Courtesy of Mark Whitmore / Cornell University

The pest is most easily recognized by the white “woolly” masses of wax, about half the size of a cotton swab, produced by females in late winter.

November 20, 2017

Cornell Plans to Fight Hemlock-Killing Bug With $1.2 Million Biocontrol Lab

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Though the hemlock woolly adelgid may stretch less than a millimeter in size, its destructive effects widely surpass its size and a recently-announced $1.2 million lab will soon be working to exterminate it entirely.

Cornell and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced the establishment of a laboratory dedicated to the eradication of this insect species, detrimental to New York State’s hemlock populations.

The $1.2 million lab will be led by CALS Extension Associate Mark Whitmore and receive a $500,000 grant from the DEC, according to the department’s press release. This contribution follows the DEC’s grant of $68,000 to the Cornell Botanic Gardens for similar research, as The Sun previously reported.

As a keystone species of the forest ecosystems of upstate New York, hemlock populations are responsible for maintaining ecological stability. The destruction of hemlock populations would cause substantial changes in the forest biome, such as decreased biodiversity, increased water temperatures and earlier snowmelt, Whitmore said.

The hemlock pest feeds on young hemlock twigs, which causes “[hemlock] buds to die and needles to dry out and drop prematurely,” according to the DEC.

The mass effects of these insects can be observed within a relatively short time frame: the DEC says that hemlock decline and death can happen within four to 10 years of an HWA infestation, and that HWA has already been responsible for “considerable ecological damage, as well as economic and aesthetic losses” in the Appalachian and Catskill Mountain regions.

Research at the lab will focus on biocontrol — the use of natural predators to eliminate a target species — as a primary strategy for combating the HWA. CALS Dean Kathryn Boor, said that this is a field that the college has investigated intensively.

“Cornell CALS is a leader in the discovery of new and improved bio-controls, such as parasites, predators and weed eaters, that naturally minimize pest damage to fruits, vegetables, and our natural resources such as hemlocks and cattails,” she said in the release.

The DEC reported that invasive species such as HWA cost the U.S. government upwards of $120 billion a year in damages.

Additionally, in the 2017-18 state budget, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo allocated $13 million toward state efforts to protect the environment against such species.