Nfld. & Labrador

What bugs the bugs? N.L. research to fend off spruce budworm

Researchers with the Canadian Forest Service are studying the natural enemies of the spruce budworm, in an effort to prevent a future outbreak that could be devastating.

Forest research in the province looks at the spruce budworm's natural predators

Eric Moise, research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service in Corner Brook, demonstrates how sleeve cages are used in research on the natural enemies of the spruce budworm. (Bernice Hillier/CBC)

Researchers with the Canadian Forest Service in Newfoundland are trying to learn more about an old forest pest, the spruce budworm, in hopes of keeping it from getting out of control again.

The spruce budworm devastated the island's forests in the 1970s and 1980s, but there is currently no outbreak.

Scientists are hoping it will stay that way and, to help keep budworm populations low, the researchers are studying to find out more about the moth's natural enemies.

Eric Moise, research scientist with the Canadian Forest Service of Natural Resources Canada, said parasitoid wasps and flies are believed to be among the budworm's predators.

Parasitic wasps and flies may be among the natural enemies of the spruce budworm. Eric Moise of the Canadian Forest Services compares their relationship to that portrayed in the movie, Alien.

"If you've ever seen the movie Alien, it's sort of a similar scenario where they'll impregnate the spruce budworm with their eggs and, after a certain amount of time, those will hatch and out pops your wasp or your fly," said Moise.

"Very gruesome, but also very effective."

A bug's life

Moise said more is known on the mainland of Canada about the natural enemies of the spruce budworm, but there hasn't been as much research done here in Newfoundland until now.

There is currently an infestation of spruce budworm affecting forests in Quebec, and an early intervention program in New Brunswick is trying to keep the moth at bay there.

A single spruce budworm moth can do damage to a tree, as shown in this photo. (Submitted)

But Moise said there's always a concern that budworm moths could come to Newfoundland in a mass migration and mix with local populations to cause an outbreak.

Moise said the climate and topography in Newfoundland mean that the budworm's natural predators could be different here.

So researchers want to do their best to gain information now, before an outbreak happens.

They've set up an experiment at young balsam fir sites in Western Newfoundland, off Lady Slipper Road which is a resource road near Corner Brook.

The hope is that natural enemies of the budworm could be utilized to keep the population under control.

Even if a spray program of some sort were needed, Moise told CBC Newfoundland Morning that a biological pesticide would be used as opposed to a synthetic chemical one.

Eric Moise of the Canadian Forest Service compares the budworm monitoring program to a whack-a-mole game in which forests are treated with biological pesticides only when numbers of budworm rise above a certain threshold. There is no outbreak of budworm in N.L. right now.

"You can almost think of this sort of monitoring program that we have for budworm as a whack-a-mole operation," he said.

"If we see the numbers beginning to rise to a threshold where we know that we're at a threat of a potential outbreak, then those spots will be treated to bring down those budworm populations."

Going out on a limb

To do the current research in this province, Moise and his team have covered select balsam fir branches with sleeve cages that look like semi-sheer pillowcases, and they've put spruce budworm on those branches.

Researchers then allow the spruce budworm to develop through different stages of the bug's life before removing the sleeve cages to expose the budworm to its natural enemies.

Trail cameras are set up to look for activity of birds and spiders that might be preying on spruce budworm, so as to learn more about the insect's natural enemies. (Bernice Hillier/CBC)

Then the branch is removed and brought back to the lab for analysis, to determine what natural predators are doing to the budworm.

The Canadian Forest Service also has trail cameras set up to look for birds or spiders that also might be preying on the spruce budworm on the exposed branches.

At this point, Moise said it's too soon to say anything about the researchers' findings, as this is the first summer of a multi-year experiment and they don't have enough data yet.

He said there may be some concrete data to share in a few months from now.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Bernice Hillier is a host of CBC Newfoundland Morning, which airs weekday mornings across western and central Newfoundland, as well as southern Labrador.

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