When Richard McDonald exits his Seattle hotel, he carries a large, black-and-yellow umbrella, even when the forecast calls for sunny skies. Though he may be fresh off a flight from Western North Carolina, the entomologist will quickly shake off any jet lag in the misty morning air. After 61 trips to Washington in the last nine years, he has this down to a routine.
When the dew lifts, McDonald will tread through mossy underbrush in and around the city, knocking on branches with a bamboo stick and collecting an ensuing shower of beetles into his upside-down umbrella. Carefully, he’ll twirl it from black panel to yellow and back to black again — searching for small black beetles, Laricobius nigrinus — Lari, for short, and their white larvae. Sucking the beetles into an aspirator, he’ll steadily click-click-click his thumb against a tally counter, counting each bug as it passes into the chamber.
“In my life, I never thought I would do anything that’s important like this,” McDonald says. “It’s a story of hope. Actually, it’s even beyond hope. We’re resurrecting the hemlock ecosystem. We’ve turned the tides.”
Often referred to as Dr. McBug, the Watauga County resident has dedicated more than 15 years to saving the Carolina and Eastern hemlocks from extinction. The key to their survival, he says, lies in the Pacific Northwest.
“We needed this initiative 10 years ago,” McDonald says. “But the battle’s almost over. It’s like we’ve got Gandalf back on our side, and now we’re going to go kick ass.”
In the early 1950s, an invasive, sap-sucking insect, the hemlock woolly adelgid, was unintentionally introduced to the East Coast, suspected to have arrived on horticultural imports from Asia. In their native environment, McDonald notes, adelgid populations are controlled by natural predators and can stimulate the tree, prune its needles and “make it a little tougher.” But this wasn’t the case for the Southern Appalachians.
Once the aphidlike insect made its way South, where milder winters and a lack of natural predators allow a yearlong population, the path of destruction “spread much faster than anyone thought it would,” says Sarah Sheeran, stewardship associate at Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy.
Hemlocks are unique in that they don’t compete for energy, McDonald explains. They’re “like a rechargeable battery. They get all their energy from the winter sun, store it up and use it during [spring and summer] when they’re in the shade of bursting greens.”
But with thriving winter woolly adelgid populations, the hemlocks don’t store enough energy to survive. “It’s this big, giant, winter generation of adelgid that kills the tree,” he says.
The adelgid systematically eradicated millions of hemlocks in the region, turning once-thriving trees into bare, skeletonlike silhouettes. The National Park Service estimates that in some areas, including the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park, around 80 percent of the hemlocks died due to infestation. Not only was the hemlocks’ disappearance devastating from a visual standpoint, it also meant the threat of ecological imbalance.
The hemlocks “grow on stream corridors, providing very dense shade, which is important for water quality,” Sheeran explains. “[They] keep the water temperatures cool, which favors species like the brook trout, our only native trout species. If the hemlock goes, there’s really nothing else like it that fills that ecological niche.”
Those studying the hemlocks, including himself, McDonald explains, “were operating under three misconceptions: The hemlock woolly adelgid was native [only] to Asia, there were no effective predators in the U.S. and that the hemlocks were doomed.”
Initial (and some ongoing) efforts in the ’80s and ’90s looked to Asia for a solution, seeking something in nature that would serve as a proper adversary to the ever-advancing pest. But around 1997, McDonald says entomologists realized the hemlock woolly adelgid is also native to the Pacific Northwest, where it has its own set of effective predators — including Laricobius nigrinus.
McDonald quickly realized that he and his colleagues could go out West to collect beetles more efficiently than through an expensive trip to Asia or via reproduction in a lab. With that revelation, the race was on. “We were discovering this while the house was on fire,” McDonald says. “It was a mad scramble; nobody was going to save our trees except us.”
In 2006, McDonald flew out to Seattle, collecting 3,586 beetles in a single sweep. “A lab would produce that many beetles in a year,” he explains. “But we’re trying to solve problems in real time, trying to save as many trees as quickly as possible.”
McDonald’s persistence to collect beetles not only benefits the region, but it also often generates some entertaining stories — like the time he bribed army servicemen with cigarettes to collect beetles from an on-base tree.
“If I had to dress in a ninja suit to go in there and get those beetles, that’s what I would’ve done,” he says. “I chained myself to the hemlocks, man. But in a different way — in a scientific way.”
A few years later, McDonald determined that the adelgid had another West Coast predator, a sesame seed-sized beetle called Scymnus coniferarum. While Laricobius takes care of the adelgid in winter, this second predator picks up the slack in summer.
In the last decade, McDonald estimates he’s collected 80,000 beetles from the Pacific Northwest. Meanwhile, the beetles he’s brought back to WNC continue to reproduce. “By 2009, our trees [on Grandfather Mountain] quit dying,” he says. “That was six years ago. When you look at our trees, people are stunned.”
More than 14,000 beetles have been released at that site, McDonald notes, and the observant eye can spot them easily enough. “That’s a 6,000-foot tall mountain, and when the winds get high, those beetles blow all over the place,” he says. “It’s like a beetle volcano.”
So far, it seems this strategy is working. In fact, the evidence in support of predatory beetles “is pretty compelling,” says Sheeran.
“The foliage is rebounding, and the trees are responding positively with new growth,” she notes. “Biological control can make some people nervous. And while there are some instances of biological control gone bad, this one feeds exclusively on the woolly adelgid.”
Currently, McDonald supplies beetles to government agencies, community groups and even individuals for $5 per beetle, a rate that covers travel to and from Seattle for McDonald and his team. Everybody on the East Coast wants beetles, McDonald says — including Buncombe County.
At a May 19 meeting, Buncombe County agreed to purchase 5,000 Lari beetles in the county’s next fiscal year, starting July 1. The nonprofits WNC Communities and MountainTrue will administer the release and monitoring of the beetles, reporting back to the county on their progress.
At the meeting, MountainTrue biologist Josh Kelly said the only way to guarantee an individual tree’s survival is with chemical treatment. But when talking about an entire forest, “this predator-prey relationship, this ecological balance — that’s the bridge to the future.”
From McDonald’s perspective, the region is already seeing some beautiful progress. “This beetle spans, [in patches], from the border of Virginia all the way to Mars Hill,” he says.
If you want to see the difference these little insects are making, he adds, just look to the trees. “If I’m a little bummed out, all I have to do is go for a drive, see hemlocks, and I’m just like, ‘Woo-hoo! We did it!’”