Monday, July 27, 2020

Agricultural smuggling - a threat to farms, gardens, and our ecosystem

Karla Salp

WSDA received a report of seeds
mailed from China that the 
recipient did not order.
On Friday, July 24, WSDA received two separate reports of residents receiving seeds from China that they did not order. The package labeling indicated that jewelry was inside, but instead the residents found seeds. 

We have also received reports of people who purchased seeds from an online retailer thinking the seeds were from the United States, only to learn when the package arrived in the mail (also usually listing something other than seeds on the mailing labels) that the seeds were from another country.

Avoiding plant import regulations and bypassing customs (for example, by mislabeling a package and identifying its contents as something else) to get plant material into the United States is known as agricultural smuggling and is not only illegal, but poses a serious threat to our farms, gardens, animals, and environment. 

  • They could be invasive. Some plants are not allowed to enter the country because they are known to be invasive, and could outcompete native plants.  
  • They could harbor pests and diseases. Plants and seeds can have insect or disease pests that could devastate native plants that have no defense against them. This could lead to the loss of plants or require increased pesticide use to manage. 
  • They could harm livestock. Some plants are toxic to livestock and other animals – even humans. If they are planted, they could be harmful to livestock and other animals. 

For these reasons, bringing plant material into the United States is closely regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

What Washington residents should do

USDA is asking residents to place these seeds and their packaging in a plastic bag. Place the bag in a mailing envelope and send to USDA for further investigation. Washington residents can submit seeds they suspect have entered the country illegally to USDA at the following address:

USDA-APHIS-PPQ – Attn: Jason Allen
Seattle Plant Inspection Station
835 South 192nd Street, Bldg D, Ste 1600
Seatac, WA 98148. 

Those who have planted the seeds should leave the plants where they are and contact the APHIS State Plant Health Director for guidance. 

WSDA had previously instructed residents to double bag and dispose of the seeds and plants grown from them in the trash before receiving this updated guidance. Residents who disposed of seeds do not need to take any further action. 

Questions about submitting seeds should be sent to the APHIS State Plant Health Director.

What about burning the seeds? 

Burning seeds is not a guaranteed way to kill the seeds. Some seeds actually require fire and smoke to germinate, so burning an unknown seed could actually improve its ability to grow. If fire is not needed to help a seed germinate, then with enough time, fire could make the seed unviable. However, the average person may not be able to generate enough heat for long enough to kill the seed without a substantial risk to catching other things on fire. 

What about grinding up the seeds?

We suggest that you do not open the seed packets at all. Opening and putting the seeds through a blender, for example, could release fungal or other plant diseases. 

What residents in other states should do

Anyone outside of Washington State who receives an unsolicited package of seeds from China or other countries should contact their state plant regulatory official or APHIS State plant health director. Please hold onto the seeds and packaging, including the mailing label, until someone from your state department of agriculture or APHIS contacts you with further instructions. Do not plant or consume seeds from unknown origins.

USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is aware that people across the country have received unsolicited packages of seed from China. APHIS is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection and State departments of agriculture to prevent the unlawful entry of prohibited seeds and protect U.S. agriculture from invasive pests and noxious weeds.

In addition to the work that USDA APHIS is doing, WSDA’s Plant Protection staff are also working with online retailers to prevent this from happening in the future. 

Thank you to everyone who has reported this issue and thank you for protecting Washington’s farms, gardens, and environment from potentially harmful plants and pests. 

7/27/2020 - This blog was updated to add the sections on burning and grinding seeds. 

7/29/2020 - This blog was updated to reflect new instructions from USDA for residents on what to do with the seeds. 

Friday, July 10, 2020

Why don't we import Asian honey bees?

Chris Looney
WSDA Entomology Lab

Photo credit: Flickr user budak
While Eastern honey bees do have a defense against Asian giant hornets, importing them into the United States would do more harm than good. 

The Eastern honey bee, Apis cerana, is one of about 12 different cavity and open-nesting honey bee species that occur in Asia. Apis cerana is widely kept by beekeepers in Asia, but in commercial operations it has been mostly replaced throughout its range by the western honey bee, Apis mellifera

The western honey bee, which is native to Europe, Africa, and western and central Asia, has been widely adopted because of its ability to produce higher honey yields than A. cerana. Other factors that make A. cerana difficult to manage for large-scale commercial pollination and honey production include seasonal migration, and a tendency to “abscond” (abandon their hive) when disturbed.

There are other reasons to be wary of importing Apis cerana. Although Apis cerana has effective behavioral defenses against the Asian giant hornet, it is also host to multiple parasitic mites that can destroy colonies of A. mellifera. One of these, Tropilaelaps clareae, has not yet reached Europe or the Americas. Many entomologists believe that Tropilaelaps could be more devastating to U.S. honey bees than the Varroa mite, and annual nationwide monitoring of U.S. honey bee populations to prevent the establishment of this parasite is a high priority of USDA-APHIS.

Importing A. cerana might also provide a pathway for bee viruses to enter the U.S., creating a high risk to both managed Apis mellifera populations and native bee species. Finally, Apis cerana itself could be problematic. After being introduced to Australia and Papua New Guinea, it became highly invasive and displaced native bee species. All efforts to suppress it have so far failed.

Intentionally introducing A. cerana would pose a huge risk to U.S. agriculture and native bees, and is not currently a viable solution to managing Asian giant hornets even if they become established. It is also illegal under federal law.

As a final note, remember that beekeepers still raise western honey bees in places where Asian giant hornet is native. It takes more resources, but the industry is viable.

Contributed by Katie Buckley, Steve Sheppard, Brandon Hopkins, and Chris Looney

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Can praying mantis control or kill Asian giant hornets?

Chris Looney
WSDA Entomology Lab

A popular and gruesome video on the internet shows a large praying mantis attacking and quickly consuming an Asian giant hornet. This video, plus the predatory reputation of mantises in general, has many people wondering why we can’t just use this natural control to deal with Asian giant hornets. 

There are a few reasons why this is not likely to be a useful strategy. First, the hornet in the video was anesthetized before filming. While it is certainly possible that a mantis could kill an Asian giant hornet in the field, it is also likely that the hornet would kill the mantis. In fact, praying mantises are a well-documented food source for Asian giant hornets in their native range.

Even if mantises were more effective predators of Asian giant hornets, it is very difficult to maintain high enough populations of general predators to control pest insects. Consider that each hornet nest might have a few hundred active workers at maximum colony size, and that there may be multiple colonies active in the same area at the same time. A praying mantis can only eat so many insects, and they would have to be in the right place at the right time to catch one. There is no evidence that they would preferentially seek hornets or hornet nests. 

Other aspects of their biology that make them unlikely to control Asian giant hornet if it becomes established include a slow reproductive rate for the mantises and the fact that they will eat any insect they happen upon - in fact, they seem to prefer grasshoppers and related insects. If that rare hornet-praying mantis encounter even happens, they might already be satiated from eating other insects - including honey bees. The presence of praying mantises also changes honey bee behavior; honey bees will avoid foraging when they see praying mantises. Saturating the landscape with praying mantises (which would require an industrial insect-rearing facility) would likely have negative impacts on managed pollinators and many native insect species.

The two large praying mantises in Washington State are introduced species, and while they are an interesting and acceptable presence in our gardens, they aren’t effective or specialized enough to control any species of insect – including Asian giant hornets – at a large scale. Consider learning about our native mantis, which is uncommon and difficult to find. 

Contributed by Katie Buckley, Steve Sheppard, Brandon Hopkins, and Chris Looney

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Farm to School initiatives awarded over $600,000 in USDA Grants

Farm to School Lead

Common Threads AmeriCorps Food
Educator Grace McElhone harvests
carrots from the Whatcom Middle
School hoophouse for food distribution
during COVID-19 school closures.
Photo source: Common Threads
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), announced $12.1 million in farm to school grant awards this week, including $633,703 for seven farm to school projects in Washington State.

The grants support activities connecting students with local farmers, school gardens, and agriculture education during the coming school year.

The financial support comes at a critical time for educating and feeding students with locally grown foods. It also highlights farm to school programming that has taken place for many years in classrooms, gardens, and cafeterias at school districts across Washington State.

Efforts connected regionally and statewide

Though the grants are spread across the state, many partners plan to work collaboratively to increase the impact of their individual projects and build broader momentum for farm to school activities.
They also share a common connection to WSDA Farm to School, which has provided guidance, assistance, or encouragement to these programs to support their success.

In addition, some organizations are members of the Washington State Farm to School Network, launched by WSDA Farm to School and dozens of other organizations in 2018 (also thanks to the support of a USDA Farm to School Grant).

WSDA looks forward to the seeing successes and benefits of these projects for students, farmers, and communities in the coming years, and supporting many of the projects through our WSDA Farm to School programming.

Washington’s award recipients include:

Chimacum School District 49, Chimacum

Chimacum School District, in partnership with the nonprofit Community Wellness Project and the local food and farm community, will increase the amount of fresh and local food procured, prepared and served in school cafeterias. The project will increase school meal participation, agricultural education, food and farm career and technical education programs, and develop a school food waste composting program in partnership with a local farm.

Common Threads, Bellingham

The project will enhance existing farm to school partnerships with staff at six rural schools and build new partnerships with four additional high-need rural schools. The project will work with district and school staff to increase understanding of and support for farm to school; and offer support to rural and high poverty communities across Washington state via training, consultation and the recruitment, training and support of food educators in partnership with OSPI, WSDA, the Washington State Farm to School Network, and Whatcom County Health Department.

Coupeville School District, Coupeville

Coupeville School District take-home meals featuring pasta and
Washington grown beef sauce for distribution during COVID-19
 school closures. Photo source: Coupeville School District
The Coupeville School District and Coupeville Farm to School will work to improve students’ knowledge and access to locally grown foods. The project will finish development of the Coupeville School District Farm Site, incorporate experiential activities and participation in farm based activities, hire a part-time school farm manager to coordinate site production and educational activities, develop district-wide plans and policies for local food purchase and use, and participate in the Whidbey Island Grown farmer cooperative food hub to solve distribution bottlenecks of local produce.

Viva Farms, Burlington

The project will increase procurement of local produce and whole grains in schools through training, technical assistance and connecting farmers and school buyers; engage students and teachers in experiential learning and educational activities related to agriculture, food and nutrition; and increase understanding and support for farm to school with regional school district leadership. Partners include WSU Skagit County Extension, Mt. Vernon School District, Skagit/Island Head Start, WSDA and University of Wisconsin.

Northeast Washington Educational Service District 101, Spokane

The Northeast Washington Educational Service District 101 (NEWESD 101) Child Nutrition Cooperative will work with Empire Health Foundation to help plan farm to school activities at rural school districts in Northeastern Washington. The project will establish a supply chain linking regional farmers and ranchers to school districts, introduce seasonal menus that incorporate local food items, and further agricultural education and introducing school garden projects.

Okanogan Conservation District, Okanogan

Students Students at a fall garden party at Virginia
Grainger Elementary in Okanogan, compare sunflower
 Photo source: Okanogan Conservation District
Okanogan Conservation District, in partnership with Classroom in Bloom, will collaborate with
school districts, local organizations, and community members to implement and expand school gardens and improve local food procurement and agricultural education efforts in Okanogan County. The project will increase garden educator capacity, develop STEM agricultural curriculum, and expand food procurement from local farms.

Washington State Department of Agriculture, Olympia

Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and a team of trainers will develop and deliver three "scratch cooking & farm to school institutes" in Washington State for cross-disciplinary district teams, including one training by and for tribal schools and meal programs. The institutes will consist of two-day intensive training and planning sessions for schools to implement scratch cooking programs and local procurement. The project aims to increase the use of minimally processed, locally produced ingredients, traditional and culturally relevant menus, and student participation in meal programs.

For a comprehensive list of the grants awarded nationwide, visit USDA 2020 Farm to School Grantees webpage.