Researchers launching helikite into cloud of 'trillions' of spruce budworm

Researchers hoping to learn more about the spruce budworm are heading into the heart of the swarm to get answers that could help prevent future outbreaks.

New project hopes to glean insight into migratory patterns of destructive insect

Natural Resources Canada is launching a new project to gain more insight into the spruce budworm. (CBC)

Researchers hoping to learn more about the spruce budworm are heading into the heart of the swarm to get answers that could help prevent future outbreaks.

A project led by Natural Resources Canada has developed a helikite equipped with a net to rise between 400 and 600 metres in the air to collect samples from a cloud made of "trillions" of migrating spruce budworm, said lead researcher Yan Boulanger.

The samples can offer important information, such as who is migrating.

"If we know that there are females still carrying eggs with them, that can have a lot [effect] on the propagation of the outbreak itself," Boulanger told Shift New Brunswick.

Researchers are using the helikite — "a balloon mixed with a kite" — for the first time to learn more about the insect's dispersal patterns, one of the few areas scientists are still hazy on.

With more insight into the migration habits, the risk can be mitigated.

Quebec outbreak

Mature spruce budworm larvae are known to feast on new growth fir and spruce trees.

The dreaded insect has a history of devastating forests by defoliating and killing trees as well as creating significant growth problems in softwood forests. An ongoing outbreak in Quebec has affected about seven million hectares.

The helikite is set to be launched Wednesday near Rimouski.

Boulanger said the budworm has been spotted in parts of New Brunswick — something that might make residents of Restigouche County shudder as they're reminded of the 2016 infestation.

The forestry industry would also be on guard, he said, as jobs and valuable product could be at risk.

The destructive force from the budworm comes from the sheer volume of spruce budworms. The helikite will be launched into an enormous swarm of the insects, which could measure hundreds of kilometres wide and tens of kilometres in length, he said.

A group of researchers with Natural Resources Canada have launched a helikite to fly with migrating spruce budworm moths near Rimouski, Quebec. Lead researcher Yan Boulanger says they're using it to fly into large clouds of the migrating insects to collect samples, and learn more about the destructive species. 7:15

Spruce budworm can travel upwards of 250 kilometres a night, too.

"That can propagate the epidemic," he said.

Spruce budworm caused massive defoliation in the province in the 1970s and '80s, and although it has been on a downward trend since then, over the past few years scientists have begun warning of another serious outbreak.

Boulanger said major outbreaks occur about every 35 years.

He said to contact the provincial natural resources office if the spruce budworm is spotted.

With files from Shift New Brunswick