By Brandon Loomis
Tiny, sap-sucking bugs strip hemlock needles and open a forest’s cooling canopy to sunlight.
Exotic green beetles drill into ash trees and leave offspring that kill by carving tunnels that choke off circulation.
Brightly decorated little poopers rain down excrement that’s euphemistically called “honeydew” because it attracts other insects to devastated apple trees and other hardwoods.
These are the sorts of Asian forest invaders that Roman and Leslie Kucharczyk hoped they were escaping when they moved north to the Adirondacks a few years ago. Now the two transplants are among a small but growing army of park residents learning to spot signs of the pests so they can alert authorities to their presence and protect the North Country’s wild forests.
They lost a hemlock to the woolly adelgid at their previous home in southeastern Pennsylvania, and now that pest has shown up in the park near Lake George. The insect’s ecological stakes for the Adirondacks could hardly be greater, as many of the park’s high-country slopes are sheltered and cooled by evergreen hemlock limbs. Among other “ecosystem services,” those limbs shade and protect snow from melting too early in spring, keeping streams cold enough for native brook trout to persist.
Roman Kucharczyk recalls hearing the excrement of gypsy moths raining from a New Jersey forest, and now a similar menace is moving north into New York in the form of the spotted lanternfly.
“That was gross, because you knew what was falling down,” he said. And now, “It’s coming north, because it’s getting warmer.”
Pests of the North Country
Report non-native forest insects to New York’s invasive species database, and view maps of their current known distributions.
As global warming takes the edge off of the coldest Northeastern nights, entomologists and foresters fear the Adirondacks are becoming more hospitable to some pests. Other insects were perhaps a cozy match for the climate all along, and are just taking their time spreading from shipping ports that deposited them on the Eastern Seaboard. What most of them have in common is that they lack local predators that recognize them as food, making them a potent threat to the species composition in the north woods.
In November the Kucharczyks attended a pest identification workshop in Willsboro with the Adirondack Park Invasive Plant Program (APIPP) and the Essex County Soil & Water Conservation District. Participants learned that several threats are making their way north, largely for a climate that is either similar to their native homes in Asia or is becoming more so with warming.
They learned to look for little D-shaped holes where emerald ash borers emerge from trees, and not to confuse them with native bronze birch borers. The ash borers have spread through the Midwest and Northeast, killing off a species that is important commercially, environmentally and, for Native Americans, culturally. Recent confirmations in Jefferson Country filled a gap in their known distribution northwest of the Adirondacks, essentially closing a C-shaped front beyond the north, west and south sides of the blue line, where they threaten low-elevation ash stands in the park. “Our harsh winters are our last line of defense,” said Julie Fogden, APIPP’s invasive species management steward.
They also learned to watch for the pinhead-size hemlock woolly adelgid’s fuzzy white egg sacs at the base of hemlock needles—and not to confuse it with a larger spider’s egg cluster or other, harmless white spots or crawlers spotted on the whole length of the needle or elsewhere on limbs. The adelgid has hammered hemlocks in the Catskills and other places south of the park, causing them to shed needles and consequently lose nutrients. In 2017, a Harvard University researcher lucked into finding some in a group of three trees on one Adirondack slope—Prospect Mountain on the edge of Lake George Village—and foresters have been treating trees around that patch with an insecticide every year since. The nearest previous infestation was 40 miles to the south, and these insects are not flyers. Had they blown in on the wind or hitchhiked on a bird or human? No one is sure, just as no one knows where there might be other undiscovered clusters in the park.
In October, Fogden joined APIPP terrestrial project coordinator Zack Simek and New York Department of Environmental Conservation forest health specialist Jason Denham marking the latest swath of hemlocks needing preventive treatment around the 2017 adelgid outbreak. To that point the state and APIPP had treated about half of the trees they intend to on 6 or 7 acres around the few isolated hosts. They had not found any newly infested trees.
Using a handheld GPS system and a measuring tape, they located hemlocks previously charted for possible treatment and measured their diameter at chest height. The insecticide is applied at the base, where the tree absorbs it and circulates it to the limbs and needles. The chemical’s guidelines restrict application to a maximum volume of timber per acre, so every tree to be sprayed requires measuring and marking to ensure the totals add up.
If they go three years without finding more adelgids on Prospect, they can consider it eradicated. Meantime they would like to treat every hemlock on 7 acres. “We don’t want to walk away and have it proliferate,” Simek said.
Fogden and Denham traversed the rocky slope above Prospect’s scenic road, sometimes scaling or descending around cliffs to find previously tagged trees and shout their numbers out to Simek, who read the GPS to determine whether they were in the area to be treated. If so, they measured the trees and marked them for spraying the following week.
Some of the hemlocks grow fat boles and tower into the forest canopy, while others are spindly despite growing there for hundreds of years. Eastern hemlocks comprise about a tenth of the Adirondack forest, according to DEC, and are among the state’s oldest trees at up to 700 years.
“Hemlock is a really important species in all of New York State,” Denham said, “but especially in the Adirondack Park.” It prevents erosion on steep slopes and cools the rivers that are last refuge of native fish. It blocks more sun all year than any species likely to replace it. “We’re standing here and there’s not much sunlight hitting us.”
Native insects are denser in these areas, he said, and that affects the whole food web. Certain songbirds need hemlocks specifically.
Fogden grew up in the Catskills and recalls wandering among slow-dying hemlocks whose needles piled up at her feet. “I didn’t know hemlock woolly adelgid was a thing,” she said. “I just thought that hemlocks always rained needles.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and NASA have enlisted Saranac Lake-based Adirondack Research to help model and map hemlock stands in the Adirondacks, so they’ll know what’s at stake and where to attempt to treat trees to block the adelgid’s path if and when it lands in the park again. Ecologist Ezra Schwartzberg visits sites where satellite images show light absorption or reflection suggesting whether they’re dense with hemlocks. The modeling so far show a dense ribbon of hemlocks extending from the park’s southwest edge near Booneville through the park’s High Peaks heart around Lake Placid before thinning out past Silver Lake, southwest of Saranac. It suggests that a widespread die-off in the park would transform slopes in some of the most-visited areas of the Adirondacks.
The state also has tasked Schwartzberg with assigning an “invasiveness” score to some of these pests including the hemlock woolly adelgid. This standardized measure of a bug’s menace accounts for such things as the similarity of the invader’s home range to the Adirondacks and the likelihood that it could cause severe ecological damage if spread across the region. His score for the adelgid is 76 of 100. The emerald ash borer—the other most imminent threat—scores a 96 because of its capacity to eradicate ash trees.
Unlike in school, though, a 76 isn’t a passing grade. It’s more like a teacher’s red flag suggesting the need for parental intervention. Compared to, say, the spotted lanternfly (Score: 56, because it’s a poor flyer and its likely local impacts are less certain), the adelgid and the ash borer are the bullies of North Country forests.
“These are the worst of the worst,” Schwartzberg said.
Leslie Kucharczyk, the concerned homeowner who moved to the Adirondacks with her husband a few years ago, said she is trying to learn to ID the invaders so she can help authorities protect the park and their home in the Town of Keene.
Her experience with the adelgid taking out her hemlock back in Pennsylvania convinced her that this threat isn’t just about a distant forest. It’s personal.
“It’s not just out there,” she said, motioning toward the Essex County woods. “It’s right here where you live.”
BUGS ON THE MOVE IN THE NORTHEAST:
Emerald ash borer
Where is it? Closing in on the Adirondacks from the south (Albany, Utica) west (Syracuse, Watertown) and north (St. Lawrence Valley).
Invasiveness score: 96 out of 100.*
What does it do? Drills D-shaped holes trees, where larvae excavate S-shaped galleries under the bark, girdling the tree’s nutrient flow.
Why does it matter? Ash grows in lower elevations on the park’s outskirts, and is important commercially for hardwood producers and culturally to Akwesasne basket makers.
What to do? Don’t move firewood. Watch for and report the beetles or damage to [email protected]. The state is also looking for residual healthy ashes that may provide beetle-resistant seeds for reforesting.
Hemlock woolly adelgid
Where is it? In the Catskills and the Hudson and Mohawk valleys of New York’s Capital Region, and one slope overlooking Lake George in the Adirondacks.
Invasiveness score: 76 out of 100.*
What does it do? Strips hemlocks of needles, slowly robbing them of nutrients.
Why does it matter? Hemlocks are among the most important ecological protectors of high country stream temperatures, shading and slowly releasing snow.
What to do? Look for and report fuzzy white egg sacs at the base of hemlock needles, so crews can treat with pesticide.
Asian longhorned beetle
Where is it? Long Island and New York City.
Invasiveness score: 72 out of 100.*
What does it do? Bores into hardwoods, where larvae burrow toward the middle, killing the tree over years of repeated attacks.
Why does it matter? Maples are a preferred host, putting the North Country’s syrup, hardwood and tourist industries at risk.
What to do? Watch for pencil-width bore holes and report infestations at nyimapinvasives.org.
Where is it? Pennsylvania, with at least one found in Delaware County, NY.
Invasiveness score: 56 out of 100.*
What does it do? Stresses plants by sucking sap; drops “honeydew” secretions that attract molds that can inhibit photosynthesis and harm trees.
Why does it matter? The spotted lanternfly threatens apple and grape production, and at its densest can shower honeydew on people walking in the woods.
What to do? Report sightings to [email protected]. When traveling in Pennsylvania or neighboring states, inspect vehicles, wood and furniture and scrape off any egg masses.
Southern pine beetle
Where is it? Long Island, with individuals (but not infested trees) found in the Hudson Valley.
Invasiveness score: 77 out of 100.*
What does it do? Like the emerald ash borer, its larvae burrow beneath the bark, choking off nutrient flows. This kills pines, and in dense infestations may affect other softwoods.
Why does it matter? Warming winters may aid this Southern species in its move north, where pines are not adapted to it.
What to do? Watch for pitch “pipes,” or the oozing of pitch from entry wounds where the tree is trying to expel the insect. Send pictures of suspect pines to [email protected], and do not more infested wood.
*Invasiveness is a score the state gives to pests based on a checklist estimating how likely they are to become established and how much damage they would cause if they did.