John Wernet, a regional forester for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, stood arms akimbo and assessed the damage. “I can’t believe how fast this went,” said Wernet, looking at trees fading and dying that just one month earlier had been healthy pitch pines.
Wernet was joined by New York State Assemblyman Steve Englebright, the chairman of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, and Assemblyman Fred Thiele on a tour of Henry’s Hollow Pine Barrens State Forest and Munn’s Pond County Park in Hampton Bays Wednesday as part of Invasive Species Awareness Week. The forest has been divided into a treatment area and control area that plainly illustrates the destructive ability of the notorious Southern Pine Beetle on the population of pitch pines. The men were standing in the control area looking at the dead and dying pines and searching vigorously for an example of the main culprit, the tiny black beetle the size of rice. Wernet likes to say they look like “chocolate sprinkles.”
The Southern Pine Beetle (SPB) was first discovered on the site in November 2014, but has been on the East End for much longer.
New York State DEC Regional Natural Resources Supervisor Robert Marsh recalled getting a phone call from a landscaper who provided evidence of the SPB in Napeague, east of Amagansett, five years earlier. Further research supported the same conclusion, refuting a theory that the beetles came in with the wind during Superstorm Sandy.
In response to the discovery of the SPB, the DEC cut down approximately 2,500 infested pine trees this winter, and walking through the treatment area, the only proof of the SPB’s earlier inhabitation was a pile of dead trees, cut and left to decompose. Their bark had a blue tinge and Wernet explained that not only does the SPB infest the tree, it also brings with it deadly blue stain fungus. “It’s essentially a one-two punch.”
First the beetle inhabits the host tree, usually a pine, spruce or hemlock, and the females begin to carve out galleries. These galleries are often S-shaped cavities where they lay eggs. The SPB is a prolific pest and as the population grows the continued burrowing increasingly disrupts the pine’s phloem—the tree’s circulatory system that exists just below the bark and carries vital nutrients throughout the tree.
The pine fights back though. In response, it shoots out sap in attempts to drown the uninvited guests. In most cases, however, the tree is overwhelmed by the prolific SPBs and blue stain fungus. It turns brown and dies and the beetles move onto the next pine.
In New Jersey, the SPB has devastated almost 50,000 acres of pine barrens. The goal here is to protect Long Island’s 55,000 acres of core pine barrens and the 100,000 acres of surrounding compatible growth of pine barrens that protect the island’s sole source drinking water aquifer. This is why the felling of more than 2,000 trees this past winter took place, to protect the thousands more that remain uninfested. The more space available for the pines, the more resources available to them and the more difficult it is for the SPB to rapidly move on from a dead pine.
It’s not an easy job containing the chocolate sprinkles. “This problem is not going away. It’s going to be the rest of my career,” said Wernet. The long-term goal is thinning out the forest enough to contain the beetles. “You don’t want to say that definitive, ‘Yes, it will be gone.’”
At least two or three times during the season, Wernet and his team, along with the NYS police, go on missions in air patrol planes to map out the space and get a big-picture view of the area. They compile data, send someone to go down to “ground-truth” it, verify what they’ve seen from above, and then they “figure out what area to hit first.” So far, so good. The next aerial mission is in August, and the last one showed significant reduction in numbers of the SPB and even complete elimination in some areas.
“I commend the Department of Environmental Conservation for their quick response efforts against the southern pine beetle. Catching an infestation early and taking the proper management procedures clearly goes a long way in helping to control the extent of damage. I look forward to working with the Department to ensure the State has adequate resources to further protect our pine barrens from this pest.”
Another goal is to make sure that the beetles don’t jump the highway and head to private property. Marsh pointed out that in New Jersey the logging industry provided a marketplace for felled pines, but here, the market value for the pitch pine is much lower and there are no local mills. Marsh has heard quotes from $1,500 to $2,000 per acre from landscapers to merely cut and leave the trees. The DEC urges the public to report any recently dead pine they encounter, especially if there are several trees grouped together.
Despite being one of the most studied beetles ever, a New Jersey colleague offered Wernet a piece of advice, “Every time you think you have this beetle figured out it will throw you a curveball.”