The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Cornell University have announced the creation of a new biocontrol laboratory on the Cornell campus focused on protecting the state’s population of hemlock trees.
The $1.2 million lab, partially funded by DEC with monies from the State’s Environmental Protection Fund and headed by Cornell entomologist Mark Whitmore, is expected to be dedicated to researching and rearing biological controls to stop the spread of the invasive pest Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (HWA), which is threatening trees in about half of New York’s 62 counties and more than 15 other states.
HWA, a tiny insect from East Asia first discovered in New York in 1985, attacks forest and ornamental hemlock trees. It feeds on young twigs, causing buds to die and needles to dry out and drop prematurely.
Hemlock decline and mortality typically occur within four to ten years of HWA infestation in the insect’s northern range. Damage from the insect has led to widespread hemlock mortality throughout the Appalachian Mountains and the southern Catskill Mountains with considerable ecological damage, as well as economic and aesthetic losses. HWA infestations can be most noticeably detected by the small, white, woolly masses produced by the insects that are attached to the underside of the twig, near the base of the needles.
Biological control, or biocontrol for short, is the use of natural enemies to manage the population of a pest. In the case of HWA, this means using predatory insects found in areas where HWA is native. The focus of the HWA biocontrol lab is to research methods to grow healthy colonies of predatory insects and evaluate their effectiveness in managing HWA population growth. The goal is to establish multiple predator species throughout New York to reduce HWA populations below the level where they cause hemlock trees to die.
Eastern hemlock trees are among the oldest trees in New York with some reaching ages of more than 700 years. They typically occupy steep, shaded, north-facing slopes and stream banks where few other trees are successful. The trees help maintain erosion control and water quality, and the hemlock’s shade cool waters providing critical habitat for many of New York’s freshwater fish, including native brook trout.
Invasive species are detrimental because of their ability to reproduce quickly, outcompete native species, and adapt to new environments. Because invasive species did not evolve with the other species in their new location, they often do not have natural predators and diseases that would normally control their population within their native habitat. Some economists estimate that invasive species cost the United States more than $120 billion in damages every year.
New Yorkers are encouraged to call DEC’s toll-free Forest Pest Information Line at 1-866-640-0652 to report possible infestations.
Photo: A hemlock woolly adelgid infestation, courtesy USDA.