A Conversation With Andrew Drake

Andrew Drake

Anyone driving along Route 114 or Swamp Road in East Hampton Town last winter would be forgiven if they thought the town, which has long sought to protect its woodlands, had taken up clear-cut logging. Whole sections of land, where pitch pines once grew, have been cleared of most growth as the town fought to contain the spread of the deadly southern pine beetle. Andrew Drake, an environmental analyst for the town, discusses the town’s approach to the emergency.

What is the southern pine beetle?

The southern pine beetle (Dendroctonus frontalis) is a bark beetle native to the southeastern United States that infests pine trees. Their primary host on Long Island is our native pitch pine tree. The beetle is very small, about the size of a chocolate sprinkle.

How many acres and trees have been cut down in East Hampton Town since the pine beetle arrived last year?

Our records indicate that 9,938 pitch pine trees have been cut down since November 2017 on 125 parcels of land in an effort to suppress the active spread of the beetle to healthy pine forests. Town and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation staff performed “cut and leave” management practices on affected public lands. The town hired trained contractors to cut affected trees on private lands upon the owners’ request during the state of emergency declared in October 2017.

How does the pine beetle spread so quickly and what is the prognosis for next year? Do you think the infestation has been checked?

Pheromones produced by pine beetles at the site of infestation attract more beetles to the original host trees. Each arriving beetle produces more pheromones. When pine beetles are in outbreak status, this pattern continues until there is a very large pheromone plume beneath the forest canopy and a very large population of beetles attacking trees. “Cut and Leave” management releases that pheromone plume that is attracting beetles to an area, cutting off their communication. Senior environmental analyst Andy Gaites and I inspected all town-owned properties vulnerable to the pine beetle and cut all infested trees that we identified and determined necessary for suppressing its spread. We will continue to inspect our preserved lands as the beetles become more active, but right now it is hard to know where we stand. We do expect to find more infestation in the areas we have managed. However, infestation areas will be much smaller and more easily managed. The DEC has expressed to us that we should expect 10 percent of the infestation to return for this year. Since we had nearly 10,000 trees cut, we should expect to find 1,000 trees in need of cutting this year, 100 the following, and so on. Without management, DEC advises that each infested tree can lead to 10 more. Our continued effort is necessary to reduce pine beetle populations and protect native pitch pine forests. This is a management effort, not an eradication of the pine beetle; we need to be clear about that.

What are the symptoms of infestation and what do you do if you think the pine beetle is attacking trees on your property?

Pine beetles bore into the tree, creating S-shaped tunnels beneath the bark. They use these tunnels, or galleries, for reproductive space. Eggs are laid in this area, and larvae are developed, feeding on fungi that are brought in by beetles and other pests, also attracted by pine beetle pheromones. This process disrupts the flow of nutrients through a host tree, and quickly kills it usually in two to four months.

Signs of infestation include pitch tubes, or clumps of sap on bark up the entire length of the tree trunk, shotgun patterned exit holes on the exterior of the bark and pine trees that have recently died or display red/brown needles.

Private landowners should consult with an expert on-site and consider cutting or removing any tree that is infested.

How does this pest compare with the gypsy moth, which, during a major outbreak about two decades ago, stripped just about every oak tree in Northwest Woods of its vegetation?

Southern Pine Beetle is a much larger threat to our local environment than gypsy moths — in population size, the area affected, the number of trees killed, the rate of infestation expansion, etc.

The southern pine beetle was originally confined to the south, but it has made its way up through New Jersey and across Long Island in recent years. Is climate change playing a role in its expanded range?

Some experts believe that climate change plays a large role in the northern success of the southern pine beetle. We have also heard that the beetle was transported to Long Island forests from New Jersey by the winds of Hurricane Sandy. I believe their presence and success here is a result of our local pine forests being overstocked and very susceptible to attack. Once they got a foothold here, it was the perfect situation for them to do a lot of damage.

Recently, town workers began collecting pine cones from Northwest Woods, which will be sent to a state nursery upstate to be planted and grown to seedling size before being returned for replanting in East Hampton next year. Is this a tried-and-true method for restoring woodlands affected by a given pest? If not, what do you think are its chances for success?

Pitch pines are a fire-dependent species. Without fire, they have low probability of re-distributing viable seeds successfully on their own. The cone collection and seed propagation will ultimately bring young pitch pine trees back to our local forests and replace some of the stands we have had to cut down.