November 2, 2006

Tiny Bug Attacking Hemlock Trees


PINEVILLE, Ky. - It's going to take a lot of money to combat a tiny bug that's attacking eastern Kentucky's hemlock trees, forestry officials warned Thursday.

The exotic insect, called the hemlock woolly adelgid, has been detected in only two Kentucky state parks, but the minuscule aphid-like insect has already destroyed hemlock trees throughout Appalachia.

The only thing standing in the way of safeguarding Kentucky hemlocks is the lack of funding, said Tim McClure, a state forest health environmental scientist.

"If we don't act on this and put some resources to it, we're looking at a major problem," McClure said at Pine Mountain State Park, the latest site to report infested trees.

Since forestry officials are trying to measure the scope of the adelgid invasion, there's no specific estimate on how much infestations will cost the state or private landowners. Large-scale destruction in neighboring states has cost millions.

McClure said it's not a matter of "if" more Kentucky hemlocks will be under attack, "it's a matter of when."

In hopes of getting more funding to fight the sap-sucking bug, forestry officials invited state and congressional lawmakers from 17 eastern Kentucky counties to an information meeting Thursday at Pine Mountain.

None showed up.

McClure admitted that holding the meeting five days before the Nov. 7 general election was bad timing, but said it was the best time for lawmakers to catch a glimpse of the woolly adelgid feasting on nearby hemlocks.

"I am disappointed we didn't have any legislators. Counties are going to need help from the state monetarily," he said.

So far, the bug has attacked at least 100 trees at Pine Mountain and Rebel Rock in Harlan County.

McClure said that once the woolly adelgid is present, it's already a major, costly problem with long-term ecological repercussions.

Kentucky forestry officials have relied on chemicals from the U.S. Forest Service to treat about 25 percent of the infested trees. Meanwhile they have sent out surveys to landowners, asking them to check their trees for the bug.

Several states, including Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have poured money into pesticide soaps and soil injections, but the mortality rate for the hemlocks in Appalachia is still 80 percent.

There are about 6.6 million hemlocks in Kentucky, with 98 percent of them in the eastern third of the state. All of them are vulnerable to attack, officials said.

Part of the problem is that the adelgid is so small (about 1/32nd of an inch) that it's hard to detect at the early stages of infestation. There's also no native predator for the adelgid, since it is an exotic insect from Asia.

However, officials at the Great Smoky Mountains have released nearly 200,000 predator beetles that have been found to eat woolly adelgids and save hemlocks. The beetles have been employed in more than 100 sites around the Smokies.

McClure said the beetle should be considered as an option to fight the lighter infestation in Kentucky to prevent further spread. But at a rate of about $3 per beetle, there needs to be enough funding.

The invasion of the woolly adelgid is thought to have started in the 1920s when the bug arrived in the United States on ornamental plants imported from Japan. Left unchecked for decades, they spread into the wild and their population exploded in the 1980s. By the 1990s, the insects had devastated hemlocks in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park and spread to the Northeast.

The insects kill hemlocks by sucking them dry of sap while concealing their eggs in tiny cotton-like cocoons, earning them the "woolly" part of their name.

Their small size allow the bugs to travel via wind, bird or on clothes.

Unless the woolly adelgids are controlled, the entire ecosystems could be altered, leaving native wildlife and plants to suffer, said Lynne Rieske-Kinney, a researcher at the University of Kentucky Department of Entomology.

For local landowners, the thought of losing their precious hemlocks is unbearable.

"It's really going to destroy the beauty of the community," said Wayne Howard, 59, who owns property adjoining Pine Mountain state park.

Added Bill Middleton, 58, who lives near the park: "I love the woods. I love the trees. I just hate to see this happen."


On the Net:

Kentucky Division of Forestry at http://www.forestry.ky.gov