Nature Notes: That Dastardly Beetle

Yes, pine bark beetles, or pine borers as we know them, that are now destroying acre after acre of pitch pines on Long Island are doing the same thing to the ponderosa pines and other native and cultivated pines in Nevada City

I’m looking out my window at pines that are more brown than green. “Oh, darn, the dreaded pine beetle,” I say to myself. Driving around the roads today I saw lots of pines already gone and lots of others on the way out. 

I pick up the local paper and the editor has written 500 words on the dreaded pine beetle problem. Those of you who read this column might say to yourselves, “I don’t remember an editorial about the pine beetle in The Star.” And you would be right. It wasn’t The Star that ran the article, it was The Union, the official newspaper of Nevada County, California, which has been published every day but Sunday since it was established “to preserve the union” prior to the Gold Rush days in 1864.

Yes, pine bark beetles, or pine borers as we know them, that are now destroying acre after acre of pitch pines on Long Island are doing the same thing to the ponderosa pines and other native and cultivated pines in Nevada City, which has always been a very piney place.

The three-year-long drought did not help much either. Not only was it the cause of many, many western wildfires over the past two years and this one, it also set up a good number of the remaining trees to be ravaged by the beetle. The fires kill both beetles and trees at the same time. We are fortunate on Long Island because our “ill-thriven” pines, in the words of George Washington, are fire-dependent.

Mature pitch pine forests barely reach 100 years of age before a fire knocks them down again. But they are ready to spring up once burned over because their pine nuts are coated with a resin that seals them behind the pinecone scales until the cones reach very high temperatures that melt the seals. That is why those who start pine from seed first put the cones in an oven to pop open the scales. Our pitch pines are thus fire dependent.

While pitch pines rarely reach more than 75 feet high, the ponderosas are majestic, reaching well over 125 feet at the peak of maturity and an age of 200 to 300 years or more like the native white pine for which New England forests are famous. Moreover, hot flashes are not required to spring open the cylindrical cones of the white pine; they readily drop their seeds when ripe. That is why the white pines of Northwest Woods in East Hampton are spreading far and wide, while pitch pines such as those in Wainscott’s eastern wing of the Long Island Pine Barrens are not giving birth to many new ones. Take a ride along Bull Path from Swamp Road to Stephen Hand’s Path; you will see very few pitch pine saplings and many, many white pine saplings.

Some of our white pines have already reached 100 feet or more in height. A few are on the verge of becoming three feet thick. The white pines of Northwest Woods are the only native stand of white pines on Long Island, save for the few that are on Shelter Island and a few limited UpIsland stands. White pines can’t take a lot of hot weather, but one thing about Northwest Woods keeps them from getting too hot so they can thrive: The water table is very close to the surface of the land. 

Motor along Northwest Road after a larger than average rainfall and you will see what I mean. The water table reaches the surface, creating ideal shallow-pond breeding areas for spadefoot toads, which emerge from the ground before the rains fall and start calling and breeding. The groundwater that pushes up is a coolant, averaging about 55 degrees throughout the year. The cooling action of the groundwater bathing the rather shallow root ball of the white pines keeps them from getting too hot as they move that water up their trunks and out onto their branches during transpiration, the action that allows for photosynthesis to take place as water and carbon dioxide are turned into sugars and starches. Cooled by groundwater in summer, warmed by it in winter, white pines, unlike pitch pines, can remain active through much of the winter.

Global warming presents a much more pressing problem than fires or pine beetles. The southern pine beetle, which is presently devastating parts of the Long Island Pine Barrens, is a case in point. Originating in the more southern pine belt regions, it has been slowly extending its range. 

While it has been attacking the extensive pitch pine forests of New Jersey for several years running, it is also starting on our pitch pines. Pine beetles are not great flyers, but they can easily fly far enough to attack a new plot of pines down the road upon becoming adults.

California pines of several species are drought-resistant to a point. But the drought in progress is too much for many of them. That is why the people of the neighborhood I am visiting and those to the north were indeed happy to have four straight days of rain. Fire-risk danger has fallen almost to zero and new pine trees will shortly emerge to replace those that are dead and dying.