BTLT In the News: “Your Land: Meet the beetles”

Sandy Stott | Your Land | The Times Record

To read the article online, click here. 

May 31, 2024: In a cardboard box in a car driving north from Pennsylvania. Two lady beetles (Sasajiscymnus tsugae), jostled by a bit of wheel wobble, give up on napping and talk.

LB #1: “Where do you think we’re going? First our colony lived in a bright-lit room, a lab, they called it, then this box. And now we’re moving; I think we’re going north.”

LB #2: “How do you know?”

“I’ve always known where I’m going.”

“Well, now I’m awake, I’m hungry.”

“Me, too.”

“Rumor has it that being boxed like this means going woolly wolfing.”

“Yeah, Big-Beetle flew in last week with these wild stories of a place with all the Adelgids you can eat. Every day.”

“May it be so.”

• • •

Ground time, Brunswick, Crystal Spring Farm Trailhead, near the Settlemire Community Garden. The call came in at 4:55 p.m.

“They’re here,” said Director of Conservation Margaret Gerber of the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust. We drove over to meet them.

Joined by BTLT board member and photographer John Lichter, we peered into a just-opened cardboard box and welcomed 1,000 lady beetles to the Maine woodlands.

It had been a long ride from Tree Savers, the Pennsylvania laboratory, where these beetles were raised, and evening neared.

“You must be hungry,” we said as greeting.

We surely hoped so, because very soon these beetles would meet their new home tree, a nearby eastern bemlock, which bore also the white, webby sign of an unwanted boarder, the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA). Left unchecked, this aphid will sap a hemlock of nutrients, weakening it, eventually killing it. And as a recent invasive first found in our area in 2010, HWA has no native predators.

The further hope was and is that these beetles, who eat only HWA, will establish themselves and spread into the forest’s other hemlocks.

The lady beetles’ temporary home is clipped onto an eastern hemlock tree on May 31. The white balls on the outer tree fingers are egg sacs of the hemlock woolly adelgid, a disease that will likely kill the tree in a few years if unaddressed. John Lichter photo

Funded by a grant from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund, the land trust has joined other Maine land trusts, including the Topsham-based Maine Coast Heritage Trust, in a coordinated effort to rebuff HWA. This year’s beetle releases took place at Crystal Spring Farm and on the Tarbox Preserve in Topsham. Both locations have fine hemlock forests and HWA.

Often, when nearing full height, the Eastern Hemlock is among forest royalty, dispensing cooling shade and open woodland habitat that supports any number of forest residents, not to mention their human visitors. Hemlocks are also among the most beautiful of our trees. A fully grown hemlock grove often has a meditative calm to it, and I, for one, usually pause in the fine grove that rises from the gully of the brook that passes below the Ravine Trail at Crystal Spring Farm.

Speaking for a 2023 Maine Coast Heritage Trust press release, Maine State Entomologist Colleen Teerling said, “Hemlock trees are extremely important in riparian areas — on the edges of streams and lakes — because they help to regulate the temperature of cool water.” Keeping our streams cold is critical for trout, salmon and a wide range of native species.

Teerling went on to offer advice about how we, the public, can help slow the spread of HWA, as well as some early results and speculative hope that bio controls such the recent beetle releases can blunt and contain the aphid’s spread.

Among Teerling’s points are knowing that the mobile stage for HWA runs from March to July, and we and our ways of moving are potential carriers. Recognizing the white, furry webbing of aphid infection (most evident in winter and spring) and pruning infected or potentially infected branches and piling them away from the tree can help. The branches can be disposed of in the fall, when HWA is static. Because the aphids are expert hitchhikers, keeping hemlock branches pruned beyond the touch of passersby is also useful.

But it seems that the most promising strategy may be the introduction of such natural controls as our beetle friends. Originally from Japan, where HWA also originated, these woolly bullies eat only HWA, and once established, they are always hungry.

• • •

In the woods at Crystal Spring Farm, a little off trail:

The box opens again. Inside are five lady beetle starter colonies in plastic containers. Inside each, we can see roughly 100 active beetles the size of a period-mark on this page. They are crawling all over a tangle of wood shavings, their temporary home.

Gerber removes the aerated container lid, lifts the wood-tangle and beetles out and clips them to a hemlock branch. The beetles are free to crawl about their new country.

We watch, even bend close and listen. Faintly we hear this:

“Do you think the people here will sing that silly song they taught us in the lab?”

“Pretty much for sure. You know people. They’re dopey about rhymes and repetitions.”

“I know, I know.”

The two lady beetles begin to sing softly:

“Matty told Hatty
About a thing she saw
Had two big horns
And a woolly jaw
Woolly bully
Woolly bully
We’re woolly bullies…”

As we watch, the lady beetles climb up-branch.

End notes: Apologies (mild) to Sam the Sham and his Pharaohs for revision of their 1965 hit song. Here are a couple of link resources about our eastern hemlocks and efforts to contain HWA:

• maine.gov/dacf/mfs/forest_health/insects/hemlock_woolly_adelgid_fact_sheet.htm
• extension.umaine.edu/home-and-garden-ipm/fact-sheets/common-name-listing/hemlock-woolly-adelgid/

To read the article online, click here. 

Sandy Stott is a Brunswick resident, chairperson of the town’s Conservation Commission and a member of Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust’s Board of Directors. He writes for a variety of publications. He may be reached at fsandystott@gmail.com.