Saving hemlocks

Kent Priestley’s moving story [“Twilight of the Giants,” Jan. 9] about the fate of our Eastern hemlocks conflates two very different issues. While focusing on the admirable work of locating and documenting “specimen” hemlocks in the Southern Appalachians, the article also seems to endorse the position of large-scale use of chemical insecticides as a viable tool for saving woodland hemlocks from the scourge of the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA).

Synthetic insecticides being utilized by chemical arborists are tree-specific, expensive and their effectiveness is of limited duration (two to three years). It would be both physically and fiscally impossible to utilize such chemical treatments to provide long-term protection to any significant portion of our Southern Appalachian hemlocks—never mind the (unknown) long-term ecological consequences [for] riparian forest soils. [Perhaps] the only the long-term benefit of the chemical strategy would be to those who are paid to apply or manufacture the chemicals.

Fortunately, there [appears to be] a long-term biological strategy for saving our hemlocks that [could] be cost-effective and ecologically viable: controlling adelgid numbers with HWA-predator beetles, such as Sasajiscymnus tsugae, aka Sassie, a tiny beetle from Japan that is the native predator of the HWA (that was accidentally imported from Japan). Sassie has been approved for release in the eastern United States after extensive USDA testing and quarantine in Connecticut … and is currently available for purchase by private citizens.

Sassie can [potentially] be effective in controlling HWA in wild areas as well as neighborhoods. A release of 50 to 100 beetles on a large hemlock would have about the same cost (and the same short-term refoliation effects on the target tree) as a systemic chemical-insecticide application. However, the beetles would begin reducing adelgid densities on other hemlocks within a one- to three-acre area during the first season [and] … would spread to adjacent hemlock areas.

This is based on careful observations of both private and public beetle releases in the Brevard/Cashiers area, where it is possible to walk through large areas of forest in the vicinity of USDA beetle releases (dating back to 2003) and see thousands of previously HWA-defoliated hemlocks across hundreds of acres that are returning to health with vigorous new growth and dramatic reductions in HWA densities. And in Brevard, a grass-roots effort involving private individuals, groups and city and county officials is seeing successes in its efforts to extend biological control of HWA throughout the city and surrounding areas.

The loss of large, specimen trees is a tragedy. The loss of all our native hemlocks would be an ecological disaster. This doesn’t have to happen! We should redirect both federal and private expenditures from short-term chemical applications to the production and release of HWA predator beetles for long-term protection of all our hemlocks.

How can you help? Start a grass-roots effort to release beetles in your community or adopt a wild area that needs help. You may contact me by e-mail ( for information on beetle sources and release strategies. Talk to politicians at all levels about directing more resources to public beetle-production labs, or donate to one yourself. Spread the word to friends, neighbors and arborists that there is a natural alternative to short-term chemical treatments for HWA. Time is of the essence.

— Patrick Horan


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17 thoughts on “Saving hemlocks

  1. terrell

    A great response to one of the most important environmental challenges facing North Carolina. The USFS has already put out over 3-4 million predator beetles, from the North Ga.& SC mountains to Pisgah Forest. We are seeing positive results in many, many places with this beneficial predator beetle (Sassie) and we must continue to get the word out. Chemicals are a short term, stop-gap solution which must give way to the long term biological controls of Sasajiscymnus tsugae!

  2. Andrew Joslin

    I don’t believe “chemical arborists” are advocating localized and systemic imidacloprid treatment as a widespread solution for saving hemlock forests. Clearly that’s not a solution. There’s no reason why saving specimen trees from immediate death with imidacloprid is incompatible with ongoing efforts to use biologic controls. Polarizing the effort to save the hemlocks into two camps really doesn’t help hemlocks or make sense.
    -Andrew Joslin

  3. James Parton

    If the beetles are working then why are the hemlocks still dying in places like Joyce Kilmer and Cataloochee? There have been beetle releases there among many other places but few are showing results. Some cite Douglas Falls as a victory but that has yet to be proven. I am not against using the beetles. I hope they in time work but until then imidacloprid is a viable solution.

    James Parton

    Eastern Native Tree Society.

  4. Will Blozan

    Mr. Horan,

    As you know, any article doesn’t show the whole story and Kent Preistly’s article about my work likewise did not state or focus on my position concerning biologocal control of HWA. I am not a “chemical arborist” and truly don’t want our hemlocks to be on chemical life support. However, HWA is far too deadly to wait for the beetles to establish. This fact is all to evident across our mountains.

    I have personally released tens of thousands of “Sassie” beetles on USFS lands. A return to theses lands shows absolutley no encouraging results. In fact, there is likely no one else on earth who has personally witnessed the death of the hemlocks from the canopy. In the Tsuga Search Project I climbed hemlocks in forests that had been “treated” with Sassie beetles. If you go to my website you will see that these forests are now dead. I have photos of the trees I released beetles in (in the canopy) and they too, are dead. In the smokies the release trees were marked with metal tags. These tags are now simply hanging ornaments of failure on the dead trunks.

    How can the forests around your house be any different than those elsewhere in the region? Can you and the commentor above (Terrell) provide me with credible, unrefutable and non-premature evidence that backs your claim? As I gaze across miles of dead hemlocks surrounding beetle release sites in Cataloochee, Joyce Kilmer, Montreat, The Asheville watershed, Linville Gorge, Chattooga River, and Highlands- I think not.

    A search for information online for credible results with beetle releases in the southern Appalachians (not amature or ignorant observations) comes up empty. As I have mentioned to you in person I think much so called “success” is premature and non-substantiated observations (as in a control group) of natural hemlock recovery. “Treated” or not, all hemlocks with enough vigor will reflush new twigs. This is normal- not due to beetles (or even imidacloprid).

    I seriously disagree with your statement that only the chemical companies will benefit from the soil treatments of hemlocks. As you will soon find out, these treated trees will be the only ones left that we can visit, study, and admire. Additionally, wildlife and ecosystems associated with hemlock forest can persist until a more reasonable and effective biological control can be found.

    Go to Cataloochee or Joyce Kilmer and have a look. The “Sassie” troops were sent in by the thousands, yet we still lost the battle.

    Will Blozan

  5. Patrick Horan

    I appreciate that Will took the time to respond. The public policy issues involving the fate of our native hemlocks are too important to ignore!

    I hope that my observations do not qualify as either “amature” – (the correct spelling is amateur) or ignorant. I have spent some 40 years doing empirical research in a University setting and the last decade as a consultant on assessment of behavioral health interventions — which are not too different from the environmental interventions that are at issue here.

    The key to any scientific assessment of an environmental intervention (biological control, or any other) is the presence of systematic observations of relevant outcomes, repeated over time. I will be presenting these kind of results for my beetle release research efforts on my property in 2006, as well as other NC properties 2007, at the USDA HWA Symposium in CT next week.

    So if Will has some data – beyond his well-traveled, but surely heartfelt, stories about the death of large hemlocks – I would encourage him to present his results at this research forum. For those who wish to examine some valid research on the effectiveness of Sassie in biological control of HWA, I suggest a presentation from the 2005 Symposium in Asheville:

    In the interim I have some concerns about treating someone who makes a living providing chemical treatments for HWA, as a “credible” reference for assessing a biological control strategy that would put him out of business! Perhaps I’m being overly suspicious, but I feel that research issues are best addressed in a “professional” context.

    The good news is that our native hemlocks are capable of co-existing with HWA, so long as the HWA’s native predator beetle (Sasajiscymnus tsugae, Sassie) is present. Sorry Will (and Bayer) but that’s an empirical fact.

    Patrick Horan, PhD
    Professor Emeritus, University of Georgia
    Saving Hemlocks

  6. Edward Frank

    Mr. Horan,

    I have read yor post, and perhaps I should not be responding becuase of the great difficulty of keeping my sarcasm under control. Your post is pure;ly pie in the sky wishful thinking. Ideally, a biological control will be the only viable long ter solution for saving the hemlocks. The present package of predatory insects simply are not capable of doing the job. If we continue to push ths obvious failure, then the hemlocks will all die, while we are deluding ourselves that the effort is succeeding. The only thing to do at the moment is to chemically treat the outstanding groves of hemlocks while they are still alive, and continue to play with the predatory insects or fungal controls in less critical settings.

    How do you define success? Here are some real life examples from PA: The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) continued our efforts to establish predatory beetles for biocontrol of HWA in 2007. We released 238,186 Sasajiscymnus tsugae beetles at 59 sites from 1999 to 2005. Although we are not continuing to release this predator, evaluations of previous release sites yielded the recovery of 26 adult Sasajiscymnus tsugae in 2007. A total of 310 adults and 54 larvae have been recovered since releases began. We continued to release the Derodontidae beetle, Laricobius nigrinus, in 2007. A total of 2,821 Laricobius nigrinus have been released at seven sites since 2003. Evaluations of previous release sites yielded the recovery of 11 adult Laricobius nigrinus in 2006 and 34 recovered so far in 2007, for a total of 45 adults recovered since the program began. Additional releases and evaluations are planned for 2008. We also continued releases of a Coccinellidae beetle from China, Scymnus sinuanodulus, in 2007. A total of 2,200 of these beetles were released at two sites in 2007, bringing the total number released to 5,667 at five sites since 2005. No recoveries of this beetle were made in 2007 from the previous year’s release site. No additional releases are planned for Scymnus sinuanodulus in 2008.

    Do you think that releasing 238,000 Sasajiscymnus tsugae beetles and recovering 310 is a success? The beetles can not even maintain their own population, let alone inhibit the parthenogenic reproduction of the HWA.

    Do you think releasing 2100 plus Laricobius nigrinus and recovering 45 is a sucess? I should point out for several years they did not recover any at all.

    Do you think the releasing 5,600 Coccinellidae beetles and not recovering any of them is a success?

    The trees need to be preserved until some long term solution can be found. The only successful option at the present time is to do chemical treatment. The alternative is extinction of the Carolina Hemlock, and effective extinction of the Cnandian Hemlock across almost its entire range while beetle people play with their little bugs.

    Edward Frank

  7. Robert Leverett

    It sounds like the advocates of the beetle in the southern Appalachians have a way to go to prove their case. Beetle releases continue here in Massachusetts with mixed results. A special state-sponsored committee including ENTS is gearing up for a long term battle. However, we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket. Selected spots and trees will receive chemical treatements and beetle research at the University of Massachusetts will continue. We’re hoping there are short and long run solutions. When we started the beetle people wanted all the action, but they haven’t demonstrated enough success at this point are are at least open to a compromise with those favoring chemicals in the short run. Everybody favors biological controls over the long run. However, we are not willing to watch our old growth spots disappear in the interim.

    Bob Leverett

  8. Will Blozan

    Dr. Horan,

    Thanks for pointing out my typo. Dead trees in multiple beetle release sites are likewise “empirical fact”. How can you ignore these dead forests and still state so boldly that “fortunately our native hemlocks are capable of coexisting with HWA, so long as (the beetles) are present”. Your paper citation is from an area of severe winters- an abiotic factor we don’t have the pleasure of counting on. Have you been to see those forests now? How do they look? I have been observing HWA sites in western MA since 2002 that had heavy HWA then massive winter kill. The trees recovered really well but are now heavily infested due to mild winters. It is a whole different ballgame up there. Please send a citation from the southern Appalchians.

    I WANT biologiocal control to work! You have totally misunderstood me. But as I stand witness to the death of individual trees I have known for 15 years I can’t let them go when an option exists to buy them some time.

    As for my business, yes much of my work is saving hemlocks with chemical intervention. My partners and I would like nothing more than to sell and release the beetles like you do (nice placement in your letter of the ad for “your” supplier, BTW). My clients want it as a service. But your unsubtantiated claims and the copius examples of failure even in my hometown have not allowed me to ethically provide the beetles as an option.

    Repeated inquiries to your beetle supplier have been left unanswered. All we want is proof. Correct me if I am wrong, but one site you told me to check out as an example of beetle success was the Chattooga Picnic Area in SC. This site is indeed beautiful, recovering, and full of lush new growth. I has also been chemically treated at least TWICE since I found HWA near there in 2001. The surrounding forest is dead and upstream ~1/4 mile there was a beetle release site. I have been to the release site as well (in 2005) and found the trees to be in serious decline. I can only imagine they are now dead.

    So, tell me, empirically, why did the canopy releases of Sassie I did in 2004 in Joyce Kilmer and the Wright/Kelsey Tract not work? Why havn’t the 340,000+ beetle released by the NPS shown success? Why are the groves above now under last ditch efforts to chemically save them? Why did the beetle release trees die when the beetles were placed in the crown at 130′ up (with the intention of wide distribution from high up)? Why has the State of WV abandonded the beetles and switched over to chemical treatments?

    Send me some data from your control groups. Give me directions to a grove that is healthy and full of beetles. I would also encourage you to see the dead forests of the Smokies so you can get a glimpse of what will come if the beetles don’t do it. But that’s the point, they didn’t.

    As far as me being a credible reference, I can only laugh. My partners and I have put an incredible amount of personal money into documenting the eastern hemlocks before they disappear. We have taken on a labor of love, not sponsered by Bayer or any other chemical company. We will not let the species go down without the reconition and respect it deserves. The Tsuga Search Project was not done out of needing something to do and blow a bunch of money on. It was done out of a desparate need to study the hemlocks before they disappeared. It was done out of a deep and visceral commitment to the tree. You can imagine then, with a little effort, that the last thing I want to see happen is the eradication of hemlocks. I want more than anything to NOT treat hemlocks chemically. You have no idea how crushiing it is to spend 2 years studying the species throughout the east only to find the superlative specimens dead. We are just now getting to know them as the coffin lid shuts. And yes, there were hundreds of thousands of beetles released in most of these groves.

    Mr. Horan, let’s be realistic. The hemlocks are dying faster than the beetles can “save” them. I’m not saying they don’t establish, mate, and grow in population. They just simply can’t do it on a scale that can save an old-growth forest.

    I’m sorry, but this fact has been proven over and over at release sites in the Smokies, USFS, and private lands. I would greatly appreciate your views on why these sites failed- and not the “too many beetles were released” argument. Please send me some info at the email address on the Eastern Native Tree Society homepage

    As for the HWA Symposium, my views on saving the ancient hemlocks forests do not jive with the political agenda of the USFS so they retracted my promised speaking slot. Your story better fits their agenda. The hemlocks will ultimately lose to the perpetuation of misleading, optimistic strategies based solely on one tool. What happens if the beetles get a blight? Native bird or insect predation keeps the beetle populations low? There is no harm in having a backup plan. But it is unhumanly irresponsible NOT to have one. The fate of these forests rest in our hands and is far to precious to risk losing to unknowns.

    Will Blozan
    Eastern Native Tree Society

  9. Robert Leverett


    The frustration you feel, the passion you express, and the clear record of dedication that you’ve compiled toward saving the eastern and Carolia hemlocks is clear to all of us who know you. We feel your pain.
    The points you and Ed Frank make about the failure of the Sasajiscymnus tsugae beetle fits with all the reports I have seen. Hopefully the good Dr. from Georgia has some real data to the contrary.
    On a general theme, I suspect that people pushing the beetle have as much of an economic interest as those using chemicals whether the biological advocates are marshalling research grants or selling the beetles. One fact is certain, the beetles aren’t free. Somebody gains financially by selling them. So, who is kidding who?
    On giving credibility to the Forest Service’s choice of treatment methods, well, the Forest Service has such a mixed record that it is difficult for me to have confidence in the Forest Service, which ever way that agency goes. The environmental community has had to force them to take a higher road in more cases than I can even begin to remember.
    In terms of hemlock preservation, I’ve never been under the impression that the Forest Service gives two hoops and a holler about Tsuga canadensis. The species doesn’t fit into the timber-based perspective that is never more than just sub-surface within the Forest Service’s hierarchy. Yes, there are a few forest ecologists in the Forest Service who value the eastern hemlock as a species for ecological reasons, and maybe a few foresters, but by and large, Tsuga is not a money tree for them. If it were, we’d see them devoting a lot more time and money toward saving the species. Still, I’m appreciative of any efforts they make regardless of their dubious record.
    In terms of this discussion, it would be great to see everybody pulling in the same direction on saving the hemlock. But based on what I’m reading, we need a dose of reality injected into the biological advocates. Each and every one of them need to become thoroughly familiar with the work you have done with the eastern hemlock. When it comes to that species, your field experience is easily equivalent to the highest academic credentials within the overall group, and I don’t mean to demean anybody’s credentials, but you have experience with Tsuga that is likely not matched by any other person on the planet and that is a fact that people who play the credentials on paper game would best understand.
    The disturbing news that the Forest Service dropped you as a primary contributor to the Connecticut affair fuels my mistrust of the Forest Service’s competence and motives.

    Bob Leverett

  10. Edward Frank

    Dr. Horan,

    I found it particularly interesting that you choose to make personal attacks against Will Blozan about this issue, but failed to address the numbers I posted regarding the abject failure of the beetle release program in PA. It shows someone with a particularly petty and tiny mind to start of a polite and civil rebuttal of your ill-informed opinion with a discussion of a typo in the post But I see you managed to live up to the expectations. Have you actually read the paper you cite in your example? Here are actual numbers from the article:

    Connecticut 2004:

    Foliar Transparency
    Release sites = 37.5 +/- 9.3
    HWA and EHS = 47.9 +/- 5.2
    Negligible HWA/EHS infestation = 37.0 +/- 7.1

    HWA on crown
    Release Sites = 1.1 +/- 0.4
    HWA and EHS = 1.0 +/- 0.5
    Negligible HWA/EHS infestation = 0.01 +/- 0.04

    New Growth 1- 4 scale (4 is highest)
    Release Sites = 3.3 +/- 0.6
    HWA and EHS = 3.7 +/- 0.4
    Negligible HWA/EHS infestation 3.8 +/- 0.04

    Release Site Hemlock Mortality = 7.6 +/1 13.1%

    Healthy 2003 new shoot production in release sites (50-75%) was slightly lower as compared to non-release sites (>75%) (Mann Witney U-Test; Z = -2.8992, p = 0.00187), but still reflected recovery.

    So areas with your wonder beetles actually resulted in no difference from that of the non-release sites in foliar transparency, the new growth was actually lower than on untreated sites, and the treated sites had a mortality of 7.6 +/- 13.1%. That is a range of up to 20.7 % mortality on the release site. The article related the decline in HWA infestation to upwards of 87% to the cold weather, not to the beetle release. You said that you were involved in behavioral health interventions. So perhaps, as you are not a real scientist, you did not understand what you were reading. I wonder if you have a financial interest in the beetle propagation business? Clearly nobody who looked at the issue in a realistic and unbiased manor would argue against the use of chemicals to treat heritage groves, unless …

    You ask for evidence rather than observations? Observations are evidence – tens of thousands of dead hemlock trees killed by the adelgid are not some theoretical unknown in a hypothetical formula – they are facts. Look at the slide show on this page: and tell me we need more study to determine if these are really dead trees. After all someone like Mr. Blozan who has climbed dozens of trees and treated thousands could not possibly tell if they are dead or not, while you with your background in behavioral science in your tidy office can psychically tell from your comfy chair that these are the figments of an amateurs imagination. Do you want us to observe them for the next ten years to see if they are still dead? Wake up and get a clue.

  11. Patrick Horan

    I don’t see this as an appropriate or effective forum for discussing research results. But I would encourage anyone who has an interest in the latest scientific research on biological or chemical control of HWA to monitor the materials that will be posted on the Forest Service NA website following the CT conference. Or go to CT yourself – no invitation is required!

    But let’s do talk about “the facts”. In an earlier post, Will advised “Go to Cataloochee or Joyce Kilmer and have a look. The “Sassie” troops were sent in by the thousands, yet we still lost the battle.”

    So today I made a trip over to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. My impression from Will and his minions was that all the large hemlocks there were dead. Did anyone else get that impression? But when I scouted through the lower cove area (below the poplar cove and above the small, chemically-treated trees around the parking area), I saw something very different indeed. My calculations for the large hemlocks that I saw there were as follows:

    20-25% of the hemlocks were dead, some appeared to have been dead for quite awhile.

    20-25% of the hemlocks were “at risk”, with foliage levels that might be too low to allow the tree to recover

    50-60% of the hemlocks were “recovering”, blanketed with the substantial new crown foliage that is critical for their survival

    Of course any loss of heirloom hemlocks is tragic. But by my count Will’s beetle releases have saved over half the large hemlocks in this section of Joyce Kilmer, including some of the largest specimens! So does saving over half the hemlock constitute losing the battle? That’s for you to decide.

    But don’t take my word for it, go look for yourself. With such accomplished “scientists” touting Will’s stories about hemlock losses and predator beetle “failures”, perhaps we can expect some useful new survey data on tree outcomes in these old growth release areas? You can’t build knowledge on misinformation. And at Joyce Kilmer, as well as other predator beetle release sites, there is much to be learned about biological control processes for HWA!

  12. Will Blozan

    Dr. Horan,

    I am glad you went to see Joyce Kilmer. However, did the trees you tallied on the Joyce Kilmer loop trail have spots of paint on them? Most of the trees I saw last summer around the loop trail were painted with a mark. These trees were soil injected with imidacloprid, as were the release trees. I am sorry- I should have mentioned it. The point is, the USFS felt the beetles were not working and went in and did the soil treatments. Same on the Wright Tract and some trees on the Kelsey Tract in Highands.

    Obviously, if these trees were in your survey they need to be ignored. Keep in mind they were treated far too late in the game for good results. When I climbed the trees in 2004 they were entirely infested and some were already defoliated. I don’t know exactly when the trees were treated but I am sure it was several years later.

    Incidentally, your slams at my company, credentials, and observations are unnecessary and unprofessional (as were some comments made towards you in other submissions). My “minions” are professionally trained certified arborists and pesticide applicators with college degrees. Referring to professional, practicing arborists with such demeaning terms does nothing to promote our collective work towards tree preservation.

    As a clarification, in my first comment to your letter I did not mean to imply that YOUR observations specifically were amateur. I apologize for the misunderstanding. I was referring to a general misinterpretation of HWA manifestations (which yours may or may not fall into).

    I once again will ask you for scientific, controlled, and regionally appropriate biocontrol studies. Please provide them to me at your convenience. I will gladly join in the biological control effort when I see that it is worth my clients money. Convince me, and we will be allies.


  13. Edward Frank

    Dr. Horan,

    Why is this an inappropriate place to discuss the actual facts of the situation? All you seem to want to do is attack the character of anyone who disagrees with you. Provide a single example where the the analysis of the beetle release data shows that in the year following the release there was any statistical difference between a release site and a comparable non-release site. I have virtually all of the beetle releasearticles sitting here in my laptop and I can’t find a single one. The example you cited was only a success in terms that the researchers developed a sampling strategy, and some beetles managed to overwinter. There was no success as far as limiting the HWA infestation. The “Sassy” beetle has been so much of a failure it is being abandoned by most state agencies. One example of a statistical success is all I am asking.

    You have suggested that because Mr. Blozan provides treatment services, he is biased. What about you? Let me ask you simply, do you recieve wages, salary,or consulting fees from any company or laboratory that produces these predatory beetles for sale?

    If so, admit it. I can not fathom any other reason why you would persist in the delusion that the beetle releases have done naything but waste money. I frankly do not believe you about the success at Joyce Kilmer, because you are ot an unbiased observer.

    I know all of the hemlocke there are not dead, but that does not necessarily mean the beetle release did anything.

    I would discourage peple from contributing to the beetle release efforts as you are simply throwing away money until an effective predator can be found. AS better place to spend money would be to donate to the non-profit Southern Documentary Fund to complete the Vanishing Hemlock Documentary, or to Mr. Blozan’s Tsuga Search Project being paid for currently primarily out of his own pocket: Your arguments are not credible, as demonstrated by the fact you will not address anything with actual “empirical data,” and you not clarifying your relationship with predatory beetle sellers.

    Edward Frank

  14. JT

    If the beetles are not working…can them! I was reading the other day about a researcher that discovered a MITE in Japan that was far more effective than the beetle. Obviously the beetles are incapable of tolerating the climate and atmosphere in the south or they have too many natural predators themselves. Please look at this link and look at what was said in the bottom. That looks MUCH more hopeful, and if that doesn’t work nothing will! We cannot afford to use pesticide for eternity to save these trees…those little HWA bastards will become to resistant to it next!

  15. heidistory

    I thought there was going to be a treatment for the seeds of the hemlock: so it could repell the woolly aldegid?

  16. bill smith

    This is a most interesting discussion, everybody. Thanks for having it on a public forum.

    It would be great if the Xpress could continue to cover it in-depth

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