Nova Scotia

What really bright lights reveal about fungus attacking N.S. trees

Trees in the Halifax area infected with nectria canker appear to be trying to fight off the fungus, a team of Halifax Grammar School students have found after a trip to a national research facility.

Halifax Grammar School students use national research lab to study nectria canker infestations

A sample of nectria canker from Halifax being analyzed at the Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon. Nectria canker infestations are a concern in Nova Scotia because they can destroy 50 to 85 per cent of trees within 10 years. (Canadian Light Source)

Trees in the Halifax area infected with nectria canker appear to be trying to fight off the fungus.

That's the finding of a team of Halifax Grammar School students who travelled last week to Canadian Light Source, a national research facility in Saskatoon, to investigate the problem.

"I feel like the information that we collected here could be kind of a starting point to do further research on the nature of the disease," said Sayed Talha, a Grade 11 student at the Halifax school.

Nectria canker infestations are a concern in Nova Scotia because they can destroy 50 to 85 per cent of trees within 10 years. Talha said the fungus is spread through holes made by insects in hardwood trees.

Fungus 'attacking our trees'

"We chose nectria canker because it is a local fungus that is attacking our trees in Halifax and throughout Nova Scotia. And since forestry is one of our major industries, we thought we would take on that investigation," said Firdaus Bhathena, a physics and theory of knowledge teacher at Halifax Grammar School.

Halifax Grammar School students travelled to Canadian Light Source in Saskatoon last week to learn more about nectria canker, a fungus that can kill trees. (Canadian Light Source)

In a news release, Canadian Light Source noted the fungus is affecting newer trees that have been growing back since Hurricane Juan in 2003.

For their experiment, the seven students in Grade 11 and Grade 12 took samples of nectria canker from American beech, white birch and sugar maple trees in Sir Sandford Fleming Park in Halifax. 

Self-healing trees

The samples were then taken to Canadian Light Source to see how the fungus affected various layers of bark. Students spent four days at the lab, using its mid-infrared beamline to analyze chemical differences in external layers of trees. They compared affected trees to unaffected trees.

Corinne Bernett, a Grade 12 student, said students concluded that when there is more lignan (organic substance binding the cells in the tree) in the xylem of a tree (tissue that moves water and nutrients from the root).

That's "probably because the tree is trying to heal itself from the nectria canker," she said.

Canadian Light Source paired students with a scientist who helped guide them through their research. (Canadian Light Source )

"That means that trees are protecting themselves when they're impacted by the fungus so they are finding ways to be structurally more sound," said Anna-Maria Boechler, an education co-ordinator at Canadian Light Source.

Powerful lights

Boechler said students were paired with and mentored by a working scientist at the lab. She said the information they uncovered is new.

"We don't want something they can just Google," Boechler said.

"We encourage them to do real science with real science equipment and that equipment is about a million times brighter than the sun. We use light produced by the synchrotron."

A Halifax Grammar School student examining a piece of bark from a tree infected with nectria canker. (Canadian Light Source)

Now that the students have this information, the next step will be to share it.

"It could be the mayor, it could be the parks, the school division, anyone they can," said Boechler. "We also get them to produce a scientific poster and some groups also produce an article and submit it to a journal or elsewhere to publish."

About the Author

Anjuli Patil


Anjuli Patil is a reporter and occasional video journalist with CBC Nova Scotia's digital team.


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