Ash Trees, Agriculture Face Threat From Two Invasive Insects

September 21, 2018
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State and county officials are preparing for the impending arrival of the emerald ash borer, shown here, but another threat, the spotted lanternfly, is looming. Photo courtesy NJDEP

By Chris Rotolo |

MONMOUTH COUNTY – The infestation of the emerald ash borer is coming to Monmouth County trees near you.

According to experts in the field, there’s little anyone can do to avoid the total destruction and devastation of the local ash tree population.

George Nobel, the general supervisor of trees for the Monmouth County Shade Tree Division, said time is of the essence for any Two River-area residents interested in preserving their private ash trees.

“It’s not a matter of if this will happen, it’s when,” said Nobel. “There is no avoiding this. (The emerald ash borer) is going to kill all untreated ash trees. So if you have a healthy specimen, and you want to save it, you can preserve it pretty effectively with a treatment. But if it’s already infected, it’s pretty impossible to cure the infestation.”

According to Flynn’s Tree Service of Middletown, treatment requests have been trending upward since the metallic green, bullet-shaped beetle first appeared in the Garden State in May 2014. An average treatment for a private ash tree can be around $175, though costs can vary based upon size.

Nobel was adamant that if property owners have a healthy specimen they’d like to preserve, it could be financially beneficial to do so, stating “not many people know that if you have really nice landscaping and trees on your property, it can add value.”

The Threat is Already Here

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) said that, since 2002, the emerald ash borer has wreaked havoc on the North American continent, laying waste to tens of millions of ash trees. The agency first fielded reports about the insect in Burlington, Mercer and Somerset counties, but in following years it’s fanned out to every northern county in the state and reached as far south as Camden County.

County horticulturalist for Rutgers Cooperative Extension Diane Larson said the emerald ash borer has inhabited Monmouth County since 2015, with isolated incidents reported in Allentown and Millstone Township, but the swarm is spreading, with a large supply of ash tree specimens for the insect to infest.

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“The ash is a beautiful tree and it’s not only native to the area, but has been widely planted within county and municipal parks over the last 20 to 30 years,” said Larson, pointing to the 24.7 million green ash, white ash and white fringe tree specimens in the northern and central portions of the state. “Up to this point Monmouth County hasn’t had a lot of widespread problems, but it’s just a matter of time.”

People cultivate ash trees for ornamental purposes, though it is native to the forested areas of central and northern New Jersey. Ash trees have a grayish bark that is smooth to the touch on younger specimens. Depending on the species of ash, they can vary in dimension from 30 feet to 120 feet high, and 40-to-50-feet wide. The ash tree develops compound leaves with five to 13 oval leaflets that are 8-to-15-inches long.

JCP&L Warns It Will Cut Trees

During a Sept. 11 presentation by Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) at the Holmdel Community Center, the electrical service provider unveiled a new $400 million infrastructure plan that is pending approval before the state Board of Public Utilities.

Vice president of external affairs, John Anderson, said a major aspect of the company’s Reliability Plus plan was an enhanced vegetation management program that will essentially double JCP&L’s current annual budget of $25 million.

Anderson noted the aggressiveness of this program was due in large part to the impending damage that will be caused by the emerald ash borer.

“Believe it or not, the majority of power outages in our service area are caused by falling tree limbs and the collapse of brittle tress during stormy weather,” Anderson said.

According to Nobel, the emerald ash borer destroys by feeding on the margins of the ash leaf, before depositing eggs in the bark crevices of the trunk. After the egg matures the larvae burrow and feed on the water and nutrient-transporting underbelly of the tree known as cambium, cutting off its life source and leaving it as a brittle, rotting husk susceptible to collapse during severe weather events.

“Once these trees begin to show poor health it’s too late. They can’t be saved and they’ll begin to turn to dust very fast,” Nobel said. “Companies won’t even let their employees climb ash trees anymore, because they may be compromised and it’s tough to tell sometimes.”

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Spotted Lanternfly a New Threat

Despite the emerald ash borer’s impending impact on the Two River community, Larson, the horticulturalist, says it’s not the only invasive insect species we need to worry about.

The spotted lanternfly is another destructive force that, unlike the emerald ash borer, has flight capabilities and, rather than feeding on a single specimen like the ash, has an appetite for a multitude of fruit trees, ornamental trees, vegetables, herbs, vines and agricultural crops like grapes and hops.

The Spotted Lanternfly. Photo courtesy NJDEP

Nobel described a scene earlier this year in which a small Pennsylvania vineyard was overrun with approximately 200,000 of these plant-hopping bugs, with crews of government workers shoveling out truckloads of the insects.

Delicious Orchards co-owner Michael McDonald expressed his anxiety over the infestation across the Delaware River. “As of right now, all we can do is cross our fingers and hope that they continue to contain this thing,” he said. “We’re looking at the impact on some vineyards out there and you’re talking 99 and 100 percent losses. You’re talking about full failure. That’s not something you recover from in a year. It’s unnerving.”

Larson said the spotted lanternfly is a threat that needs to be addressed now.

“Because of the agricultural impact that it has, we can’t afford to put this on the back burner,” Larson said of the insect, which secretes an excessive amount of honeydew that results in soot-like mold growth detrimental to plant life.

According to Larson the spotted lanternfly has been all over Pennsylvania since 2014 and has a reputation for being a great hitchhiker, capable of attaching itself to cars, trucks and shipments of wood and produce.

In August New Jersey state officials issued a quarantine in Warren, Mercer and Hunterdon counties over reports of lanternfly activity. The insect was first spotted in June in Warren County.

“I’ve heard reports of these insects just swarming and covering houses in high numbers. It doesn’t help that they can fly and are very mobile,” Larson added. “This is a serious threat and something we need to start preparing for now.”

This article was first published in the Sept. 20-26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.

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