The third annual Hemlockfest, which runs Friday through Sunday just outside Dahlonega, offers music, food, crafts and other fun stuff. But the event is really all about bugs.
An invasive Asian insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid, has devastated hemlock trees throughout the Eastern United States and is rapidly spreading across Georgia’s mountain forests.
Scientists believe the best way to stop this bug is by countering with another bug, a type of Japanese beetle that feeds on the adelgid.
The beetles are raised in laboratories and then released into the wild, beginning in late winter or early spring.
In Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest, 144 stands of hemlocks have been identified for possible treatment, but meeting that demand will require many thousands of beetles.
When the first Hemlockfest took place in 2005, the state’s first beetle-raising lab was just getting started at Young Harris College. By the time the 2006 event rolled around, a second lab was being built at the University of Georgia.
UGA’s lab was completed in March. And now, a third lab is about to open, this time at North Georgia College & State University.
"We expect to be raising beetles in about two weeks," said Robert Fuller, an NGCSU geoscience professor who is spearheading the project.
The college spent about $23,000 renovating a small building on campus that had previously been used for faculty housing.
"Then a miracle happened," Fuller said. "(State Rep.) Amos Amerson (R-Dahlonega) went to the Board of Regents and got us a renewable line item (for funding) a full-time lab coordinator plus an annual $30,000 in operating expenses."
Someone also donated a used refrigerator, which is essential to the lab’s success.
"We have a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to collect infested branches (containing adelgids)," said Fuller. "We put them in a bucket of water and put them in a refrigerator, which keeps the adelgids alive for a long time."
That ensures a steady food supply for the beetles, he said.
"Just about all they’ll eat is the adelgid."
The beetles’ finicky appetite is what makes them so valuable, Fuller said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has screened the beetle species to make sure they won’t prey on any of Georgia’s native insects and further upset the ecosystem.
"That’s a wonderful thing, because how many exotic species have been brought in with the best of intentions, only to have them get out of control," Fuller said. "But that won’t happen with these beetles. They can’t survive without the adelgids."
Both NGCSU and Young Harris are currently breeding just one beetle species, Sasajiscymnus tsugae, though they may eventually add others. UGA’s lab is already experimenting with several beetle species, trying to determine which works best.
Forest Hilyer, chairman of the Lumpkin Coalition and one of the organizers of Hemlockfest, said last year’s event contributed $10,000 to a $75,000 matching grant that UGA received from the Turner Foundation.
"This year’s proceeds will go partially to Young Harris and NGCSU," he said. "We helped get UGA going, but now we’d like to help these smaller labs."
Hilyer said there’s no such thing as too many labs, given the urgency of the problem.
"The more the better, and these small labs are closer to the infested source," he said.
As they reach maturity, the beetles are turned over to the U.S. Forest Service for use in the Chattahoochee, and to the Georgia Forestry Commission, which is releasing some bugs on nonfederal lands such as state parks.
Paul Arnold, a biology professor at Young Harris, is also experimenting with releasing eggs instead of adult beetles, which gets them out into the trees quicker.
"In the past two years, we have raised 130,000 adults and eggs," he said.
The Young Harris lab is a shoestring operation, staffed by students and by Arnold, who puts in about 30 hours a week in addition to his regular job.
But even the lab that Arnold calls "small potatoes" is growing. Last year, a $25,000 foundation grant allowed the project to renovate an old house on campus. The lab was moved there about two weeks ago.
"Previously, we were basically operating out of a storage closet here in our science building," Arnold said.
So he’s grateful for events like Hemlockfest, which help raise both money and awareness about the adelgid problem.
"I think it’s fantastic," he said.
Arnold and several other scientists from Georgia’s beetle labs will be at Hemlockfest to answer people’s questions about the plight of the hemlocks and what’s being done to save them.
Fuller said it’s too soon to tell whether the released beetles are making a difference in Georgia’s forests. But in studies done elsewhere, he said, "beetles have been found to significantly reduce adelgid populations on infested trees. There is real hope."
But time is of the essence.
"The adelgid has only been in Georgia four years and we’ve already seen some trees die," Fuller said. "That’s much faster than they’re dying up north. I think that’s due to trees in Georgia already being stressed (by other factors such as drought). This is such an urgent situation that we need to act now."