Friday, April 30, 2010

Attack of the MIT Gypsy Moths

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” the MIT student guide apologized as moths fluttered around my wife and soon-to-be-college age daughter. Trying to appear unconcerned, my wife assured her it was no big deal, even though the moths were not interested in the rest of the group – just the two of them. “This has never happened before,” the guide added sympathetically. It wasn’t their fault, I’m to blame and I was 4,000 miles away at the time! Here is the story.

Every spring ODA staff put up thousands of gypsy moth traps around the State. Maybe you’ve seen the cardboard, tent-shaped traps, each about the size of a shoe, hanging from trees. Inside each trap there is a sticky substance for catching the moths and a little plastic lure strip. The lure is a pheromone. It gives off the same chemical that female gypsy moths emit when they are ready to mate.

This pheromone is odorless to humans, but it is attractive to male gypsy moths at incredibly low concentrations. Each lure strip is no bigger than a 1-inch piece of spaghetti, yet all summer long it emits minute amounts of pheromone and any male gypsy moths in the area follow the scent plume to the trap. Just a few traps per square mile are all it takes to cover the State.

I have personal experience with the incredible attractiveness of these chemicals. My office is at ODA headquarters in the same area where the gypsy moth trapping staff is based. I rarely handle a trap, but traps with suspect moths are brought into the office now and then so there are times when gypsy moth pheromone is in the air. Some of it sticks to my clothes.

Now and then my family travels to Maine to visit relatives. If we arrive in the summer, my clothes and luggage are attractive to gypsy moths, even though they are laundered regularly. If I stand in one place, they find me. Gypsy moths have been a pest in the Northeast for over a century.

The clothes of other family members that are washed with mine also pick up some of the pheromone, thus the embarrassing incident at MIT. Other people have had similar experiences. One woman worked at a factory where gypsy moth pheromone was produced. She told me she couldn’t wear skirts outdoors in the summer in the Northeast because male gypsy moths would approach just above ground level, then flutter around in gradually rising circles. That is normal male moth behavior when they approach a tree with a waiting female. Thankfully, embarrassment is the only hazard.

Most moths and many other insects use pheromones. They are as normal a part of nature as the scent of pine trees and the perfume of roses.

Insect pheromones have been used successfully and safely as lures in detection trapping programs for nearly 40 years. Some suppression programs use pheromones in a technique called mating disruption.

Last year there was a proposal to try mating disruption on a population of a new invasive pest in California. Government officials proposed using the pheromone of light brown apple moth to disrupt its mating. It was a very innovative proposal and much better for the environment than the other treatment options. Unfortunately, that proposal was derailed by a public outcry likening the proposed treatment to aerial spraying of poisonous pesticides like DDT. In fact, the only similarity was the application method. Pheromones are not pesticides any more than Channel #5 is a poison.

Though government officials in California haven’t thrown in the towel yet, it looks more and more likely that light brown apple moth will spread to Oregon and the rest of the continent. The result will be another pest for farmers and gardeners, and more use of pesticides. That is not a good thing.

Keeping invasive species out in the first place is obviously the best strategy, but early detection and rapid response (often using a pesticide) is important too. Rapid response with an environmentally benign tool, like a pheromone or biological pesticide, is preferable when we have those tools. We should support their development and use them whenever possible for dealing with harmful invasive species.

Dan Hilburn

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The "Three Musketeer Project" Moves Forward

Here's an update on the invasive domestic goose problem (which I'm now calling the Three Musketeer Project) described in the April 13 blog. After weeks of effort, it seems that all the right people and agencies are coming together to discuss the issue.

Why the "Three Musketeer Project?" It quickly became apparent that this is an "All for One and One for All" issue - in other words, there's no silver bullet. Rather, it will take the collective effort of agencies, the community at large, and individual citizens to clean up the goose problem on State Street. If anyone fails to deliver on their end, the project will not succeed.

With agencies moving together, then, the key outstanding question remains: "How will the public respond to removing the domestic geese?" It's a huge unknown. If we provide accurate information that includes the facts that the public is harming each bird by feeding it bread and other substances not helpful to their diets, and that the ultimate health and welfare of each individual bird is enhanced by relocating them to farms and other appropriate places, this should be a win-win for everyone, especially the geese. We'll see . . .

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Bugs Go In, The Bugs Go Out, The Bugs Play Pinochle on Your Grout

Have you noticed bugs on the inside of your windows this spring? It could be you’re part of an annual ritual – the Running of the Bugs! Every spring, bugs that took shelter in your house when the weather got cold, collect at the windows trying to get back outdoors. The good news is if you let them out, they’ll leave happily. The bad news is, they’re children will be back in the fall!

Oregon has several species of insects that make the indoor-outdoor run each spring and fall. Large groups can cluster together in attics, wall voids and other protected nooks and crannies. Most homeowners have likely met one or more of them. Only one is an Oregon native, the rest are non-native invasive species. Here is the lineup:

1.) Boxelder Bug – 1/2 inch long, black with red markings. Outdoors in the summer feeding on maple trees. Collects on houses with southern exposure in the fall, then move indoors for the winter. Native.

2.) Brown Marmorated Stink Bug – 5/8 inch long, brown with faint white markings around the back edge and on the antennae. Live outdoors in the summer feeding on a variety of fruits and vegetables. Moves indoor in cold weather. Invasive species, native to Asia. Becoming more and more common in Portland and spreading to neighboring communities.

3.) Multicolored Asian Lady Beetle – bigger than regular ladybugs, 1/4 to 1/3 inch. Many different color patterns from red-orange and no spots to 20 spots. Live outdoors feeding on insects in the summer. Collects in sheltered nooks and crannies in the winter. Asian species, intentionally introduced for biological control in the 1960’s and 70’s. Thought to be displacing native species.

4.) Cluster Fly – larger than a regular housefly, 1/3 inch. Gray/black and slow moving. Live outdoors in the summer where they parasitize earthworms. Move indoors with cool weather. Native to Europe.

There are others, but these are the common ones. None of these insects bite, transmit disease, or harm houseplants. They are just nuisances. The best way to deal with these indoor-outdoor migrants is to keep them from entering your house in the first place. The more cracks and crevices you caulk, the fewer uninvited guests you’ll have spending the winter in your cozy house.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

End of Ash as We Know It?

Ash trees in North America are going the way of the American chestnut and American elm. A destructive invasive beetle called Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) is killing them. First found in Michigan in 2002, this Asian woodborer has spread to a dozen states. Millions of ash trees have already died – there are no ash survivors when EAB moves through. Unless something changes, our children and grandchildren won’t ever sit under the shade of an ash tree or swing an ash baseball bat.

So far quarantines and attempts to eradicate outlying EAB infestations in other states haven’t stopped the beetle. Eradication attempts typically involve cutting and chipping all the ash trees within 1/2 a mile of an infestation. These are very expensive projects that cause considerable disruption in the impacted neighborhoods.
EAB is capable of flying many miles on its own, but long distance dispersal is mainly via campers bringing ash firewood from home. You can’t blame them, ash burns well, and what else are you going to do with the dead ash trees in your yard?
Oregon faces a dilemma. It is quite possible that our ash trees will be the last survivors. Should we try to save them? Other states are spending millions and their trees keep dying. Cutting down the trees to save the trees doesn’t make any sense at all if our ash trees are the last ones standing.

Is there anything else we could do that might give us a better chance of success?

Here are some ideas for both the short-term and long-term.

1.) Support a ban on out-of-state firewood that isn’t kiln-dried or otherwise rendered pest free. This could buy us time. The OISC will be introducing a firewood bill in the next legislative session, let’s work together to get it passed.

2.) Educate as many people as possible about the symptoms of EAB infestation so if it does show up ahead of the leading edge, we might find it early enough to do something. If you see ash trees that are declining or attracting woodpeckers, report it ASAP to the OISC hotline (866-INVADER or

3.) Preserve an island(s) of high value ash trees. Does anyone know of a watershed or other natural boundary where we could draw a line and try to protect a refuge of Oregon ash trees in their native habitat?

4.) Encourage street tree diversity. Some towns and cities will suffer more from EAB because ash makes up a high percentage of their street trees.

5.) Encourage research on resistant varieties. Oregon is a leader in nursery production and nursery-related research. We have a progressive nursery industry that taxes itself to support research.

6.) Explore biological control. There may be parasitoids of EAB in its native range that could be introduced to reduce EAB populations. Biocontrol is never a sure thing and it takes many years of research to do it safely.

What do you think? How should Oregon prepare for EAB? We could use some fresh ideas.

Daniel J. Hilburn
Administrator, Plant Division
Oregon Department of Agriculture

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Long-Time Problem: An Easy Solution

Dealing with invasive species is rarely a one-shot expenditure of effort unless the species has been detected early and individuals mount a fairly quick response to the introduction. That's why we constantly harp on the importance of early detection and rapid response.

When we don't detect and respond quickly, the species often spreads rapidly, escalating costs for control and monitoring. One other unfortunate outcome of not dealing with invasive species quickly is that the public can become more than accepting of the invaders' presence over time, welcoming the beauty of yellow Scotch broom along Oregon's highways, or delighting in the taste of Himalayan blackberry.

Such is the case with the "prison geese" in Salem, Oregon and many other cities and towns throughout the United States.

The majority of people in society like to do good things. They believe that feeding animals is humane and helpful. Over 10 years ago, people began dropping domestic birds off at the parking area on State Street in Salem, Oregon, adjacent to the prison and across the street from several state agency buildings.

It seemed innocent enough at first. The first few birds that appeared were fed by the public - how harmful can that be? Then people began bringing more birds. And wild geese and ducks joined the domestic invasive geese, and as time went on, we have created one heck of a mess.

The birds are frequently fed bread by the public - not exactly a healthy diet for a winged creature. The birds stop traffic several times a day as they waddle (they cannot fly) to and fro from the parking area where they are fed to the state agency lawns where they graze and feed. Several times a month, people hit the birds with their vehicles, and the carcasses remain on the roadway for days at a time. The birds leave piles of droppings everywhere. And worst of all, the public has become very defensive of its "bird feeding park."

What is it going to take to end this situation? First, outreach to the public, so they understand how harmful it is to feed these birds - harmful to the domestic invasive geese and the wild birds that have taken up shop with them. Second, changes in City of Salem regulations that make it illegal to abandon domestic birds and feed wildlife. Third, an acceptable method to remove the invasive geese from the area. And finally, but certainly not last, the willingness on the part of everyone - the City of Salem, prison officials, state agency staffs, and the public to have the conversation about how this got started, why it's wrong, what we should do, and how we can prevent it in the future.

It's time to do the right thing instead of turn the other cheek - for the benefit of the birds and the quality of life we seek in all of our communities.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Will it Be a Weed?

Jane Paterson has a plant named after her. Unfortunately it’s a noxious weed; the plant is called Paterson’s Curse. Ms. Paterson was an early settler in Australia. She brought seeds from Europe to beautify her garden. This plant was well adapted to Australia and has become one of that country’s worst weeds. Paterson’s curse has shown up twice in Oregon: in a pasture in Douglas County and in a field border planted to wildflowers in Linn County. It was thriving at both sites before the Oregon Department of Agriculture stepped in to eradicate it.

Not all our noxious weeds have escaped from gardens, but the list of Oregon weeds that were introduced on purpose is long and growing: English ivy, Scotch broom, Japanese knotweed, Portuguese broom, Jubata grass, yellow flag iris, Giant hogweed, orange hawkweed, kudzu, Spanish heath, yellow floating heart, Himalayan blackberry, seeded butterfly bush, gorse, spurge laurel, old man’s beard. . .

So you’d like to try a new plant, but you don’t want to make the same mistake as Ms. Paterson. How do you know if a plant will become a weed?

Researching a few simple questions when choosing plants can minimize the risk.
1.) Is it a weed anywhere else?
If it is, beware. The characteristics that make it weedy in one place will likely cause it to be weedy in any place with favorable conditions. Next, find out:
2.) How does it spread?
3.) Where does it thrive?
4.) Would it be difficult to control?
5.) Is there any possible negative outcome from planting it?

Plants likely to become invasive generally produce lots of seeds that spread by wind or birds. They often thrive in a variety of habitats with or without competition from other plants. Usually they are difficult to control and have a down side, like thorns, poisonous sap, or a tendency to contaminate crops. Beware of plants that fit these patterns.

Let’s try these quick & dirty screening questions with a few plants you are familiar with:
1.) Daffodil – Not considered a weed anywhere; produces very few seeds; naturalizes but doesn’t out-compete other plants; control isn’t an issue; no drawbacks, plus they are beautiful. =Good plant.
2.) Himalayan Blackberry – Weedy in many places in the world; produces lots of seeds which are spread by birds and other wildlife; lives just about anywhere and out-competes native vegetation; difficult to control and their thorns are nasty. =Noxious weed.
3.) Blue Spruce – Not a weed anywhere; not a lot of seeds; grows where it’s planted, if you take care of it; no control issues and no dark side. =Good plant.
4.) Seeded Butterfly Bush – Zillions of tiny seeds, competes with native plants; weedy in New Zealand and Europe. =Noxious weed. (Note that the new seedless varieties coming on the market now should eliminate the invasiveness of this plant. Yeah!)
5.) Tree of Heaven – prolific seeder; grows just about anywhere; considered a weed in many places (though not yet an official State noxious weed in Oregon); difficult to control. Warning! Warning! Warning! =Not a good choice.

A little research and careful choices will keep you from having a weed named after you. Your descendants will be so glad!

Daniel J. Hilburn
Administrator, Plant Division
Oregon Department of Agriculture

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

GMO’s and Invasive Species, Is There a Connection?

Are genetically modified organisms likely to become invasive species? It’s a valid question and one that leads to some other interesting points to ponder. Have any genetically modified plants or animals developed so far become invasive? Are traits now being added to likely to make them invasive? Does genetic modification, either through traditional breeding or modern gene transfer techniques, ever increase fitness? Could you make an invasive species if you wanted to? Here are my thoughts on the subject.

First it is worth noting that none of the species on Oregon’s noxious weed list or 100 worst invaders list is a GMO or a species altered by man through traditional breeding. Ditto for the federal noxious weed list. In fact I’m not aware of any GMO crops, or traditionally bred crops for that matter, that have become invasive. If you know of examples, please share them.

The closest example I know of is canola; a crop created by traditional breeding from rapeseed. In recent years, bioengineering has been used to produce varieties resistant to several different herbicides. Volunteer canola is an agricultural and roadside weed in areas where canola is a crop. These volunteers include GMO varieties. A triple-resistant variety was discovered in Alberta a few years back demonstrating that genes in GMO canola can combine in volunteers and persist at least for a while in agricultural systems. This could be a problem in agricultural system reliant on herbicides, but it doesn’t mean that these plants will spread into natural environments and compete with native plants.

Herbicide resistance in volunteer canola plants wouldn’t give them any advantage in the wild. The modified plants will only have an advantage in agricultural systems where herbicides are a selective force, but that’s different. Absent that force, genes that result in production of proteins not useful to the plant would be a liability, wouldn’t they? This is one of the questions USDA regulators are grappling with in the debate over whether to deregulate Roundup Ready bentgrass.

A quick check of the database on GMO crops shows that as of April 7, 2010, 77 GMO varieties have completed safety testing. Crops on the list include: corn, cotton, soybean, rice, beet, rapeseed, tobacco, potato, flax, chicory, tomato, papaya, and squash. That doesn’t read like a list of invasive species to me. Nor do the traits that have been added sound like ones likely to produce invasiveness: glyphosate tolerance, European corn borer resistance, nicotine levels reduced, etc.

So could a mad scientist create an invasive species? I’m not so sure. Genetic engineering and breeding are great for improving crop yields, but that is a far cry from improving on fitness developed through eons of natural selection. What do you think?

Submitted by Dan Hilburn

Monday, April 5, 2010

Invasion and Inferno, the Story of the Bandon Fire

Have you ever looked for an eye-opening example of how an invasive species can have serious negative impacts? One of the best examples here is Oregon is the story of how an invasive weed caused the Bandon fire.

The account below comes from the Oregon History Project website:

Upon his arrival in Oregon in June 1873, Irish immigrant George Bennett (1827-1900) and a handful of other colonists decided to establish a new community at the mouth of the Coquille River. “We thought it was just the very place for a town,” he later recalled, “and that it was only a question of time when there would be a very thriving one there.” Bennett named the future community after his home town Bandon, located in County Cork, Ireland.

Bennett brought with him an ornamental shrub (Ulex europaeus)—known variously as gorse, Irish furze, and Irish hedge—that soon became a common sight in the new town. Remembering his childhood visits to Bandon in the early 1930s, historian Thomas McClintock wrote that gorse filled the spaces between the town’s scattered buildings. “During one of our vacations in Bandon,” he wrote, “a fire started in the gorse which was rather frightening because of the intense heat and flames which rose a hundred feet into the air. Fortunately, on that occasion the fire was eventually brought under control with no loss of property.”

The residents of Bandon would not be so lucky on September 26, 1936. On that late summer day a forest fire burned several miles east of town, far enough away that the residents of Bandon were not particularly worried. A sudden shift in the wind, however, drove the flames swiftly westward. Ignited by the forest fire, the town’s abundant gorse exploded into an inferno. Bandon resident D.H. Woomer told a Coos Bay Times reporter shortly after the fire: “That Irish hedge was the worst thing—when the fire hit it right across from my house, the flames shot up high into the air. It was just as though there had been gasoline poured on the fire. And water was just no good against it—wouldn’t touch it! The stuff seemed just full of oil.” Ironically, just a week before the fire Frank P. McWhorter, the state plant pathologist, had warned Bandon’s residents of the fire hazards posed by the gorse.

The fire quickly swept through the town, laying waste to the business district along with hundreds of homes. Only a handful of structures were left standing by the time the fire died out. Most of the town’s 1,800 residents managed to reach safety, though ten died in the flames.

Gorse was considered a desirable ornamental plant when Mr. Bennett brought to Oregon. I’m sure he had no idea it would become a noxious weed and, because of it’s high oil content, a fire hazard. It wasn’t until 19__ that gorse was listed as a noxious weed in Oregon and it was still legal to import, propagate, and sell gorse in this State until 1999!

Today Gorse is officially a B-rated weed, meaning that it is too common to eradicate completely from the State, but it is still desirable to keep it from spreading to new areas. ODA has drawn a “line in the dunes” at Florence. Infestations north of that line and inland from the crest of the coastal mountains are suppressed. South of the line, gorse management is up to landowners.

A few years back ODA released a biological control agent in the generally infested area that briefly seemed to have promise. It was a spider mite that fed only on gorse. At first populations built up and spider mite webbing was all over the gorse at the release sites. We were concerned that residents might find the webbing unsightly. From a distance it looked like plastic bags had be draped over the branch tips! No one ever complained though because the gorse spider mite populations soon crashed after a non-native, but commercially sold, predator mite moved in and wiped them out.

Interestingly, gorse in it’s native habitat doesn’t look as good or grow as robustly as it does in southwestern Oregon. I’ve seen it in northern France; you wouldn’t recognize gorse there as the same plant. Natural enemies must be keeping it from growing into huge thickets like it does here. Hopefully, someday scientists will find gorse-specific biological control agents that we can safely introduce. In the meantime, we all need to be careful bringing in favorite plants from far away places. There is no doubt in my mind there are bad actor plants for sale today in Oregon that will haunt our grandchildren. Scientists are just beginning to develop tools to predict invasiveness and nurseries and plant quarantine officials have yet to begin using them.

Let’s hope we don’t have another incident like the Bandon fire to remind us how serious invasive species can be. Of course, there is cheatgrass, another fire-adapted species that is spreading like wildfire and stoking wildfires all over the West, but that is a story for another blog.

Dan Hilburn
April 5, 2010

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Buy Local, Burn Local

Oregon is launching a public outreach campaign with Washington and Idaho in 2010 to inform the public about making responsible choices relative to firewood. Firewood has been found to be a significant vector of wood-borne invasive species, such as Emerald Ash borer, Asian long-horned beetle, and Sudden Oak Death. People that buy and burn local firewood lessen the threat of introducing and spreading these and other pests and diseases throughout the United States. This is one issue where everyone can make a difference!

But our success will depend on changing public behavior as well as creating an affordable market for firewood. Oregonians take pride in cutting their own wood and taking it to campsites - we want to encourage cutting the wood or buying the wood locally. Firewood suppliers need to find economical ways to sell bundles of wood for far less than the $4 to $6 for several sticks of wood. With an emphasis on cutting and buying local, the potential for success is great.

What's at stake? This incredibly special place we call Oregon.