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Caterpillars bite into syrup production

October 17, 2017
By JUSTIN A. LEVINE - Outdoors Writer ( , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - A native caterpillar is wreaking havoc on sugar maple trees across northern New York, and one local expert said it could have a big impact on maple syrup production next year.

The forest tent caterpillar is a native species that normally spends its days quietly munching leaves, with its favorite food being sugar maple trees. According to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, there are two types of tent caterpillars native to the state: forest and Eastern.

The Eastern tent caterpillars are far more likely to go after fruit and ornamental trees, and more often cause problems in urban areas.

Article Photos

A forest tent caterpillar (Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons)

However, the forest tent caterpillar typically lives in forested lands. Most of the time - in fact, the majority of the time - the forest caterpillars don't do any noticeable damage. The insects eat leaves but rarely cause any harm to the trees they feed on.

This year, however, the forest tent caterpillars took off in some parts of northern New York and have devastated an astounding number of sugar maple trees. According to a press release from the Northeastern NYS Maple Producers Association, an estimated 200,000 acres of sugar maples have been hit.

Joe Orefice, a former Paul Smith's College professor and current director of Cornell University's Uihlein research forest in Lake Placid, said an explosion of the caterpillars takes place sporadically.

"Every few decades, their populations build and build and build," Orefice said. "They have outbreak conditions where they cause defoliation on many trees, sugar maples being their favorite. They don't attack red maples; it's just not palatable for them."

Orefice said the Uihlein Forest in Lake Placid, which also produces maple products, hasn't been hit, but plenty of other maple sugaring operations have been.

When the numbers of caterpillars get this high, trees can lose their entire canopy. But the DEC says that after feeding is done in early summer, many trees will grow another set of leaves.

"A weak tree will die from it. Most sugar maples will refoliate the next year," Orefice said. "The problem is that an outbreak lasts for about two to three years until the natural predators build up enough of their population to keep up.

"There are parasitic flies and other insects that will slow the population, as well as some fungi" that hamper the caterpillars' growth.

In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that it had been the biggest year in decades for maple syrup production, with commercial operations in the state producing about 601,000 gallons of syrup. New York is second in the U.S. only to Vermont in terms of maple production.

But Orefice cautions that the widespread infestation could hamper upstate maple producers this year.

"The risk to sugar makers is, with two or three years of defoliation, that means two or three years where the trees don't have any leaves," he said. "They'll see heavier mortality in that case.

"If you take sugar from a weak tree, you're stressing it out. Yeah, if it's one year of defoliation they can probably tap (the trees for maple sap). But they're probably going to see their production of syrup cut in half because they're going to get less sugar (in the sap)."

Orefice said there is an organic pesticide that can be used, but cautioned that while effective, it was also quite expensive. He also said homeowners should really not stress about the maples in their yards.

"Usually where these outbreaks occur, it's in the forest where there's lots of trees," he said. "Big yard trees can usually handle defoliation. This is more a forest problem than a yard-tree problem."

Despite the severity of this year's outbreak, Orefice said most maple producers will only see a forest tent caterpillar infestation like this once or twice in their lives.

"It could be decades. It might have an outbreak in New York State every 20 years, but at a specific site it might not have an outbreak again for 100 years," he said. "It's random, all just within that natural variability."

To go along with that thought, Orefice said it's not clear what conditions contributed to the outbreak, whether its weather, other tree stressors or a lack of predators, but said that once the population starts to boom it can grow exponentially.

He added that the public can help by supporting their local sugar makers to help offset the probable loss of product.

"Many of these folks are living off that income and it's a serious concern," he said, noting that there is no real insurance that maple producers can get that would equal the type of crop or livestock insurance more traditional farmers can get.

"I think the public should be aware of it, maybe give the sugar makers a little extra support this year," he said. "When you can, buy local because they're going to need it.

"For the sugar makers, keep an eye on it. Once you notice defoliation happening, it's really too late."



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