Grapes Love Tobacco & Sage

June 13, 2015

GRAPE VINES GAIN and pests suffer when TOBACCO and SAGEBRUSH grow in the same neighborhood. For example, Chinese experiments show that when tobacco roots intermingle with grape roots, vineyards soils are progressively cleansed of the dreaded soil-dwelling phylloxera aphid; the same phylloxera aphid that almost completely destroyed French grape growing in the 1800s, before resistant rootstocks were discovered. In recent decades, the phylloxera aphid has evolved new forms that destroy formerly-resistant rootstocks. But on the positive side, the phylloxera plague in nineteenth century French vineyards was a major catalyst for innovations such as the development of modern scientific agriculture and modern methods for fumigating or disinfesting sick soils.

Tobacco plants get a bad rap today, as the source of abused and addictive products with adverse health effects. But it was not always so, and need not be so today, write David A. Danehower and colleagues in the book, Biologically Active Natural Products: Agrochemicals: “When Columbus first arrived on the shores of North America, he found Native Americans growing and using a plant unknown to Europeans. This plant held great spiritual significance to Native Americans. Scientists who followed in the footsteps of the early North American explorers would later name this plant tobacco. Tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) farming began in the early 1600s near the Jamestown colony in Virginia. As the use of tobacco products for smoking, chewing, and snuff was promoted in Europe, tobacco became a leading item of commerce between the colonies and England. Notably, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both farmed tobacco. Thus, the history of America is inextricably linked with the history of tobacco production.”

The specific idea of interplanting tobacco with grapevines to control soil pests like phylloxera aphids is apparently a recent Chinese agricultural innovation. Why no one thought of it before is a mystery, as nicotine from tobacco plants has a long history as a fumigant and sprayed insecticide; and more recently sweet “sugar esters” (fructose, glucose, fatty acids) have been singled out from among the several thousand chemical compounds in tobacco as “new” natural insecticides (some fungi and other microbes are also killed). Perhaps agricultural tradition plays a role, as the Chinese have an ancient agricultural heritage that includes pioneering biological pest control (e.g. predatory ants to control citrus orchard pests) and routinely interplanting compatible plants for their pest-fighting and mutually beneficial effects. Of course, growing cover crops and beneficial insect plants like sweet alyssum in grape rows is becoming more common. And since ancient times, the Mediterranean areas of Europe and the Middle East have had grape vineyards interspersed with oaks (corks, barrels for wine grapes), olive trees and crops such as wheat. But never before has tobacco been grown among grape vines to control soil pests. Indeed, modern farmers seem to favor pumping liquid chemicals and volatile gases into the soil to combat soil pests.

Perhaps as close as a nineteenth century French grape grower came was Bernardin Casanova of Corsica, France, who in 1881 patented a liquid mixture of grape distillates, Corsican tobacco, spurge, laurel, grain straw, burnt cork and soap that was rubbed and poured on the base of grapevines to kill phylloxera. In California, which has native plants that are every bit as insecticidal as nicotine from tobacco, the only anti-phylloxera interplanting seems to have been new resistant rootstocks to eventually take the place of the old. In essence, a concession of failure and a starting over with new rootstock (and pulling out the old phylloxera-infested vines).

Like Mr. Casanova in nineteenth century France, the modern Chinese researchers started out with a watery solution containing tobacco; but in a bit more scientific fashion with controlled tests of the tobacco solution on young greenhouse-grown grape vines. “The results showed that aqueous extracts of tobacco had certain alleviating effects on phylloxera infection,” according to a 2014 abstract from the journal Acta Entomologica Sinica. “Both the aqueous extracts of tobacco at the concentration of 20 mg/mL and 50 mg/mL had an inhibition to phylloxera infection,” with a 50% reduction in phylloxera infection within 3 weeks (along with a reduction of fungal invaders that kill injured grape roots).

Chinese tobacco-grape laboratory and field studies were also reported in the Journal of Integrative Agriculture in 2014. The lab studies indicated that tobacco extracts in water were indeed a valid herbal (botanical) remedy against phylloxera aphids. In three years of field tests with tobacco interplanted in infested grape vineyards, phylloxera infestations of grape roots steadily decreased each year. “Tobacco was used as the intercropping crop because it includes nicotine, which is a source of bio-insecticides,” said the researchers. “The production of new grape roots was significantly higher in the intercropping patterns than in the grape monoculture in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and the vines gradually renewed due to the continuous intercropping with tobacco over three years…The results indicated that the secondary metabolites of tobacco roots had released to soil and got to the target pest.” Tobacco intercropping effects on grape plants was also measurable in terms of “cluster number per plant, cluster weight, cluster length, cluster width, berry number per cluster, mean berry diameter in the mid portions of the cluster, carbohydrate content, fruit color index, leaf width and branch diameter.” The researchers expect that this “Successful intercropping with tobacco” will stimulate more research with other insecticidal plants to disinfest vineyard soils.

We could probably end the blog item here, or have a second article as part II, but we have some interesting interactions among sagebrush and tobacco plants that can spillover to grape vineyards. Oddly enough, sagebrush and tobacco seem to get along very well. According to M.E. Maffei, writing in the South African Journal of Botany: “Aerial interaction of the wild tobacco (Nicotiana attenuata) and sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp.) is the best-documented example of between-plant signaling via above-ground VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) in nature.” Wounded or “Clipped sagebrush emits many volatiles, including methyl jasmonate, methacrolein, terpenoids, and green leaf volatiles.” These sagebrush volatiles (VOCs) stimulate nearby tobacco plants to become less hospitable to caterpillar pests (fewer in number). The process is called priming and results in plants producing more chemicals deleterious to pests. For readers desiring all the details and more theory: In 2006, Kessler et al. published in a journal called Oecologia under the title “Priming of plant defense responses in nature by airborne signaling between Artemisia tridentata and Nicotiana attenuata.”

Big Sagebrush, known scientifically as Artemisia tridentata, is a native North American plant that can reach 4 meters in height and live from 30 to over 200 years in arid desert environments by using hydraulic lift to pump water from deep soil layers. The plants are a rich and underutilized source of medicinal compounds, insecticides, fungicides, natural preservatives, etc. Worldwide there are at least 500 Artemisia sagebrush species, many used in traditional medicines (e.g. China), cosmetics, insect repellents, and as spices and flavorings in foods. For example, Artemisia annua has attracted attention to combat malaria. Readers desiring a crash course in Artemisia species and their bio-active essential oils will find it online in an excellent 24-page review article in a journal called Molecules.

Big Sagebrush is “found in arid regions of North America from steppe to subalpine zones, dry shrub lands, foothills, rocky outcrops, scablands, and valleys,” wrote Christina Turi and colleagues in 2014 in the journal Plant Signaling & Behavior. “Traditionally, species of Big Sagebrush have been used as a ceremonial medicine to treat headaches or protect individuals from metaphysical forces. A total of 220 phytochemicals have been described in A. tridentata and related species in the Tridentatae. Recently, the neurologically active compounds melatonin (MEL), serotonin (5HT), and acetylcholine (Ach) were identified and quantified.” In other words, sagebrush plants and human brains and nervous systems have a lot in common.

Indeed, galanthamine, a botanical drug treatment for mild to moderate Alzheimer disease, can also be used to “treat” sagebrush. Galanthamine, which is named after the snowdrop plants (Galanthus species) where it was discovered, is also found in Narcissus and other common bulbs. Galanthamine is, according to researchers Turi et al., “a naturally occurring acetylcholinesterase (AchE) inhibitor that has been well established as a drug for treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer disease.” Why bulb plants produce chemicals affecting both Alzheimer disease (human nervous systems) and sagebrush plants is a good question. One theory is that plants release these chemicals into the environment to communicate with and influence the behavior of other plants, and also perhaps deter or otherwise influence herbivorous animals. Environmentalists, overly preoccupied with worries about carbon dioxide and GMOs, might ponder the fact that human chemicals with medicinal effects released into the environment might be the bigger threat, affecting plants and ecosystems in ways not yet fully appreciated that may comeback to bite us.

The Western USA is known for its vast expanses, perhaps 50 million acres with Big Sagebrush, some of which is being displaced for vineyards in isolated valleys in the Pacific Northwest. I particularly like the description of the Big Sagebrush ecosystem at the Sage Grouse Initiative: “To many of us, sagebrush country symbolizes the wild, wide-open spaces of the West, populated by scattered herds of cattle and sheep, a few pronghorn antelope, and a loose-knit community of rugged ranchers. When you stand in the midst of the arid western range, dusty gray-green sagebrush stretches to the horizon in a boundless, tranquil sea. Your first impression may be of sameness and lifelessness—a monotony of low shrubs, the over-reaching sky, a scattering of little brown birds darting away through the brush, and that heady, ever-present sage perfume.”

About 90% of the native sagebrush steppe habitat in the eastern Washington grape growing area was removed to make way for the vineyards. But the 10% remaining sagebrush habitat may have important ecological benefits, such as improved natural or biological pest control in the vineyards. One suggestion is to leave some of the native Big Sagebrush around vineyards, for its beneficial ecological effects. “Perennial crop systems such as wine grapes have begun using cover crops and hedgerows to increase beneficial insects and promote sustainable vineyard management in areas like New Zealand and California,” Washington State University researcher Katherine Buckley told the 2014 Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting in Portland, Oregon. “However, in arid wine growing regions such as eastern Washington, cover crops are often prohibitively expensive due to water costs. We wanted to determine if native plants, which require little or no irrigation, could be used to increase beneficial insects and enhance conservation biological control of vineyard pests in eastern Washington.”

The native sagebrush steppe ecosystem has a wide range of plants, but is characterized by species such as big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata), rabbitbrush (e.g. Chrysothamnus, Ericameria spp.), bitterbrush (Purshia spp.) and perennial bunchgrasses (e.g. Agropyron, Stipa, Festuca, Koeleria, Poa spp.). The Big Sagebrush ecosystem is richer in species than meets the eye at first glance. Over 100 species of birds (e.g. sage grouse, sage thrasher, sage sparrow and Brewer’s sparrow) forage and nest in sagebrush communities, and they could provide a lot of insect biocontrol at less cost and with less environmental impact than chemical sprays.

A U.S. Forest Service report called Big Sagebrush a keystone species and “a nursing mother” to “31 species of fungi, 52 species of aphids, 10 species of insects that feed on aphids, 42 species of midges and fruit flies that induce galls, 20 species of insects that parasitize the gall inducers, 6 species of insects that hibernate in big sagebrush galls, 18 species of beetles, 13 species of grasshoppers, 13 species of shield-back katydids, 16 species of thrips, 74 species of spiders, 24 species of lichens, 16 species of paintbrushes, 7 species of owl-clovers, 5 species of bird’s beaks, 3 species of broom rapes, and a host of large and small mammals, birds, and reptiles.”

“After locating vineyards with some form of native habitat restoration in four different growing regions of eastern Washington, yellow sticky traps and leaf samples were used to monitor beneficial and pest insect numbers in the habitat restored vineyards and nearby conventional vineyards over a three year period,” said Buckley. The native plants, which are adapted to the region’s hot summers and cold winters, are home to at least 133 insect species. Native habitat vineyards had fewer pest insect species; and higher populations and a higher diversity of beneficial insects. Anagrus wasps, which are known to parasitize pesky grape leafhoppers, were most abundant in Big Sagebrush. More amazingly, this leafhopper biocontrol wasp was found year-round in Big Sagebrush, even when the plant was not flowering. No other plant, not even the photogenic wild roses planted at the end of vineyard rows and admired by tourists, hosted the tiny leafhopper biocontrol wasp year-round.

Garden herbs such as thyme (Thymus ssp.), mugwort (Artemisia ssp.) and fennel (Foeniculum ssp.) have all been tested in vineyard interrows because they are fungicidal against Botrytis cinerea, a fungus attacking grape clusters, and boost soil micro-nutrients like copper, manganese and zinc. Maybe at some point in time, the Chinese interplantings of tobacco and alternating strips of Big Sagebrush (or other Artemisia species) and garden herbs will all get integrated together with other cover crops and native hedgerows into grape vineyards for a more biological or natural approach to agriculture. With sagebrush and tobacco, we have only scratched the surface of vineyard possibilities.

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The Mysteries of Colony Collapse

May 15, 2014

COLONY COLLAPSE DISORDER (CCD) of honey bees is one of the lingering mysteries of early 21st Century science in more ways than one: from its microbial, immune system and genetic components to an amorphous almost Orwellian terminology as imprecise and ambiguous as climate change (a slogan wide enough to encompass warming up, cooling down, and even staying the same temperature while the numbers fluctuate around the mean or average). The ambiguous language says both nothing and everything simultaneously, though underlying CCD is a quest for as yet unknown changes in insect rearing circumstances that will produce non-collapsing honey bee colonies. During the 19th century (1800s), a century marked by worldwide famines in the the old colonial empires and phylloxera-ravaged wine-grape vineyards collapsing in France, a revolution in modern medicine was being birthed in the mysteriously collapsing silkworm colonies. Fortunately for lovers of silk fabrics, fashion and textiles, 19th century silkworm farmers had the services of the real-life scientific Sherlock Holmes of the era, the famous French freelance scientist and sometime entomologist, Louis Pasteur.

Pasteur had a knack for solving applied problems like fermentation (beer, wine, vinegar) and silkworm colony collapse, and then using the results to develop broader theories like germ theory, which taught modern doctors to wash their hands and sterilize their instruments so as to stop spreading the germs that commonly killed their patients. How Pasteur almost single-handedly accomplished so much more than whole scientific institutes seemed able to do in the 20th century was the subject of an illuminating mid-20th century book, Louis Pasteur Free Lance of Science, by French-borne microbiologist Rene Dubos. “Toward the middle of the nineteenth century a mysterious disease began to attack the French silkworm nurseries,” wrote Dubos. “In 1853, silkworm eggs could no longer be produced in France, but had to be imported from Lombardy; then the disease spread to Italy, Spain and Austria. Dealers procuring eggs for the silkworm breeders had to go farther and farther east in an attempt to secure healthy products; but the disease followed them, invading in turn Greece, Turkey, the Caucasus–finally China and even Japan. By 1865, the silkworm industry was near ruin in France, and also, to a lesser degree, in the rest of Western Europe.”

“The first triumphs of microbiology in the control of epidemics came out of the genius and labors of two men, Agostino Bassi and Louis Pasteur, both of whom were untrained in medical or veterinary sciences, and both of whom first approached the problems of pathology by studying the diseases of silkworms,” wrote Dubos, who between World Wars I and II worked at the League of Nations’ Bureau of Agricultural Intelligence and Plant Diseases as an editor of the International Review of the Science and Practice of Agriculture. “A disease known as mal del segno was then causing extensive damage to the silkworm industry in Lombardy. Bassi demonstrated that the disease was infectious and could be transmitted by inoculation, by contact, and by infected food. He traced it to a parasitic fungus, called after him Botrytis bassiana (since renamed Beauveria bassiana, a widely used biocontrol agent)…An exact understanding…allowed Bassi to work out methods to prevent its spread through the silkworm nurseries. After twenty years of arduous labor, he published in 1836…Although unable to see the bacterial agents of disease because of blindness, Bassi envisioned from his studies on the mal del segno the bacteriological era which was to revolutionize medicine two decades after his death.”

Chemist Jean Baptiste Dumas, Pasteur’s mentor, prevailed upon the reluctant free lance scientist to head a mission of the French Ministry of Agriculture. “Although Pasteur knew nothing of silkworms or their diseases, he accepted the challenge,” wrote Dubos. “To Pasteur’s remark that he was totally unfamiliar with the subject, Dumas had replied one day: ‘So much the better! For ideas, you will have only those which shall come to you as a result of your observations!’”

A way of life was also at stake. As described in 19th century France by Emile Duclaux, Pasteur’s student and intimate collaborator (in Dubos’ book): “…the cocoons are put into a steam bath, to kill the chrysalids by heat. In this case, scarcely six weeks separate the time of egg-hatching from the time when the cocoons are carried to market, from the time the silk grower sows to the time when he reaps. As, in former times, the harvest was almost certain and quite lucrative, the Time of the Silkworm was a time of festival and of joy, in spite of the fatigues which it imposed, and, in gratitude, the mulberry tree had received the name of arbre d’or, from the populations who derived their livelihood from it.”

“The study of silkworm diseases constituted for Pasteur an initiation into the problem of infectious diseases,” wrote Dubos, who was influenced by the famous Russian soil microbiologist, Serge Winogradsky, who favored studying microbial interactions in natural environments rather than in pure laboratory cultures. “Instead of the accuracy of laboratory procedures he encountered the variability and unpredictability of behavior in animal life, for silkworms differ in their response to disease as do other animals. In the case of flacherie (a disease), for example, the time of death after infection might vary from 12 hours to 3 weeks, and some of the worms invariably escaped death…Time and time again, he discussed the matter of the influence of environmental factors on susceptibility, on the receptivity of the ‘terrain’ for the invading agent of disease. So deep was his concern with the physiological factors that condition infection that he once wrote, ‘If I had to undertake new studies on silkworms, I would investigate conditions for increasing their vigor, a problem of which one knows nothing. This would certainly lead to techniques for protecting them against accidental diseases.’”

“Usually, the public sees only the finished result of the scientific effort, but remains unaware of the atmosphere of confusion, tentative gropings, frustration and heart-breaking discouragement in which the scientist often labors while trying to extract, from the entrails of nature, the products and laws which appear so simple and orderly when they finally reach textbooks and newspapers,” wrote Dubos. “In many circumstances, he developed reproducible and practical techniques that in other hands failed, or gave such erratic results as to be considered worthless. His experimental achievements appear so unusual in their complete success that there has been a tendency to explain them away in the name of luck, but the explanation is in reality quite simple. Pasteur was a master experimenter with an uncanny sense of the details relevant to the success of his tests. It was the exacting conscience with which he respected the most minute details of his operations, and his intense concentration while at work, that gave him an apparently intuitive awareness of all the facts significant for the test, and permitted him always to duplicate his experimental conditions. In many cases, he lacked complete understanding of the reasons for the success of the procedures that he used, but always he knew how to make them work again, if they had once worked in his hands.”

Though famed for disproving the spontaneous generation of life, immunization via attenuated living vaccines and the germ theory of infectious disease: “Pasteur often emphasized the great importance of the environment, of nutrition, and of the physiological and even psychological state of the patient, in deciding the outcome of the infectious process,” wrote Dubos. “Had the opportunity come for him to undertake again the study of silkworm diseases, he once said, he would have liked to investigate the factors which favor the general robustness of the worms, and thereby increase their resistance to infectious disease…A logic of Pasteur’s life centered on physiological problems is just as plausible as that which resulted from the exclusive emphasis on the germ theory of contagious disease.”

The 21st century is riddled with insect colony conundrums and mysteries. For example, why among the social insects are honey bees plagued by Colony Collapse Disorder, while “Colony Expansion Disorder” prevails for other social insects in the USA. Rather than collapsing, USA colonies of Argentine ants are forming “super-colonies,” and red imported fire ant colonies are growing stronger by the day and annually expanding their North American geographic range; this despite being deliberately dosed with pesticides and attacked by biocontrol organisms (perhaps even more so than the beleaguered honey bees). And quite independently of mortgage rates and housing sales, Formosan subterranean termite colonies damaging billions of dollars of USA housing stock are happily munching away at both live trees and “dead-tree” wooden housing assets with little collective danger of colony collapse, though individual colonies come and go.

Perhaps beekeeping and crop pollination would be easier if Colony Collapse Disorder were an actual “disorder” as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and honey bees were endowed with sufficient consciousness and behaviors amenable to bee psychology or psychiatry.

The very real plight of honey bee colonies or hives is still in what Dubos would call the “atmosphere of confusion, tentative gropings, frustration.” At the most recent Entomological Society of America annual meeting, roughly a century and a half after silkworm colony collapse was eliminated by better more sanitary rearing practices, honey bee health was still puzzling. Honey bee colony loss in Virginia increased to 30% from 5-10% in recent years, possibly due to disease pathogens, pesticides and immune system suppression, say Virginia Tech researchers (e.g. Brenna Traver) studying glucose oxidase (GOX), an indicator of immunity in social insects. Honey bee social immunity is complex, involving factors as diverse as pheromones and grooming, and honey bee production of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), which sterilizes food for the colony.

Nosema ceranae, a global gut pathogen, was seen all around the USA in 2007 at the same time as Colony Collapse Disorder. Black queen cell virus is another culprit, along with deformed wing virus, which is spread among honey bees by varroa mites. Then it is hard to overlook that over 120 different pesticides and their metabolites have been found in honey; including common beekeeper-applied pesticides such as coumaphos, fluvalinate, chlorothalonil and the antibiotic fumagillin. At the University of Puerto Rico, Gloria Dominguez-Bello is testing oxytetracycline and other commonly used antibiotics for their effects on honey bee microbes similar to those known to affect everything from obesity and brain function to organ transplants.

Those familiar with Pasteur’s entomological research on silkworm colony collapse in the 1800s would have experienced a sense of deja vu at the most recent Entomological Society of America meetings listening to Gloria DeGrandi-Hoffman, a research leader at the USDA-ARS Carl Hayden Bee Research Center in Tucson, Arizona. Nutrition, stress and pesticides may indeed be involved, but more focus is warranted for honey bee microbial health and gut microbes. Honey bee nutrition and microbiology is complicated by seasonal variations with changing food sources. According to DeGrandi-Hoffman, a lack of beneficial microbes may set honey bees up for infectious diseases like chalkbrood.

For example, pesticides used for Varroa mite control and potent beekeeping antibiotics like thymol and formic acid can affect the Lactobacillus microbes bees need for digestion and preservation of pollen as beebread, said DeGrandi-Hoffman. When bacterial plasmids found in high numbers in beebread are plated with the pathogen Aspergillus flavus, the pathogen rapidly loses virulence.

It is likely honey bees rely on beneficial microbes to protect from harmful pathogens, as honey bees have among the fewest immune system genes of any insect. Thus, when California almond growers spray fungicides, insecticides and miticides, a side effect could be fewer beneficial microbes in honey bee guts and in beebread. Thus, the honey bees would be less healthy and more susceptible to diseases like chalkbrood. Probiotic supplements designed to add beneficial microbes to honey bee diets are being tested in some California orchards. No doubt a familiar concept to those shopping for probiotic yogurts.