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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Three Research Projects: Bees, Bays & Biochar

UNCP begins beekeeping project and research

UNC Pembroke scientists peered into their new beehives for the first time on May 3 check their health.

The hive swarns around the queen, center

The hive swarns around the queen, center

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Dr. Charles Harrington, a veteran beekeeper and member of the business school faculty, declared the four hives, located in COMtech Park near the University’s Sartorius Stedim Biotechnology Center, to be “very healthy and active.”

The hives are the first of several dozen planned by the UNCP Honey Bee Center that will fan out across the region, said Dr. Len Holmes, a biotechnology researcher.

“Bees in North America are under a lot of stress for reasons we don’t completely understand,” Dr. Holmes said. “We are working with local beekeepers in hopes of promoting beekeeping and to do research on bees.”

A sample of spring honey offered a taste of good things to come. As a group of interested hive owners looked on, Dr. Harrington examined the hives after applying smoke to calm them.

“I got interested in beekeeping through my grandfather,” Dr. Harrington said. “I see heavy pollen flow and bees working the combs nicely.”

An October harvest is planned if all goes well, he said.

“The queen is healthy and rapidly turning over her brood,” Dr. Harrington said. “I estimate between 12,500 and 15,000 bees in this hive.”

Looking on was Forrest Malcolm, son of Joshua Malcolm, UNCP’s attorney.

“Forrest has raised everything from dogs and turtles to fruits and vegetables,” his father said. “We thought this would be very interesting.”

Sebastian Veneziano, a member of Pembroke’s Police Department, is also interested.

“I want to put a hive near my home,” Veneziano said. “I’ve been learning as much as I can about bees.”

Drs. Harrington and Holmes examine honeycombs

Drs. Harrington and Holmes examine honeycombs

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Megan Locklear was taking notes. She is a student at Robeson Community College who will attend UNCP in the fall.

“I am working with Dr. Holmes on this project, and I hope to continue doing research in the fall,” Locklear said. “I want to major in biology.”

Dr. David Oxendine, a faculty member in the School of Education, was on hand too.

“I want to put a hive at my home in Union Chapel,” Dr. Oxendine said. “I have always wanted to do this.”

Dr. Holmes said the panel he picked up weighed about 10 pounds, a good sign of a productive hive. “Loaded with honey,” he said.

Dr. Holmes and his student research team will study the hives with an eye for problems.

“We’ll conduct basic research on the biological and environmental agents that negatively influence bees,” Dr. Holmes said. “We’ll promote beekeeping as a hobby and collect data on hive locations to share with regional and state beekeeping associations.”

UNCP hopes to become a resource for beekeeping in this agricultural region and preserve the pollinators to build a stronger economy.

“I think this is a good story,” Dr. Holmes said. “I am interested in hearing from people who are already beekeeping or interested in beekeeping.”

The project is funded in part by a grant from the Robeson County Farm Bureau and in cooperation with COMtech, a regional business incubator located in Robeson County. UNCP’s project is a member of the N.C. Honey Bee Research Consortium.

For more information about the Honey Bee Center or other activities at the Biotechnology Center, please contact them at 910.775.4000 or email biotech@uncp.edu. Their Web site is www.uncp.edu/biotech/bio/.

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UNCP researchers will dig into Carolina bays’ past

By pinpointing the date of their creation, UNC Pembroke geologist Dr. Lee Philips will help solve the “mystery” of Carolina bays.

Carolina Bays

Carolina Bays

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A $25,000, two-year, NASA grant through North Carolina’s Space Grant Consortium will aid his research.

“The mystery of the bays’ origins is a bit overdone,” Dr. Phillips said. “We will take core samples to learn how old they are.”

The project – “Carolina Bays: A Paleo-climatic Perspective” – will engage undergraduates in a scientific investigation with “potentially global significance,” Dr. Phillips said.

From preliminary surveys that Dr. Phillips and an undergraduate student have already performed, two poster presentations have resulted, one at a joint meeting of the Geological Society of America. That poster, by environmental science major Sidney Post, was titled “Delineation of Spatial Variances of Carolina Bays within Robeson County, N.C.”

“The next step will be a test project to see how this study can be expanded,” Dr. Phillips said. “During the process, we’ve met many other bay researchers, and it has peaked the interest of other scientists.”

The UNCP team will drill 20-30 foot holes in Carolina bays in five counties around Robeson. They have hundreds to choose from because the bays – oval depressions – dot the landscape from New Jersey to Florida.

“There are no studies like this in North Carolina,” Dr. Phillips said. “Studies in Georgia and South Carolina indicate the bays are about 100,000 years old.”

“We’re excited because this project deals with North Carolina’s landscape and how the coastal plain has changed over the last 100,000 years,” he continued. “It gives us an idea about what went on here in the recent past, geologically speaking.”

Carolina Bays filled with water

Carolina Bays filled with water

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With apologies to those who theorize that aliens or asteroids formed the bays, Dr. Phillips’ team will learn more about how wind, waves and tides shaped the landscape, probably during the Glacial Maxima period and the later interglacial period.

“I cannot predict exactly how old the bays are, but we will get a good idea,” he said.

The research team will use a process called “optically stimulated luminescence,” which measures the solar radiation of quartzite rock.

“What that means is the sun’s radiant energy excited certain elements in rock,” he explained. “When that radiation stopped, we have a ticking clock for measurement.”

The UNCP team will be the first to read this clock in North Carolina.

“I am very excited for the students,” Dr. Phillips said. “The grant will help us promote teamwork, confidence and hands-on training with state-of-the-art scientific equipment.”

One last mystery that Dr. Phillips revealed: Carolina bays are not named for the Carolinas, where most of them occur, but the Carolina bay tree that populates the bays.

The N.C. Space Grant is a consortium of academic institutions to promote, develop and support aeronautics and space-related science, engineering and technology education and training in North Carolina. Partnering with NASA, industry, non-profit organizations, and state government agencies, NC Space Grant conducts programs that are designed to equip the current and future aero/space workforce in North Carolina.

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UNCP begins producing biochar for soil research

The first successful batch of biochar or charcoal produced at UNC Pembroke will push soil and plant research another step forward.

Dr. Hanmer examines the quality of the first batch of biochar made at UNCP.

Dr. Hanmer examines the quality of the first batch of biochar made at UNCP.

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On the far north end of campus on April 21, Dr. Deborah Hanmer, a UNCP biology professor and plant pathologist, and an undergraduate researcher hovered around a 55-gallon barrel to produce biochar.

On April 22, Earth Day, Dr. Hanmer cracked open the 30-gallon interior chamber to find almost perfect charcoal.

Biochar was discovered in the soil of pre-Columbian people in South America and dubbed “Terra Preta” by Europeans. The soil demonstrated some remarkable characteristics including the retention of nutrients after 1,000 years.

Dr. Hanmer started research by purchasing biochar two years ago.

“Using different amounts of biochar, we tested to see how soil would resist common plant disease,” Dr. Hanmer said. “The biochar we will make here will be used in a pesticide and a nematode study.”

Biochar is produced through the pyrolysis of biomass, or in this case, the heating of wood in a nearly oxygen-free environment. Sequestering carbon in biochar has peaked scientists’ interest in this age of global warming research.

UNCP’s biochar production was made possible by a contribution of materials, labor and consulting from Flow Farms of Aberdeen, N.C.

In the Greenhouse – From left student researchers Jaclyn Woods, Fred Booth and Annette Hagans with Dr. Deborah Hanmer of the Biology Department faculty

In the Greenhouse – From left student researchers Jaclyn Woods, Fred Booth and Annette Hagans with Dr. Deborah Hanmer of the Biology Department faculty

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“This method only takes about two to two-and-a-half hours to produce biochar,” said a representative who works at Flow Farms. “We are learning how to use it in our gardens to produce organic and vegan vegetables.”

Dr. Hanmer’s collaboration with Flow Farms came about through the North Carolina Farm Center for Innovations and Sustainability, headquartered in Fayetteville, N.C. The Farm Center started making biochar last year on a larger scale.

The center will study biochar on local crops, such as corn, vegetables, soybeans and Bermuda grass at its 6,000-acre learning farm. They will also assess the value of biochar-enhanced soils in forestry.

“Biochar is beautiful,” Dr. Hanmer said, breaking a piece in her hands. “You can see the entire structure of the wood.

“These tiny holes are critical to retaining nutrients,” she said. “We want to see what else it retains, like insecticide.

“We hope to learn more about the qualities of biochar in the soil,” Dr. Hanmer said. “Our students will learn science and have publishable results.”

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