Crews to cut down trees, survey Rockford area for balsam woolly adelgid

Kent County

*Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the tree removal will happen Dec. 8. We regret this error, which has since been corrected.

ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) ꟷ State employees will visit the Rockford area Wednesday and Thursday to tackle the newest invasive species that could threaten Michigan’s Christmas tree industry.

(A photo provided by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development shows a balsam woolly adelgid infestation on a portion of a Fraser fir on a Rockford area property.)

The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development first confirmed the presence of balsam woolly adelgid in a set of backyard trees in August. The homeowner noticed the trees seemed sickly and contacted an arborist, whom Woodland Tree Services identified as its arborist, Kathryn Smith. The arborist reported the suspected case to the Midwest Invasive Species Network in July. An expert confirmed it was BWA on Aug. 12.

This week, about 20 staff members from MDARD will start systematically surveying the area for balsam woolly adelgid. They’ll collect bark samples about the size of a postage stamp and send them back to a lab for testing, according to Rob Miller, MDARD invasive species prevention and response specialist. Miller says it’ll take a few weeks for the first round of results.

Woodland Tree Services‘ arborists have been contracted to remove the infected trees starting next week, Miller and the company confirmed. MDARD and MISN representatives will oversee the process, which will include strict guidelines on how to handle the subsequent woodchips and equipment used to remove the trees.

“One adelgid can create hundreds more,” Miller cautioned in a webinar last month.

An employee of Woodland Tree Services says its crew have been preparing for the tree removal by reviewing tool disinfecting practices and digging a large hole on the company property to safely bury and compost the woodchips.

GETTING RID OF AN INVADER: WHY WAIT?

The MDARD has waited to remove the infested trees because the balsam woolly adelgid is typically mobile from June to late October. The lowest risk of spreading the pest is in winter when the insect is feeding and immobile. It’s also prime time to survey area conifers for BWA because they’re easier to spot among bare leafy trees.

A photo provided by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development shows a balsam woolly adelgid infestation on a portion of a Fraser fir on a Rockford area property.

BWA attacks true fir trees, including Fraser and concolor (white) firs – popular options for Christmas trees. The tiny wingless insect attaches to the base of the tree and sucks the sap out, building a cottony, waxy white substance over its body while slowly draining the life out of its host over two to 20 years, depending on the degree of infestation.

BWA poses a serious threat to nearly 1.9 billion balsam fir trees in northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, where the balsam fir is the second most common tree. The nearly 13.5 million fir trees Michigan produces each year for Christmas are at risk, as well as trees used in the lumber and landscaping industries.

Fortunately, as of November, MDARD staff who checked nurseries where the infested trees potentially came from and a Christmas tree farm about 3 miles away from the site of infestation found no signs of BWA, according to Miller.

MDARD inspection staff will start their official area survey for BWA this week. Using geographic information system mapping on their cellphones for guidance, the state workers will examine fir trees within a one-mile radius of the intersection of Kies Street NE and Hickory Drive NE.

“This’ll be pretty cool. This is a new way for us to conduct a survey here in the state of Michigan, using this GIS mapping system, Miller said.

The work will continue intermittently through April. Any trees with a potential infestation will be flagged, with a small bark sample collected for lab tests. Landowners will be alerted of any potential cases of BWA.

(A photo of a balsam woolly adelgid nymph, courtesy Asheville Forest Pest Management, USDA Forest Service and Bugwood.org.)

“Even if we don’t find anything outside this one infested property – we probably will find additional infestation – this is something that we will be doing for a number of years,” Miller said.

BWA AND CHRISTMAS TREES

If BWA spreads, other states could add Michigan to their export quarantine list, impacting Michigan’s Christmas tree industry which is the third largest in the country, contributing $34 million to the state’s economy in 2014.

“Fifty-four percent of those Christmas trees produced were true fir,” Miller said. “If we get added to quarantine lists, folks might not be able to sell Christmas trees outside of the state of Michigan.”

The Michigan Department of Agriculture may also enact an interior quarantine. Michigan’s exterior quarantine to keep BWA out of the state started in 2013, well after the eight infested trees were planted near Rockford.

“These trees have probably been infested since (they were planted in) 2001. We haven’t found any other infested trees in the area and we’ve even looked at trees that are maybe 200 yards away, some balsam fir that were planted maybe a decade ago… we were able to find one or two adults on the trees,” Miller said. “If you think about that… this seems like a slow-moving pest here in Michigan.”

Miller says the spread of BWA in cut Christmas trees “does pose a risk, but it’s not a very large risk” because the insect is immobile during this season and it won’t last long on a dying tree with limited food supply. He said potted Christmas trees are riskier since they’re not a “dead-end host.”

SPOTTING THE RED FLAGGING OF BWA

Signs of a BWA infestation include tiny white woolly tufts on the lower trunk of the tree, branches turning brick red which is called flagging, and swelling and distortion of twigs, known as gouting.

(Swollen tissue in tree twigs, called gouting, is a sign of a balsam woolly adelgid infestation. Photo courtesy of David McComb, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org.)

“Basically I’ll put it this way: If you’ve got a fir tree and it’s got gouting, I want to see it. That’s where we’re at. Gouting is not a symptom that we would commonly see anywhere else. I don’t think I’ve seen any other symptoms of gouting except with BWA,” Miller said.

If you suspect you have BWA on your tree, report it to the Midwest Invasive Species Information Network or by contacting MDARD at MDA-Info@Michigan.gov or 800.292.3939.

“I want to find all the BWA here in Michigan, squash ‘em and say ‘no more BWA in Michigan.’ That’s what I want, and that’s what we’re working toward,” Miller said.

Woodland Tree Services cautions homeowners to also enlist the help of a knowledgeable certified arborist when handling potential cases of invasive pests,

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