Southern Pine Beetles

To: Bluedot Living

From: Adam Moore, Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation

Subject: Southern Pine Beetles

“If they could be on Nantucket, they could be on Martha’s Vineyard, too  — no?” 

So thought I after I received an email on May 15, 2023, from Emily Goldstein Murphy, Ph.D., research ecologist for the Nantucket Land Bank. Dr. Murphy had written me not because of my role at Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, but rather because I am a Massachusetts licensed forester. She was seeking help in preparing forest stewardship plans that would help the Land Bank prepare their properties for the eventual arrival of this devastating forest insect.

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That morning, I asked my staff to bring any spots of beetle-killed trees to my attention. That afternoon, I returned to my Vineyard Haven office to find a two-foot long section of pitch pine bark on my desk. The smooth, concave surface of the inside of the bark bore a network of sinuous “S”-shaped curves — the tell-tale, serpentine sign of the southern pine beetle. Land Steward Elizabeth “Liz” Loucks had recalled seeing dead trees at the Phillips Preserve, and she had spent part of the day getting a closer look and retrieving a sample of bark.

The southern pine beetle, Dendroctonus frontalis, is an insect that is native to the pine forests of the eastern United States. As its common name implies, it has traditionally lived only in the southern states, but the warmer winters of climate change have enabled this beetle to move northward. It was first observed in the woods on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in about 2015, but until now, no outbreak had been observed.

In each glob, stuck in the sap, was a minute, black beetle – the southern pine beetle. This tree was infested, and the globs of sap, up and down the stem, were the tree’s effort to “pitch” out the beetle.

After examining the bark, I left my office and dashed out to the Phillips Preserve. The Phillips Preserve is a 69-acre conservation property of Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation in Tisbury. The Preserve stretches from Northern Pines Road to Aunt Rhoda’s Pond, which is a bay on the northwest side of Lake Tashmoo. Army Road and the Road to Chappaquonsett both cross the Phillips Preserve. 

I reached the section where Liz had noticed the dead trees and collected the bark. Sure enough, I found several trees that were already dead, and then found a living tree that I suspected to be infected with the southern pine beetle. Now, I had never seen the southern pine beetle before, or what it could do to a pitch pine, but this tree seemed to fit what I had learned. Up and down the stem were globs of orange and white sap. In each glob, stuck in the sap, was a minute, black beetle — the southern pine beetle. This tree was infested, and the globs of sap, up and down the stem, were the tree’s effort to “pitch” out the beetle. 

I took several photos. That night, I reported this find to the forest health program at the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, and to the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program. DCR visited the Phillips Preserve on July 19, 2023, and confirmed that this was, indeed, an outbreak of the southern pine beetle. A week earlier, DCR had confirmed another outbreak of the southern pine beetle at West Gate Woods, a Nantucket Conservation Foundation property on Nantucket.

My next step was to mark the trees that were infested, and a buffer of trees around them, so that we could try to suppress the outbreak. This is recommended, as left unchecked, the beetles will reproduce exponentially — and kill a corresponding number of pitch pines. By this time we were learning of the power of this incredible insect. I spent one afternoon marking trees, only to return the following day, and notice that, somehow, I had missed a tree here, and another there. After a day or two of this, I realized that I had not missed these trees. Rather, the beetles were simply moving from one tree to another. 

As we mapped this area for the Forest Cutting Plan that I filed with DCR, we measured the spread of the beetles. To our dismay, the beetles were moving at about 10 feet per day. What had been a small outbreak in a half-acre spot had quite rapidly spread to four acres in a very short time. Why were we not cutting the trees and suppressing the outbreak? We were not cutting because — due to the presence of maternity roosts for the endangered northern long-eared bat, there is a prohibition against cutting any trees between June 1 and July 31. 

lumber in forest
Lumber from the portable sawmill at the Phillips Preserve. – Courtesy of Sheriff's Meadow Foundation

Once the cutting prohibition passed, we began our suppression work. We hired Conor Hynes, a licensed timber harvester and the owner of Cape Cod Firewood. Conor went to work with a feller-buncher and grapple skidder — two pieces of forestry equipment that enable safe and efficient logging. In spite of our efforts, our suppression efforts could not contain the spread of the beetle. The beetles were moving from other infestations on neighboring properties. It was only the colder temperatures of the fall and winter that ultimately slowed them down.

During the winter we set up a portable sawmill at the Phillips Preserve. The larger sawlogs produced beautiful pitch pine lumber. This lumber is being used on the porch for the new Sheriff’s Meadow office in West Tisbury, and it is used to make desks and counters for the office, too. 

We are now at work suppressing additional outbreaks at the Phillips Preserve, and thinning the forest so that the best, mature pitch pines might have a chance at surviving the outbreak. Thinning helps by increasing the flow of air around the crowns of the pitch pines. Beetles communicate by pheromone, and scientific research shows that thinning interrupts their communication, and offers a chance for the trees left standing. Forest stewardship plans and additional thinning operations and suppression cuttings are in progress for several other pitch pine forests owned by Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation.

For more information about any of Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation’s work, visit sheriffsmeadow.org.

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