Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Invaders at Your Picnic

I love to eat outdoors. Whenever the weather permits, my wife and I eat on our deck -- except during the late summer and early fall during yellowjacket season. My wife heads indoors with the arrival of the first annoying wasp. I’m no help. Rather than shoo them away, I’m always trying to get a good look at them to identify the species. Luckily, she loves me anyway!

Our most common picnic crasher has been the “western yellowjacket,” Vespula pensylvanica. Yeah, I know Pennsylvania isn’t in the West. A Swiss fellow, Henri Louis Frédéric de Saussure, named the species in 1857. Maybe Pennsylvania seemed pretty far west to him. Anyway, this species is the most common pest species in much of the real West. The “common yellowjacket,” Vespula vulgaris, a little smaller and darker in color, is also a notorious scavenger. These species are native to our area and usually build their nests underground.

A new invasive species has recently joined the picnic crashers. This European species known as “German yellowjacket,” Vespula germanica, is spreading throughout Oregon. It was introduced to the East Coast in the middle of the last century and has been spreading west ever since. It showed up in Oregon in the early ‘90s. At first populations were scattered in Ontario, Portland, and Tillamook. There hasn’t been a survey in recent years, but it appears to be widespread now.

German yellowjackets are no worse than our native species as picnic pests, but they don’t seem to displace the natives either, so there are just more types of yellowjackets to bother us now. The German variety is more likely to nest in above ground spaces, including wall voids and attics. Huge indoor colonies have been reported in other places where this invasive species has moved in. Stay tuned – it could happen here too.

Another unfortunate consequence of the German yellowjacket invasion has to do with Oregon Christmas trees. Yellowjacket queens often choose to hide in bushy Christmas trees after the weather cools off in the fall. Hawaii, Mexico, and other markets for Oregon Christmas trees don’t want new species of yellowjackets hitchhiking across their borders. Regulations for these markets require mechanical shaking to dislodge the queens. It is an added expense for our growers, but it is a good idea.

Yellowjackets have their place in nature’s web, but human-aided yellowjacket spread is not a good thing. If you take meat or sweet food outside this time of year, a yellow and black European visitor with a stinger may remind you of that fact.

Dan Hilburn

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why Mapping Invasives is Important

For the past year and a half, the Oregon Invasive Species Council has been working toward providing Oregon with a new database system that will help organizations and individuals track locations and management actions of invasive species. It hasn't been an easy road to where we are today, as a survey we conducted in 2009 revealed that Oregonians are using at least 53 different systems to track invasives -- and most of these systems are not talking to one another. After a great deal of work, we settled on iMapInvasives and USGS NAS as the two systems that can currently meet most of the needs of Oregonians (although we're still working on the marine invertebrate end of things).

Our ultimate goal is for the majority of people in Oregon to share their invasive species data with iMap so that we have a productive, online, GIS-based, all-taxa invasive species mapping tool that land managers, regional planners, and others involved in preventing, controlling, or managing invasive species can access. Why is this so important?

We know that early detection and rapid response is the most cost-effective way of managing invasive species. If we find a new invader early, we can respond quickly to eradicate and eliminate the species. The end result of this approach is minimal dollars and effort spent to manage an invasive, and less chemical introduced in the environment. It's a win-win for Oregon's economy and our pristine native fish and wildlife habitats.

The Oregon Biodiversity Information Center at Portland State University will be housing iMapInvasives for the State of Oregon. This organization has decades of experience managing information about Oregon's flora and fauna, both native and non-native.

Stay tuned for the upcoming launch of iMapInvasives in Oregon. You'll be able to input your data, access other data, learn about the effectiveness of certain types of treatments, etc. We'll have some bumps along the road as we implement iMapInvasives, and the system will certainly morph as our invasive species database needs change. But it's a system that's here for the long haul, and we're going along for the ride.

Lisa DeBruyckere, Oregon Invasive Species Council

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Progress on Invasive Species Awareness

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has declared August to be: Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month:
From their press release:

“Preventing foreign pests and diseases from entering the United States is my agency’s number one priority,” said APHIS [Animal, Plant Health Inspection Service] Administrator Cindy Smith. “These destructive pests can jeopardize the livelihood of our farmers, ranchers and foresters, and they can forever alter our natural landscape. We’re dedicating the month of August to raising public awareness about these threats, and we’re asking every American who can to help us fight invasive pests.”
Federal and State Departments of Agriculture have a long history of trying to keep foreign pests and diseases from becoming problems. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA), for instance, has been eradicating gypsy moth infestations for 40 years. When I first started working here (1990), awareness of invasive species issues by the public was at a very low level. Even the term “invasive species” wasn’t in general use. I remember giving a presentation in the early 1990s on “Biological Pollution in Oregon.” That term didn’t catch on, but “invasive species” has, and it means the same thing.

In Oregon, general public awareness didn’t really take off until 2008 when the Oregon Invasive Species Council (OISC), Oregon Public Broadcasting, and the Salem Statesman Journal coordinated a year-long education and outreach campaign. OPB’s excellent one-hour special, called The Silent Invasion, aired several times and continues to have an impact.

Recently the Marine Board and the OISC have started using billboards on major roads to educate people on the importance of cleaning and drying trailered boats and buying and burning only local firewood. Trailered boats can carry zebra and quagga mussels as well as invasive aquatic weeds. Firewood is a vector for non-native wood borers and plant diseases.

Are these campaigns working? Are people getting the message? There is no question awareness is higher than it was just a few years ago, but we still have a ways to go.

Already this week I’ve had a request for information about “evasive species” in a lake, and a report from a California border station of camper entering California from Oregon with firewood brought all the way from Michigan! California’s inspectors confiscated the firewood, then dissected it, finding emerald ash borer (Oregon 100 Worst Invader List) larvae and adults. On the other hand, it has been a couple of years since anyone has asked me if reintroduced native wolves or illegal immigrants are invasive species!

At the Salem kickoff screening of The Silent Invasion (Earth Day, 2008), I challenged the audience to remember that day as the start of the Oregon invasive species awareness campaign. I told them I hoped someone would contact me 10 years hence (Earth Day 2018) so we could reminisce about invasive species awareness in the good old days and whether the campaign worked. Some campaigns are a flash in the pan and don’t have staying power. If the first year and a half is any indication, I don’t think that is going to happen with invasive species awareness.

I use my mother as an indicator of general public awareness of invasive species. She’s a wonderful person, but natural history is not her thing, and for years I don’t think she really grasped what I do for a living. Now she sends me newspaper clippings from Maine on gypsy moth, Eurasian watermilfoil, and hemlock wooly adelgid. She gets it, and that is a good sign that invasive species awareness campaigns are working around the country, just like here in Oregon.

Dan Hilburn

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bumble Bees and Bureaucrats

Photo by Derrick Ditchburn
“Is it legal to import bumble bees to Oregon?”  It is a question that comes up a couple of times a year, so I wasn’t surprised when I received an email query about importing bumble bees last week. My stock response is, “What species?”  Usually the answer is Bombus impatiens (eastern bumble bee), a species native to North America, but not Oregon or the other western states. This species is commonly sold for pollination of greenhouse crops. “Sorry,” I respond, “that species is not on our approved list.”

This time though, the question was not about a single species, and it came from the Xerces Society, a group dedicated to invertebrate conservation. They were interested in clarification of Oregon’s regulations relative to bumble bees.

I dusted off my file; here is the story. A decade ago, the US Department of Agriculture stopped requiring permits for interstate movement of bumble bees. At the time there were two species in commerce, one from the East (eastern bumble bee, B. impatiens) and one from the West (western bumble bee, B. occidentalis). The supplying company discontinued the western species after a disease problem developed in their colonies. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) struggled with the issue of whether to allow eastern bumble bee in as a replacement; all the other western states shrugged their shoulders and opened the gate. One courtesy permit was issued in Oregon in 2002 with some very strict safeguards to prevent escape. OSU’s wild bee expert at the time, Dr. Bill Stephens, advised us not to continue this practice because of the threat of disease introduction.

About the time the eastern bumble bee began to be shipped to the West, the natural population of western bumble bee crashed. It hasn’t recovered since. There is no proof that these two phenomena are related, but the timing is suspicious. Imported eastern bumble bees could have brought a disease with them that impacted the native species.

Given the potential consequences, ODA decided to say “No” to future requests, however, there was a catch. ODA’s authority to regulate insects has always been expressly for “plant pests.”  Bumble bees, lady bugs, and butterflies don’t fit the profile, so we developed a policy of referring people to an “approved list” of common species that are native and already here:
People are free to import and release these common, non-harmful species. This policy has worked well for years even though it doesn’t have the force of law.

Last year our authority changed. ODA worked with the legislature to update Oregon’s plant quarantine laws. The definition of plant pest now includes “any biotic agent . . .capable of having a significant adverse effect on the environmental quality of the state, or of causing a significant level of economic damage . . .”  This fall, ODA will be converting our approved list to an actual regulation. From now on, when someone asks, “Is it legal to import bumble bees?” the response will be the same, but the authority behind it will be different.

A footnote to this story: eastern bumble bee isn’t the only non-native species people have wanted to release in Oregon. We’ve had inquiries about fuzzy-footed bee, Anthophora plumipes and horn-faced bee, Osmia cornifrons, (both from Japan). Both have been released elsewhere. Neither is approved here. Oregon already has a diverse native bee fauna, and there is no compelling reason to augment it with non-native species that might do more harm than good.

Oregonians should appreciate the native bees we have -- they do a fantastic job of pollination in spite of Oregon’s cool, cloudy spring weather. Every spring I worry when my fruit trees bloom, there just doesn’t seem to be much weather suitable for bees. When flowers appear on my summer lilac (Ceonothus), the native bees show up in force, and I’m reminded that Oregon’s bees are adapted to Oregon conditions. They do just fine, without help from foreigners.

Dan Hilburn