Tiny bugs may help save hemlocks from extinction

Twenty years ago, massive old-growth hemlock trees that sprouted from the banks of Little Stony Creek shaded hikers making their way up the Cascade Falls trail not too far from the Virginia Tech campus.

But during the last two decades, the hemlocks were cut down because an invasive insect — the hemlock woolly adelgid — infected and killed the evergreen trees that are a cornerstone of the forest ecosystem. The same scenario played out from Vermont to Georgia as the hemlock woolly adelgid expanded its deadly range and threatened to change the composition of forests across the Eastern United States.

Scott Salom, professor of entomology, isn’t going to sit by and watch that happen.

Entomology graduate student Katlin Mooneyham, of Wilmington, North Carolina (right), and research technician Emily Lawrence collect and count beetles in hemlock trees.

Entomology graduate student Katlin Mooneyham, of Wilmington, North Carolina (right), and research technician Emily Lawrence collect and count beetles in hemlock trees.

In 2013, he and his team of researchers released one of the hemlock woolly adelgid’s predators from its native habitat in Japan into the woods in Virginia and West Virginia. If all goes as planned, the Laricobius osakensis beetle will be another tool that resource managers will have to save the treasured trees.

So far, the project is succeeding: The beetles are adapting to the new climate and are reproducing on their own in the wild.

“We don’t want to lose the hemlocks, and we have to explore every avenue we can to save them,” Salom said. “This is a battle we feel compelled to take on.”

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