ITHACA, N.Y. – Cornell University announced on Friday morning their plans to launch a new biocontrol laboratory which will help combat the spread of an invasive species attacking the local hemlock population.
The lab, which is partially funded by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, is focused primarily on the elimination of the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, an insect which threatens hemlock trees in the area.
Mark Whitmore, Cornell entomologist and leader of the research and initiative to eliminate the pest said the survival of hemlock trees is crucial to the surrounding environment. Whitmore said his studies began in the Pacific Northwest, not as an entomologist, but first as a botanist.
“This really is my dream come true,” he said. “I’ve been studying adelgids for almost 40 years and its adelgids that actually got me into the business – as a botanist, I was beginning to see all my favorite trees were suddenly being destroyed by bugs. It was then I began to scratch my head and think, ‘wow, bugs are cool’.”
Whitmore said while most trees develop a resistance to insect attacks, HWA acts more of a predator to hemlock trees, and have a particularly destructive nature. As a staple in New York forests, hemlock trees are crucial to supporting other connected ecosystems and organisms, he said. Hemlock trees often grow on stream banks, meaning they help maintain erosion control, water quality, and also provide habitats for freshwater fish such as brook trout.
“If you go down south to the Appalachians right now, you can see what happens when you don’t do anything, and it’s really tragic to see all those beautiful trees dead,” he said. “Then we have to realize we have more hemlocks in New York than any other state in the nation – it’s the third most common stem in our forests.”
According to DEC Executive Deputy Commissioner Kenneth Lynch, HWA is a small insect which originated from East Asia. While its initial discovery in New York landed in 1985, further research determined that the insect causes the decline of hemlock trees by feeding on young twigs, causing the buds and needles to dry out and die. Following the infestation of the bug, the decline of hemlock population is typically noticeable within four years. Lynch said HWA is one of the most destructive invasives the DEC is dealing with in the state.
Biological control, or biocontrol, is a term used to describe the use of natural enemies within an ecosystem to eliminate a specific species. The lab will focus on researching the best predatory insects to HWA to later establish in ecosystems throughout New York.
“We’ve tried a lot of things, but I think what we’ve found is most effective not just for this invasive but for many others as well is biological control,” Lynch said. “It takes a lot of research and a lot of time, it takes a lot of trying out different insects to control this particular insect – I know we’ve gone through a lot of trial and error, but I think we have a productive solution now, and thanks to the investment in the lab we’re moving the ball forward.”
Westfield said he currently has approximately 2,600 Laricobius Nigrinus in the lab, a predatory species of beetle to the HWA. He said he hopes they will have up to 26,000 for release next fall.
“Our water quality is very important, and to have a species attack a crucial part of that is very concerning to the DEC and to all of us,” Lynch said. “It’s great that we’re all working together and investing in this lab to help find a control.”