Forestry scientists are looking for the help of New Brunswickers to track spruce budworm populations as an outbreak in Quebec approaches the border.

It's been about 35 years since the spruce budworm was last a problem for New Brunswick.

But across the border in Quebec, about 4.2 million hectares of forest has been infected during the last few years.

Budworm epidemics are also cyclical, so the federal government is studying where the worms are, as well as the migration patterns of the moths they become.

Rob Johns is a forest insect ecologist with the Canadian Forest Service in Fredericton and is a co-lead on the project.

Spruce budworm collection

A Natural Resources Canada official checks spruce budworm traps in the forest. It's been about 35 years since the spruce budworm was a problem for New Brunswick. (Submitted by Natural Resources Canada)

He says populations of spruce budworm don't spread concentrically, but appear in hot spots that crop up on the outskirts of infected areas.

Johns says if problem populations are found early enough, they can be treated on a small scale to keep the budworms numbers in check.

Last year, Johns and his colleagues drove around the province to collect budworm traps three times a week.

But in Maine and in Quebec, scientists have been inviting people to help through a citizen science program, and this year that will also be tried in New Brunswick.

"There's a lot of people in the province that are interested in whether budworm are moving into their area and to what extent populations are sticking in those areas, you know, to eventually cause damage," he said.

"So we've basically started approaching groups and saying, 'Hey would you like to participate in a citizen science program?'"

300 traps have been distributed

Spruce budworm lab

Students are looking for spruce budworm larvae in a laboratory. Citizens living near wooded areas are being encouraged to collect samples to help track budworm populations. (Submitted by Natural Resources Canada)

Already 300 budworm traps have been distributed in the six Eastern Canadian provinces and in Maine.

He says almost half have been given out in New Brunswick, and 50 more have been ordered.

Johns said the traps are easy to use and come with instructions.

People bait the traps with a pheromone from the insect. People can check the traps as little as once a week, but they hope some or most will check traps three times a week.

Volunteers empty the trap into a paper bag provided, date it and then put samples in their freezer until the scientists can collect them.

Johns said the province collects samples once a year near the end of the summer, but collecting samples more often can help identify the moths migration pattern.

He said the insects collected can also be genetically tested to confirm their origin.

Johns said while studying the spruce budworm is one goal of the project, the other is to engage people who live near wooded areas.  

He said by getting people involved at this stage, it may also lead to better solutions for control should an epidemic present itself.

Budworms have been found in Campbellton

Johns said at the moment the worst hit area in New Brunswick is a hot spot near Campbellton.

"That doesn't mean you expect to see an enormous amount of red trees there. But what you will see is, if you look very closely, you'll see probably defoliation, like visible defoliation," he says.

"You'll see something has been chewing on the trees, just mainly in that Campbellton area up there."

He said while harsh chemicals used to be sprayed on the pests years ago, only the organic insecticide BTK and a so-called hormonal analog called Mimic, which makes the larvae molt early, are now used to treat the bugs.

Johns said while these products, commonly used in agriculture, are much safer they are also less effective and cost more to use.

Scientists are still looking for volunteers, especially in the Plaster Rock area.