Emerald ash borer wiping out ash trees

We celebrated Groundhog Day on Feb. 2, which was the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring solstice.

Before the last snowfall, I checked our firewood supply and realized we did not have enough firewood to last until spring. I have been buying ash wood due to it being readily available.

An imported wood-boring bug, which is known as the emerald ash borer, has been wiping out ash trees over the eastern half of the United States. This emerald ash borer is now fully entrenched in Pennsylvania and is poised to kill most of the 308 million ash trees in our forests, parks and neighborhoods. Last summer as I drove down the roads, I was saddened to see the dead stands of ash trees on the hillsides.

Since the chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease, the emerald ash borer has been the most destructive exotic forest pest in North America. It not only attacks the white ash but other ashes in the family. According to a forestry management plan for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the emerald ash borer has the ability to potentially destroy the entire ash genus.

The emerald ash borer is an Asian native that likely hitchhiked on wooden packing materials to America. In 2002, this borer was first discovered destroying ash trees in Michigan and appeared during 2007 in western Pennsylvania. Since it takes this borer four to five years to kill a tree, the borer had already been there several years by the time damage is noticed.

The people with woodlots on their property have been cutting down the dead white ash trees and selling the wood for firewood. There is no harm in this ash as firewood if purchased from a local source. The rule is, do not transport ash firewood any farther than 50 miles from where it had been cut. This is because the emerald ash borers could be transported, causing a whole new area to be infested.

Many municipalities, power companies and tree-owners are already cutting down ashes pre-emptively before they die. It’s too expensive to chemically protect masses of ash trees. If you wait until the trees are showing signs of trouble, such as dieback of branches, bark becoming a light-color and splitting, or a rush of new shoots sprouting from the trunk, the tree is already badly infested. By then, woodpecker holes can be seen in an attempt by the birds to feast on the larvae inside.

Once a tree dies it becomes a hazard and much more expensive to remove. Tree surgeons find it even more hazardous to work on brittle dead or dying ash trees than healthy, solid ones. These dead branches are known as widow makers since attempts to cut down a tree could cause vibrations from the chainsaw, resulting in dead branches breaking off and crashing to the ground. Homeowners with ash trees on their property should have tree-trimming experts come and remove the trees.

Ash was widely planted as a shady substitute for elm trees, which were nearly wiped off our botanical map due to the deadly Dutch elm disease during the 1960s. Disease-resistant elm trees are now being brought back after decades of back-crossing, in which lingering elms are playing a key role. The poetic justice is that these new elms may now return as one of the possible replacements for ash.

The telltale sign of the emerald ash borer is a D-shaped hole in the trunk and large branches. These holes are made in early May through June by the newly matured adults, while exiting the tree to fly about and mate. Adults appear as elongated beetles, smaller than a small paperclip, with shiny, dark-green shells; hence, the emerald in the name given to the beetle.

In 1975, Penn State University planted a 2,100-tree experimental ash grove arboretum. Ninety-five percent of these trees have died, with most of the remaining trees also expected to die. However, there are approximately 15 trees remaining that show little or no dieback. The university is hoping that these lingering ash trees will survive to be the nucleus of the white ash population in Pennsylvania.

White ash wood is very durable and has been used in the making of many sports items, such as hockey sticks, polo mallets and tennis rackets. As youngsters playing baseball we could have swung a piece of white ash wood, and if lucky, we heard the ringing tock of the bat as it hit the ball.

In 2011, white ash was the seventh most abundant tree species in Pennsylvania. A small area of Pennsylvania and New York has supplied white ash for the Louisville Slugger, the official bat of Major League Baseball.


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