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Music festival funds research to keep pest from destroying hemlock trees
Goal is to achieve a natural equilibrium
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A Georgia State Parks volunteer holds a screech owl Saturday while wondering through the grounds at HemlockFest in Dahlonega. The volunteers were at the festival with several birds showing them to visitors and talking about their habitat. The festival concludes today from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

HemlockFest

When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. today
Where: 396 Starbridge Road
Tickets: $10 today
More info: Online

There's a tiny killing spree ravaging the Hemlock trees in the South.

Originally from Asia, the hemlock woolly adelgid, a sap-sucking, aphid-like insect measuring a mere 1/16 of an inch, was introduced to the east cost in the 1950s.

Starting in Virginia, the pest has carved a path of destruction through the north and south, hitting Rabun County in 2002.

Luckily for the hemlocks, North Georgia College & State University, the University of Georgia and Young Harris College are raising predator beetles to combat the adelgid and give hemlock trees a new lease on life.

Saturday's HemlockFest in Dahlonega was part of that effort. The annual music festival raises money to aid efforts for the hemlock.

The festival concludes today from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a full lineup of performers. Tickets are $10.

Cera Jones of the NGCSU Predator Beetle Lab is raising three types of beetle to eradicate the adelgid in the future.

"The main focus when we first started was to get as many beetles out as possible, trying to reach a balance," Jones said. Her main objective is collecting data on the growth and continued success of the beetles after release.

The beetles, one native to the western U.S. and two from Asia, feed on the adelgid in all stages of life. Active during different seasons, the three beetles help provide a year-round attack.

"I have had a lot of success," said Jones.

Though there are several environmental factors to consider, including the recent drought, it appears the beetle trial is working. Jim Wentworth, with U.S. Forest Service at Chattahoochee National Forest, has seen improvements in several of the conservations despite the adelgid's rapid reproduction and spreading.

"Unfortunately, the climate is ideal for adelgid. The winter doesn't get cold enough; summers are hot, but not hot enough to cause mortality," Wentworth said.

The ultimate goal is to achieve a natural equilibrium between the predator beetles and adelgid, which could take a decade the Hemlock may not have.

"We're up against a time clock trying to get these predator beetles out, and a lot of times it takes 10 or more years for predator beetles to get to the point where they're providing long-term control," Wentworth said.

"The adelgid is killing trees in a matter of two to three years of infestation."

In addition to the beetles, the National Forest is also employing a chemical agent designed to target the adelgid. Because it's targeted specifically to kill insects, the chemical treatments and predator beetles are not applied consecutively. Like the beetles, the chemical is also proving successful.

Unfortunately, given the youth of the beetle and chemical research, there isn't a lot of data to show. Paul Arnold, Dean of Mathematics and Science at Young Harris, can only speculate on the future success or failure of the project.

"A single female can lay up to 300 eggs. It's all asexual. Adelgids are all females, and when the female lays its 300 eggs, all those 300 eggs can become females that can then lay 300 eggs a piece," Arnold said. "That gives you the scope of the problem. As good as our beetles reproduce, those guys can't reproduce that fast."

Despite harrowing odds, Arnold remains hopeful. The adelgid, sensing the depletion of its food source, moves on and does not drain the hemlock completely. Most hemlock trees experience a second recovery once the infestation departs, regaining its strength for one to two years; the hemlock typically dies after a second infestation.

However, demonstrating this unique ability may allow chemical and beetle treatments to fend off future infestations.

"We're planning on releasing beetles on some of these second recovery areas to see if it might help," Arnold explained. "We've seen a tree with 90 percent needle loss completely turn around."

 

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