United States

Maple Producers Fight Back Against Tiny Pest Threatening Trees

Some Vermont maple syrup producers are waging war against a tiny pest they fear could have a big impact on their way of life: caterpillars that could weaken trees over time.

The state's Agency of Natural Resources estimates that in June of 2016, 25,000 acres of forestland were defoliated because of the forest tent caterpillar.

Andy Naylor of Waterville, who produces thousands of gallons of maple syrup each year at his Judevine Farm, said last year's defoliation made his property look unsightly and sad.

"It was very stressful," he said of the loss of leaves across his many acres of trees. "Not just to the trees, but to my family and to my neighbors that were affected also. It was quite disturbing."

This year, Naylor's fighting back.

He recently contracted with a Lowville, New York, company called Duflo Spray Chemical, Inc. to provide an aerial treatment of a biological insecticide to 200 acres of his land. A pilot sprayed the trees in late May, Naylor said.

The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation assisted with land surveys and predictions of defoliation risks for 2017.

Naylor's $5,000 treatment of Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as Bt, was aimed at killing the newly-hatched forest tent caterpillars before they could feast on his property.

"This is a good sign," Naylor said Wednesday, pointing to a healthy leaf, free of caterpillars, and noting the sight was a dramatic improvement over 2016.

Leaves are vital to the way trees make carbohydrates and sugars, so Naylor wanted to ensure his maples stay strong, to protect future sap output.

Vermont is the king of maple syrup production in the United States.

In 2016, which was described as a record year, Vermont produced roughly 1.9 million gallons of syrup, which accounted for more than 47 percent of all the nation’s syrup.

As a precaution against defoliation that could weaken trees in the long term, landowners across Vermont planned to have roughly 3,600 acres of forestland treated with Bt to kill forest tent caterpillars, according the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation.

That land included 18 sugarbushes, state forestry experts said.

If you're worried about food safety because of this spraying, Vermont agriculture and forestry officials said you don't have to be. They explained Bt's effectiveness targets just the pests, and is safe to use even on organic land.

"The product is safe; it's non-toxic, and we make sure all the proper permits are in place," said Anson Tebbetts, the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture. "It will not impact the [maple] sap at all."

Forest health specialist Josh Halman of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, said most maples can bounce back from a caterpillar infestation.

However, big outbreaks, combined with other threats like last year's drought or poor soil health, could be trouble, Halman said.

"Right now, we're in the second year of this outbreak," Halman told necn. "It can kill some trees, given the right conditions. So if they have some line of defense against it, it can help sugar makers, especially."

Naylor said he is glad he sought out a safeguard against the forest tent caterpillar in the form of the aerial spraying.

"Any time maple trees are threatened, we should all be concerned," Naylor said. "Without maple, Vermont's just another place."

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