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OSU hunts for ‘zombie’ flies

Tiffany Woods

zombie fly photo courtesy OSU Arthropod Collection

Ramesh Sagili was walking on Oregon State University’s campus early one morning in July 2012 when he stumbled upon two dead bees under a streetlamp. Sagili, an Extension honeybee specialist, took the bees back to his lab. Four days later seven maggots crawled out of the neck of one of the bees. Three weeks after that, one of the maggots matured into an Apocephalus borealis, a zombie fly, so called because it is suspected of causing bees to exhibit a disoriented behavior at night. Sagili’s finding became Oregon’s first documented case of a zombie fly infecting a honeybee. It comes amid rising concern about the health of honeybees, which have been hit by a mysterious phenomenon called colony collapse disorder in which adult honeybees disappear from a hive, either entirely or in large numbers.

Sagili doubts that the small, brownish-red fly is playing a role in the widespread die-off of the already beleaguered bees, which are crucial pollinators for some Oregon crops. “It’s a stretch to say the fly is correlated to colony collapse disorder,” he said. “At this point, I don’t think it’s a threat. I don’t think it’s at the level where it can depopulate hives in large numbers.”

To see how prevalent the zombie fly is, Sagili has placed traps by hives at several locations on campus and is encouraging commercial and hobby beekeepers to do the same near their colonies.

Earlier in 2012, researchers in California became the first to document that the fly, which is native to North America, attacks honeybees. The fly, which lays eggs inside the bees and is smaller than a fruit fly, is also known to parasitize bumblebees.

Sagili hypothesizes that although honeybees are widely studied, it’s possible that scientists just never saw the parasite because they usually preserve their collected bees in alcohol, which would kill the larvae and keep them from popping out.

OSU-trained taste testers evaluate experimental wines

Tiffany Woods

winetasting photo by Lynn Ketchum

Thirteen taste testers nuzzle their noses into glasses of Pinot noir in a classroom. They swirl, sniff, and sip. As they roll the wine in their mouths, they try to pin down exactly what it is they’re tasting and smelling. Was that black pepper? Maybe forest floor? Or the sulfuric whiff of a struck match? The evaluators were some of the 60 Oregon winemakers and vineyard managers whom Oregon State University trained in 2012 in an effort to help the state’s wine industry better understand how what it’s doing in its vineyards and tanks affects the final product.

The unpaid volunteers learned to use a sensory method called free-choice profiling that allows them to use their own vocabulary to describe the color, aroma, taste, and “mouthfeel” of wines.

They’ll gather several times a year for refresher trainings and to evaluate experimental wines made by OSU and Oregon’s wine industry. Last summer, they evaluated Pinot noir made from an OSU research trial at Stoller Family Estate’s vineyard in Dayton.

In the study, Patty Skinkis, a viticulturist with the OSU Extension Service, and her crew snipped off different amounts of grape clusters at various times, altering the yields. Their goal was to determine how much fruit should be left on a vine and when it should be thinned to produce the highest-quality wine. The testers tasted five wines made from the different thinning methods.

James Osborne, an Extension enologist who trained them, is now analyzing the ballots to see if differences were detected. Ultimately, after evaluating wines over a number of seasons, he hopes to correlate the results with how the fruit was thinned.

“You really need to have a tasting panel so you can find out if these practices really are beneficial to the wine,” said winemaker Dick Erath, whose foundation donated $25,000 to the training. “It’s amazing how just little things can change how wines appear and smell. That all comes out in a sensory panel.”

A new animal sciences teaching facility means no more crowded labs (or lines for the bathroom)

Tiffany Woods

teaching pavilion
Sheep graze by the new $3.5 million James E. Oldfield Animal Teaching Facility on OSU’s campus. Heated by geothermal energy, the building is used mainly for teaching and it’s equipped with conference rooms, laboratories, and a livestock arena. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

For years, animal science students at Oregon State University were shoehorned into Room 203, a stuffy, narrow lab in Withycombe Hall, where elbow-to-elbow they examined reproductive systems from livestock. On hot days, the smell drifted into a neighboring room. To study an actual live animal, they were shuttled in a van to OSU’s various research farms, some of which are several miles off campus. And if they were women and needed a restroom, they sometimes waited in line to use the limited stalls in the west wing of their 60-year-old building.

But life just got better thanks to the new $3.5 million, 17,000-square-foot James E. Oldfield Animal Teaching Facility, which was built in response to increasing student numbers and a need for modern infrastructure.

Its main attraction is a large arena where livestock and equipment can be brought in for hands-on learning. There’s also a convenient walk-in freezer and refrigerator for storing animal organs. Formerly, such specimens had to be carted from the basement and wheeled across the main entrance of Withycombe Hall, which also houses OSU’s theatre complex and the university’s wine- and cheesemaking facilities

Heated by geothermal energy, the new building also features a conference room and teleconferencing technology. Two classrooms have large garage doors that open into the arena, and the lab classroom is five times the size of the room formerly used in Withycombe. Additionally, the new teaching facility has seven bathroom stalls for women, who make up about 90 percent of the nearly 500 undergraduate majors in the department.

The Oldfield building comes amid increasing student enrollment. This fall, twice as many undergraduates were majoring in either animal or rangeland sciences as there were 10 years ago, said John Killefer, who is the head of OSU’s animal and rangeland sciences department. In addition to building new facilities, the department plans to hire six faculty members, using donations and university funding.

The development is taking place at the same time that OSU is restructuring some of its livestock centers on and around campus because of budget cuts and a reevaluation of how many animals it actually needs for research and teaching. At its dairy operations, for example, the university has sold approximately 200 of its 300 cows but is keeping its Jerseys as it focuses on grass- and forage-fed milk production.

The Oldfield facility will eventually be surrounded by three other structures: a building to house animals and research; a facility to store commodities like hay and grain; and a place for a farm machinery shop, the agricultural education program, and a computer data center.

Excluding the data center, the total cost for all the buildings is pegged at $8 million, with financing split evenly between bonds and gifts from donors, Killefer said. Funding for the Oldfield building came from donations raised by OSU’s capital campaign as well as matching bonds from the state.