129 – Ron Bitner – Vineyards for Pollinators


Speaker 1: From the Oregon State University Extension Service, this is Pollination, a podcast that tells the stories of researchers, land managers, and concerned citizens making bold strides to improve the health of pollinators. I'm your host, Dr. Adoni Melopoulos, assistant professor in pollinator health in the Department of Horticulture.

One thing that I think I'm good at is training pesticide applicators and I criss-cross Oregon training applicators in various venues last week it took me to Ontario, Oregon which is right across the border from Boise, Idaho giving me an opportunity to finally have a face-to-face meeting with Ron Bittner. Now Ron is the newest board member of the Pollinator partnership but he has an extensive career in solitary bee management and seed production. As you'll hear in this episode, he's essentially descended from royalty when it comes to solitary bee work. He got his PhD at Utah State University in the 70s. He worked with Bill Stephen here at Oregon State University, some of the real heydays of solitary bee research here at OSU and recently he's turned his attention to growing wine grapes.

So, I thought this would be a great opportunity to pick Ron's brain about how to create pollinator habitat in the really low moisture conditions of eastern Oregon but also sort of thinking a little bit more broadly about bee research, and its connection to agriculture. He's got some great stories. I'm sure you can enjoy this episode which we recorded at 6.30 a.m. in a holiday and dine-and-dash little restaurant cafe thing. Okay, hope you enjoyed the episode.

Speaker 2: So after I left graduate school in 1976 came back to Idaho where I grew up in the Treasure Valley and was looking for property above the Snake River Valley and happened to be building it up in the sunny slope area. I found this property and I was building it right next to the first winemaker for San Chappelle. I knew nothing about wine grapes.

Speaker 1: Well, that's a little audacious.

Speaker 2: Well, but it had the view because when you're at 2,600 feet in elevation some of the higher vineyards in the country are along the Snake River here because of the elevation, and because of the, we can have a winter kill pretty easily around here. A lot of years or in springtime we can have a heavy frost. So the better vineyards have to be on these hillside. So I started planting my vineyards in 1981 and my background is a bee biologist with alkali bees, leaf header bees, and blue orchard bees. So over the last almost 40 years, it's been bees and wine. One of the things early on.

Speaker 1: So you're not one of these folks like I'm growing wine and I'm going to get some, I'm going to, oh maybe I'll put some bee habitat in. It's like from the very start it was like I wanted a vineyard with bees in it.

Speaker 2: Exactly. Okay. And because of the work that I was doing on my masters, the blue orchard bee, I wanted to plant stuff that was seasonal because Osmylaeumicnaria comes out, you know, that was part of me when the orchard was in bloom. But what I've been looking at and playing with over the years, one of the first things in bloom is canola around here. And I've been planting canola strips that have nematocidal properties so that my bees can feed on them. Because nematodes are always a problem in vineyards.

Speaker 1: So you get the biofumigation effect from the canola.

Speaker 2: And I've worked with the University of Idaho and nematologist over the years. So that was my idea. And so I still have the strips and had early bloom for Osmylaeumicnaria and hopefully nematocidal from some of these.

Speaker 1: So I've always kind of wondered about that because lots of growers are working with somebody in cherries this spring who's doing the same thing. So the idea is that you would seed in the spring and get a flush or you'd do a fall seeding.

Speaker 2: Well, I was doing it in the spring. It's better, I think, to do it in the fall. But we still can get it up in October and November to have a really hard tree. And then kill it.

It kills it. In the spring it's almost a little too late. This time of the year is what I normally should be doing. I'm trying some seed blends this year. And most of my cover cropping is just seeing what depth to my environment. And I was telling you earlier, after 30 years of trying to get, I've got some plants in there that will stay until the next year. And with my background in alfalfa seed, I knew an important plant it was for farmers without realizing it. It just grows wild around here. And I was always taking it out of my vineyard because there were just plants here and there. And about five years ago, I just started letting it go and mowing it back down. It's a four-acre vineyard that I live certified with.

Speaker 1: So just back up one sec. So two things. So with the canola, you let it grow up and then you let it flower and then till it in. Is that how you, yeah? Or do you just mow it down?

Speaker 2: Well, I've gone mowing with the live certification in vineyards. It's more about building up your soil than anything. And because we're part of the old leg out of our light bed here, our soils are so very sandy. They're just, you know, organic matter.

So I used to disc everything, but then it just turned to powder. Now I just mow everything back down. And there's the work out of the Y'shaw estate. Some people think the canola is helping with the mat to sidle control. A lot of growers use around here for potatoes. I'm using the same stuff. One year it's, in the spring they've got that on the canola. But then they just plow it in and come back.

Speaker 1: Oh, so they don't even take the seed crop?

Speaker 2: No, no, it's strictly just, apparently the highest concentrations of materials you're looking for before it goes into seed. So they'd get it up, let it bloom, disc it right back into the soil, and then come back in and pick the potatoes.

Speaker 1: All right, but you were telling us about another super plant that you have around your vineyard that you were fighting for years. It reminds me, that we had an episode with Dave Cattle on the city manager who's fighting Clover on city grounds. And then sort of wised up as like, maybe we should be planting the clover. You had alfalfa, and just the thing, I have to say it's my first time in Ontario. I don't know if our listeners quite understand the extent of alfalfa seed production in this valley.

Speaker 2: It's down in production. I've been involved in, since 1980, was actually an extension specialist with the University of Ottawa, and they brought the alfalfa seed program here, the IPM program. This valley typically has anywhere from 15 to 25,000 acres of alfalfa for seed, and winter hardy varieties.

This valley has several producers of alfalfa seed for overwintering varieties of alfalfa. So, yeah, it's always been part of, for 30 years, 35 years for me, working with alkali bees that are here, and the leafcutter bees, which I'm with my Ph.D. on, working with the guys at the Logan Bee Lab, the Ned Bull Hards, Frank Barker, Phil Torchell, Oregon State graduate. He was the guy who started building artificial alkali bee beds in California, Bill Stephen there at Oregon State, and Carl Johansson, those guys were my mentors.

Speaker 1: You know, before we got started here, we were just talking about how in the Pacific Northwest there is a tradition of the researchers who work on bees to work as a team. Washington State, Idaho, and Oregon would often do joint publications on solitary bees. PNWs, pesticide ones. Including the pesticide one, the how to prevent bee poisoning from pesticides, and the PNW publication of the three states.

Speaker 2: We had a very strong, other key to this we had a strong working group of researchers in the Northwest Alpha Seed Coalition, and I was the director there for a while. Spent our time in Washington, D.C. a lot, and there was always a key signature on appropriations, either Idaho, Oregon, or Washington that we dealt with, and they funded a lot of money to the universities because we went back as farmers instead of just the lobbyists and we spent years doing that. And again, that money was funneled right back into the university system. The first big grant was for a chalk-brewed disease that went to the Logan Bland. But yeah, we've always had a really strong group in mind.

I just want to see that happen again with the bees because that was probably the first crop that we all worked on. Because of each state, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, literally Montana. But we all had that abridge of outbound disease.

Speaker 1: Okay, so coming back to it, I always think that's remarkable. And I always lament that I did not overlap with any of those people before I started here. Bill, Steven passed away the year before I arrived, which is just tragic.

I would have loved to have him. I said, Ska-tuan boy, later. No, he's from Anatova. Yeah, he's from Anatova. I was like, another Canadian working at OSU, I was really sad.

Speaker 2: My mother was Canadian. Oh, is that right? Her name is Swift. A. But she came down as...

Speaker 1: We eventually migrate. She was brought down as a two-year-old in the United States.

Speaker 2: But she was a Canadian citizen until I was in first grade and she became a U.S. citizen. But I worked with a lot of the guys, in Manitoba, I don't know, the guys in Winnipeg, those guys from Fisher Brothers.

Speaker 1: Oh, because a lot of the seats grown here would probably go north.

Speaker 2: The seat doesn't go north. The bees come this way. Well, of course they do, yes. The leafcutter bees, when we started getting chocolate diseases.

Speaker 1: We had Weldon Hobbs on an episode.

Speaker 2: I knew Weldon. Oh, you do? Yeah, I knew his dad. You know, when the first bees went to Canada. That's how old I am, I was 74, but I worked. Oh, right, he did see the... He said they came from Nevada, the first bees that went to Canada. Yeah, they went in that direction.

And so that was Weldon Hobbs. But yeah, the Northwest industry is around bees, especially the non-episodes, because honeybees don't work on half of the seats in the Northwest. They just take the nectar and are on the way. This little leaf-cutter bee is, I mean, work in a coalition of people. In 1995, I was invited by CSIRO out of Canberra to come down and work out protocols to bring that bee down there because what they saw was this little bee would pull in 1,000 pounds of seed in three weeks. Because of water conservation, honeybees, just 300 pounds in three months. And the bee was brought there as a tool.

Speaker 1: Oh, right, we heard that when we talked to Jim Cain, that to use honeybees, you have to play with the moisture.

Speaker 2: You do. You're going down and it's hard on honeybees, so they don't do well. I did a lot of work in Central Valley, California, on Boswell Island, so I brought all the cutter bees there. So it's... So I've had this great life of working with bees.

Speaker 1: Okay, but we've come all the way around to it. So now you've rediscovered your... You're now a wine grower and you... A grape grower and you find you're fighting this plant that you've spent all your lifetime cultivating. And then you rediscover it as just a good plant, not just for alfalfa leaf-cutting bees, but for other bees.

Speaker 2: Right, yeah, yeah, that leaves me. And it's one that starts to bloom in mid-June, so I've got my early plants and I've got a lot of bee-friendly plants. I've got my Seraltsia, which brings in little bees... Diabasius. I've got little bee-bends and... Oh, you do?

Really? If you come on Mother's Day, I call it my Mother's Day, because the blow-mell starts to bloom around Mother's Day. Within a day or two of that, Diabasius will show up. Really? And I used to have 20 or 30 little tubes. Now, on a good year, there'll be 300 or 400 of them flying around my deck.

And so I spend half my time... My daughter's selling wine and I talk about bees to people. But getting back to the plant, this one plant alfalfa, I was always trying to take it out. We move it... When you have a... When you're a vineyard grower, it has to look like it doesn't have a full... Nothing there, so... That was defeating my purpose of cover crops. So I started letting the alfalfa seed just go. Now it's reseeded, and I've got strips of alfalfa throughout my vineyard. And, yeah, it looks a little messy, but we come back in and I've got my workers to just take the weed whackers to knock it down over three weeks. It just keeps on blooming for my bees.

And filling in. I've got some clovers in there. I've tried a lot of other plants. The biggest problem with cover crops is fighting the weeds that come in the first week.

Speaker 1: Well, I guess the other nice thing with alfalfa is it has such a deep root. I remember when in southern Alberta you could be late summer when there's no moisture. Everything's brown, and if you see this patch of green, it's an alfalfa plant. Like, it really doesn't need anything to go on.

Speaker 2: That's why I was invited to Australia because the soil was so alkaline down there. They needed a deep, rooted alfalfa plant to draw those salts. And the water table up in it. And they couldn't grow enough alfalfa seed in Australia using just honeybees.

And that's why I started going down there from 95 to 2006, writing the protocols for them. It's still very expensive. There's a small population there, but that was the whole purpose of that, to use that bees and pollinate them too. But going back to alfalfa, the coin in the forage crops, it's a great cover crop.

And if a grower's out there, it's just wild everywhere because the seed is there. So, let it go. Don't try to remove it. Similarly, where I sit, there's sagebrush all around. I'm taking out the sagebrush.

And then David James up in Washington State saying, well, one of the number one crops we're attracting beneficial insects. Sagebrush. So, work with what's in your area for a cover crop. And go out and figure out what insects are on it, what beneficial. Alfalfa, what bees come to. I've let all my sunflowers store for a while.

My life doesn't micro-fact. It's the best bee plant I've got around here. By fall, it's finally getting bubbled bees.

And we've got these new little, what's the, the anthidiums that are coming out of nowhere, you know, that have been there, I guess, in the past. Yes, but work with what you have first before you tear everything out and put this immaculate cover crop.

Speaker 1: You can go buy your expensive seed mix and then have it pale on you.

Speaker 2: Or maybe two or three plants will come out. But, you know, if there's alfalfa there if you've got some sagebrush in your corners in this area, let them go and work with them. Identify what bugs are there first and then decide what you're going to plant.

Speaker 1: It does remind me, I have an open invitation from one of the managers at Wyman's Blueberries in Maine. And they had the same experience. Steve Jabberich was the scientist at I-Canada who really discovered that the easiest way to create pollinator habitat in those blueberry barrens is just to, you know, create an early, successful community. And if you did that on the edges of the, you'd get the fireweed would come up naturally. And it was, you know, any attempt to sort of like plow it down and work up that ground and plant buckwheat was just very expensive. But you can easily just kind of like let the golden rod come up.

Speaker 2: So, yeah, so when people come and say, that's your cover crop, these weeds, they're not really, they're just always here.

Speaker 1: Well, Ron, I guess we'll have to pick this up at some later point. So Ron and I are in a Holiday Inn coffee shop right now. I'm going off to do pesticide training and I really wanted to get it. We have so few episodes east of the Cascade and I really have been wanting to meet and talk with you for such a long time.

Speaker 2: Well, I want you to come over and I'll show you around how these, where the beebeds used to be. You're here on Mother's Day, visit my little Mother's Day bee at the Dianondaysia hatches then.

Speaker 1: It's a deal. Thank you so much for joining us on the show. Sure.

Speaker 2: Great show. I'm serious. I'm serious.

Speaker 1: Thank you so much for listening. The show is produced by Quinn Sinanil, who's a student here at OSU in the New Media Communications Program, and the show wouldn't even be possible without the support of the Oregon Legislature, the Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research in Western Sarah. Show notes with links mentioned on each episode are available on the website, which is at pollinationpodcast.oregonstate.edu.

I also love hearing from you and there are several ways to connect with me. The first one is you can visit the website and leave an episode-specific comment. You can suggest a future guest or topic or ask a question that can be featured in a future episode. But you can do the same things on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook by visiting the Oregon Bee Project. Thanks so much for listening and see you next week.

Idaho and Oregon’s Treasure Valley have a deep connection to bee management for alfalfa seed, but in this episode we hear about how that tradition is being transferred to pollinator management in vineyards.

Ron Bitner is the newest board member of Pollinator Partnership. He received his Ph.D. in Entomology from Utah State University in 1976, where he conducted his dissertation research on the alkali bee. He has decades of experience in management and consulting of non-Apis bees and crops requiring their pollination. Today, Ron and his wife Mary live in the beautiful Snake River Valley of Southwest Idaho. Along with their family, they are the Owner/Operators of Bitner Vineyards LLC, growing 15 acres of premium wine grapes, first planted in 1981. They were Pacific Northwest Magazine’s 2009 Idaho Winery of the year., Canyon County 2013 Farm Family of the Year, and have the only LIVE certified sustainable vineyard in Idaho (www.bitnervineyards.com).

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