Destructive southern pine beetle begins northern migration

southern pine beetle
Posted at 11:55 AM, Mar 28, 2022

MADBURY, N.H. — Armed with about a dozen black funnels all strung together and a ball of string, Jeff Garnas makes his way through a row of pitch pine trees in Madbury, New Hampshire. He's not a hunter but he's on the hunt for a very specific type of insect that until last year, has never been found this far north in the United States.

Garnas studies forest systems at the University of New Hampshire. And last year, along with his team, he made a very small but startling discovery: the southern pine beetle.

"Those of us that care about conservation think it’s a pretty big deal," Garnas said.

As its name suggests the southern pine beetle does not belong here in New Hampshire. But warming winters due to climate change mean temperatures aren't cold enough any longer to stop these beetles from migrating.

"This is just one more example that shows these things are happening and this is not something off in the future; this is happening right now," Garnas said.

This tiny bug can inflict major harm on the economy as well. Over the last 30 years, timber producers in the Southern US lost more than $1 billion related to beetle-induced tree mortality.

Caroline Kanaskie is a researcher on the team who actually found the first southern pine beetle in the trap. She's worried about the larger implications this all might have in the coming decades.

"We don’t want to lose these places we hold dear to us," she said.

This is not the only kind of beetle devastating forests across the country. In Colorado and parts of the West, the mountain pine beetle is killing an untold number of trees.

"It sparks the need for more monitoring," Kanaskie added.

There’s no way to stop the northern spread of the southern pine beetle. However, scientists believe prescribed burns could slow their progression down.

"We’re not going to stop the movement of species north; that’s pretty much impossible. What we can do is manage our forest in the best possible way," Garnas said.

For now, Garnas will continue to track the beetles' migration, knowing that while he can’t stop its spread, he can at least keep track of their move north.