The southern pine beetle, which for generations has attacked forests throughout the southeastern United States, is methodically making its way into the Northeast, destroying thousands of trees in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere.
The beetle, which resembles a chocolate sprinkle, is viewed as a threat to all pine species, including pitch pine, the predominant tree found in the 100,000-acre environmentally sensitive Long Island Pine Barrens region. It was first discovered in New York last October, about a decade after it appeared in New Jersey, officials said.
"Whenever you have a new pest enter an area where it's never been, it has the potential for massive outbreaks," said John Wernet, a forester with New York's Department of Environmental Conservation.
The insect also has been found recently in Connecticut, and U.S. Forest Service entomologist Kevin Dodds says traps in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are detecting its presence there. The reasons for its expansion northward have not been determined, but some say a rich supply of pine trees amid rising temperatures is one possibility.
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"The only thing that would allow them to move up the coast was the climate," said Lisa Filippi, a biology professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead. "A very slight change in climate can cause a huge change in the life cycle of insects."
Robert Marsh, a natural resource supervisor at the New York DEC, wrote in a recent Long Island Pine Barrens Society newsletter that the beetle feeds under the tree's bark, eventually killing it. Female beetles release a pheromone that leaves a trail for other beetles to follow, causing destruction throughout a forest.
He said younger healthy trees can fend off an attack by releasing a resin. "While it is native to the southern United States, SPB has recently been expanding its range northward due in part to climate change," Marsh wrote.
Because it has been a problem in the Southeast for at least a century, Dodds can't estimate how many trees nationwide have been affected. The most effective method to minimize the spread includes cutting infested trees and thinning surrounding forested areas.
Ron Corkory, the southern pine beetle project coordinator for New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, said it has been a particularly vexing problem for the past five years. He estimated just under 34,000 acres have been damaged. The state has spent "hundreds of thousands" of dollars cutting down trees to fend off the spread.
New York DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said the state is spending $340,000, including federal grant money, along with "considerable staff hours and resources" to address the issue. Foresters recently conducted an inventory to identify high-priority areas to fight off the beetle. Officials have cut down an estimated 5,000 trees on federal, state and county lands on Long Island since October, according to Wernet, including about 2,500 on state lands including the Pine Barrens.
"This tiny creature is causing massive destruction and the collective fear is that the beetle will dramatically alter the Pine Barrens ecosystem and our barrier islands," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Long Island-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "The Pine Barrens ecosystem acts as a natural filter for clean water to seep into the aquifer and replenish our water supply. Severe damage to the Pine Barrens ecosystem may put our water supply at unknown risks."
Richard Amper, who leads the Pine Barrens Society, noted that tens of millions of gallons of pristine drinking water are underneath the region, the sole source of clean water for the majority of Long Island's 3 million residents. Preventative cutting of some vulnerable trees could save the entire forest, and therefore, the aquifer, he said.
"The sooner you cut them down the better," Amper said.