’s very little that’s controversial about it, and the biology is fascinating,” Shrum says.

Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747

Image Description: maple syrup

New England Funding Program Combines Resources for Agricultural Research

Assessing the potential for emergence of new cropland weeds in northern New England as a result of climate change is the focus of the first study to be supported by the Northern New England Collaborative Research Funding Program.

The program is a partnership of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station at the University of Maine, the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of New Hampshire, and the Vermont Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Vermont. The goal of the program is to mobilize coordinated research on high-priority needs for the region.

The program awards a two-year seed grant to regional research teams through an annual competition, with priority given to teams that have the potential to serve northern New England beyond the proposed study.

The program’s initial priority area focuses on adaptation to and mitigation of climate change in relation to agriculture.

“One of the reasons we chose to encourage more research related to climate change is that is has the potential to impact almost every element of agriculture,” Frederick Servello, associate director of the Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station, says. “Whether it’s crops or livestock or pest problems or disease problems, all have a potential to be affected by changes in climate.”

Servello, who is also the associate dean for research in the College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture and a wildlife ecology professor at UMaine, clarifies that the program’s intent is less about studying climate and more about understanding the effects of climate change, such as changing temperature and precipitation, on current agricultural practices and determining how to take advantage of those changes to improve agriculture in the future.

The proposed research may address specific agricultural issues, needs or opportunities within the context of climate change and variability or address the topic more broadly. The research must address issues or needs important to all three participating states and must be more effective and efficient conducted as a regional project than it would be as independent state projects.

Eric Gallandt, an associate professor of weed ecology and management at the University of Maine, is one of five co-principal investigators of the cropland weeds study along with researchers from UNH and UVM.

The project, which runs from June 1, 2013 to May 31, 2015, aims to assess the potential for and prediction of range expansion in a variety of common and rare weed species as a consequence of climate change and to develop strategies to reduce effects on growers.

The group predicts ongoing environmental changes will make new habitats suitable for both native and invasive weeds in northern New England, creating more problems for weed management and potentially added costs to growers.

“Knowledge of weed biology and ecology is increasingly important to guide management,” Gallandt says. “Predicting tomorrow’s weed communities, and knowledge of the genetic variability in existing weed species will allow us to begin working on management strategies and educational programs that will help northern New England farmers adapt to changing weed problems.”

The goal of the project is to establish a knowledge base for planning responses to a variety of possible changes in weed pressures and effects on agriculture in the region. Researchers will collect this data by defining the current distributions of cropland weed species in the area and the environmental characteristics of each species’ suitable habitat.

The project also aims to integrate the research of weed scientists at all three universities, setting the stage for follow-up projects among the institutions that would have a greater chance of attracting funding from other sources.

Seed bank germination studies conducted by Gallandt in 2010 determined the principal cropland weeds for Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. The results of his study helped lay the foundation of the cropland weeds project.

The group believes although their initial focus is on weeds, the idea of assessing agriculturally relevant species and genetic diversity in relation to habitat suitability and environmental change could also be applied to study insects and other pests, disease organisms and other biological factors related to agriculture.

“The NNE Collaborative Research Funding Program allowed us to initiate field, greenhouse and laboratory research that will characterize the existing weed flora across northern New England and develop essential proof-of-concept data sets that will allow our research team to compete for larger external grants to expand our efforts,” Gallandt says. “This year we sampled weed communities on 30 Maine farms and genetic analysis of selected species is underway at the sequencing lab at the University of New Hampshire’s Hubbard Center for Genomic Studies.”

Servello said the cropland weed study was chosen as the first project to be funded by the Northern New England Collaborative Research Funding Program because of the important results to come from the two-year study as well as its potential as a multiyear effort.

“What we saw was a dynamic team, a first-class proposal and an important question for all three states,” Servello says.

Over the past several years, the experiment station directors have been discussing ways to best work together to address common research needs, according to Servello.

The directors heard about a similar collaborative program at a meeting in another region of the country in 2012 and immediately began organizing to initiate the Northern New England Collaborative Research Funding Program.

“We’re three universities in three neighboring states with a lot of similarities,” Servello says. “We’re in the same general region from an agricultural perspective, we have different skill sets at each university and different capabilities to address research problems. The thought was we could work together in a regionally coordinated way to be more effective.”

Servello says the program is the first of many discussions on ways the northern New England experiment stations can continue to work together.

“At first inclination you might think reducing duplicative effort between states is the big advantage here,” Servello says. “I think, what’s most important is bringing together the skill sets we have that can complement and reinforce each other into more effective teams to reach answers to these questions more quickly and effectively.”

Applications for the program’s 2014 seed grant are now being accepted. The deadline to apply is Feb. 6, 2014, and the winning research team will be announced Feb. 27, 2014.

The Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station is UMaine’s College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture’s center for applied and basic research in agriculture and food sciences, forestry and wood products, fisheries and aquaculture, wildlife, outdoor recreation, and rural economic development.

The station’s programs strive to enhance the profitability and sustainability of Maine’s natural resource-based industries, protect Maine’s environment, and improve the health of its citizens.

Drummond Receives 2013 Presidential Research & Creative Achievement Award

University of Maine President Paul Ferguson announced that Professor of Insect Ecology Francis “Frank” Drummond is the 2013 Presidential Research and Creative Achievement Award recipient.

Entomologist Frank Drummond has been a member of the UMaine community for a quarter-century. He is a professor in the School of Biology and Ecology, and University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The breadth of his career is reflected in his research interests that range from pollination ecology to insect pest management, and scientific techniques that span statistical modeling and computer simulation to molecular genetics. His research venues range from Maine’s blueberry and potato fields to Australian sugarcane plantations. Drummond has always worked in cooperative research with other researchers at UMaine and beyond. Today, his productivity and project diversity involves 60 research colleagues. Drummond has been the principal or co-principal investigator on more than $15.7 million in research funding. That funding includes USDA grants investigating the genetics of blueberry production and pollinator conservation to address colony collapse disorder in honeybees. Since joining the UMaine community, Drummond has been leading bee research, focused on their health, conservation and role as crop pollinators. As an applied entomologist, Drummond finds solutions to important agricultural insect problems, especially in Maine. One of his many successful efforts to help farmers manage the blueberry maggot fly, an effort that saved growers money and reduced the environmental impact of insecticide applications. With several UMaine colleagues, Drummond has researched and developed organic methods for blueberry production — the only complete organic insect pest management plan for wild blueberry production in North America. Drummond also created a model to predict the impact of human activity on streams, which became the basis for Maine law and informed national Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.


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College of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture--Research & Development
5782 Winslow Hall, Room 101
Orono, Maine 04469-5782
Phone: 207-581-3228 | Fax: 207-581-3207E-mail: fred.servello@maine.edu
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Orono, Maine 04469
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