Cities as a glimpse of the future

This is a guest post by our Research Associate Elsa Youngsteadt about the work and meaning behind her new research published in Global Change Biology.

About a year ago, I found myself sitting ruefully in a patch of chiggery grass by the side of the road near the little town of Bahama, North Carolina, waiting for a tow truck. I had stuck the lab pickup firmly in a ditch. It was tilted at an embarrassing, sickening angle and had one wheel lodged against the mouth of a culvert. Helpful passers-by with chains and four-wheel drives kindly offered to pull me out, but really only made matters worse.

My memory is already fuzzy about the sequence of events, but somewhere in there—

Gloomy scales and the beetle that loves them. Each white or gray bump is a gloomy scale. The twice stabbed lady beetle is one of their predators. Photo: S.D. Frank

Gloomy scales and the beetle that loves them. Each white or gray bump is a gloomy scale. The twice stabbed lady beetle is one of their predators. Photo: S.D. Frank

between slipping into the ditch, the failed rescue attempts, and the final arrival of the giant tow truck—I did actually hike into the woods and get what I came for: eight slender red maple branches, clipped from trees growing in NC State’s Hill Forest.

I found my way to this particular spot, ditch and all, by following the trail of a plant biologist who had collected maple branches there more than 40 years ago during the height of the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War. In those days, the forest was cooler. The fevered dog days of summer now average about 1.4 degrees C (about 2.5 degrees F) hotter than they did then—and that should make a difference to the trees and the insects that live on them.

Specifically, it ought to make a difference to gloomy scale insects. These little sap-sucking insects seem to like it hot. My colleague Adam Dale has been studying gloomy scales in the city of Raleigh, and he’s found that street trees in the hottest parts of the city have far more scales—sometimes 200 times more–than those in the cooler parts of the city.

The scales drink tree juices, so more scales are bad for trees. A couple of degrees

Sad, bedraggled, gloomy scale infested red maple trees. Photo: SD Frank

Sad, bedraggled, gloomy scale infested red maple trees. Photo: SD Frank

warming can make the difference between a stately shade tree and a sad, bedraggled specimen with dead branches, sparse leaves, and grimy, scale-encrusted bark.

We thought that if warming gives scales such a powerful boost in the city, global warming could do the same thing for scale insects in rural forests. But we still had no direct evidence that what happens in the city represents what happens in rural areas over time.

This seemed like hard evidence to get. Unlike birds and butterflies, the drab, millimeter-long gloomy scale has not invited enthusiastic long-term monitoring. But perhaps we could scavenge scale-insect information from another source—and this is why I became extremely grateful to scores of plant biologists like the one who archived a foot-long maple twig from Hill Forest in 1971.

These historical plant specimens are stored in collections known as herbaria, where they are affixed to stiff pieces of paperboard, labeled, and stacked in mothball-scented cabinets. It turns out that many of these old twigs still have scale insects intact, stuck firmly but inconspicuously to the spots where they once lived.

An herbarium specimen used in the study. Photo: EK Youngsteadt

An herbarium specimen used in the study. Photo: EK Youngsteadt

It made perfect sense that they would be there, but it still felt outlandish when, only 12

branches into my first search in the UNC Herbarium, there was a gloomy scale—the same species that burdens our urban red maples. It was beautifully preserved, looking like it was collected last week instead of 30 years ago. Even on 100-year old branches, the scales looked perfect.

So I counted them. And kept counting them on more than 300 historical specimens from the southeastern US, then matched up their abundance with historical temperatures for the year and location where each specimen was collected.

There it was: During relatively cool historical time periods, only 17% of branches had scale

Gloomy scale covers preserved on an old herbarium specimen. Photo:EK Youngsteadt

Gloomy scale covers preserved on an old herbarium specimen. Photo:EK Youngsteadt

insects. But during relatively hot periods, 36% were infested. In other words, scale-infested branches were more than twice as common during hot periods than cool periods—exactly as we would expect if scale insects benefit from warming in rural forests as they do in the city. Furthermore, the most heavily infested twigs were ones that had grown at temperatures similar to those of modern urban Raleigh.

But the historical specimens weren’t the whole story. The past several years have been warmer than even the historically warm time periods, so to test our prediction, we needed to go back to places where those old branches were originally collected, and see if their scale infestations had actually gotten worse.

Thanks to the careful records of those past plant collectors, I was able to track down 20 of the forest sites across North Carolina where red maple branches were collected in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s (and only put the truck in a ditch at one of them). At 16 of the 20 sites, gloomy scale populations were denser than they were on the original branches from the same locations. Overall, I found about five times more scales in 2013 than in the earlier decades.

Careful records and herbarium tags from the past helped Elsa relocate the collection sites. Photo: EK Youngsteadt

Careful records and herbarium tags from the past helped Elsa relocate the collection sites. Photo: EK Youngsteadt

This isn’t good news, but it’s also not time to panic about gloomy scales killing our forests. Although the rural scale insects clearly benefited from warming, just as they do in Raleigh, they still never got as abundant as the ones we see in town. The reasons for that difference are an open question (I have some guesses, but that’s a different story). So, although I’d put money on gloomy scales getting more common in rural North Carolina over the next several decades, I wouldn’t yet say how much more common.

But this really isn’t just about gloomy scale. It’s about cities as an advance guard of climate change. If we can look at scales’ response to urban warming and correctly predict their increased abundance due to global warming, can we do it for other organisms, too? Can we do it for functions, like pollination and biological control of pests?

I hope we can start watching urban ecosystems for problem insects and using that information to stand forewarned about future ecological changes in natural areas. The experiments we have made by paving our cities and making them heat up may have much more to tell us about how organisms will handle future warming.

This post is based on a new study:

Youngsteadt, E., Dale, A.G., Terando, A.J., Dunn, R.R. and Frank, S.D. 2014. Do cities simulate climate change? A comparison of herbivore response to urban and global warming. Global Change Biologydoi: 10.1111/gcb.12692.  PDF

Orange-striped oakworms make yearly appearance

This is a quick field note by PhD student Emily Meineke.

For the last few weeks, orange striped oakworms have been raining on my head as I work in the trees. They also drop a lot of

 

 

Large oakworms eat entire leaves except for the mid vein. Photo: EK Meineke

Large oakworms eat entire leaves except for the mid vein. Photo: EK Meineke

poop (entomologists call it frass) which is one of the major complaints by homeowners. Orange-striped oakworms congregate on branches to feed every year in late summer but usually do not cause enough damage to warrant treatment.

Young oak worms cause damage called 'window panning' in which they eat the surface of leaves and feed between tiny veins. Photo: EK Meineke.

Young oak worms cause damage called ‘window panning’ in which they eat the surface of leaves and feed between tiny veins. Photo: EK Meineke.

Young orangestriped oakworms are often light in color and darken as they get older. I have found some parasitized individuals, which means natural enemies are doing their part to reduce oakworm outbreaks. Caterpillars also make great food for birds. We have posted previously about orange-striped oak worm biology and management if you want more information.  

Large caterpillar poops around the base of a tree. Photo: SD Frank

Large caterpillar poops around the base of a tree. Photo: SD Frank

Sawdust from banded ash clearwing larvae

I just got some great pictures from one of great Extension Agents, Mark Danieley, this week

Sawdust accumulated around the base of an infested ash tree. Photo: Mark Danieley

Sawdust accumulated around the base of an infested ash tree. Photo: Mark Danieley

of some pretty messed up ash trees in a parking lot. They have sawdust (frass) accumulated on the ground around their trunks and in clumps on the bark. Of course the first thought was whether the tree was infested with emerald ash borer. Mark noted however that the holes were round not D-shaped. Turns out the trees are infested with banded ash clearwing larvae. As the larvae feed they periodically shove frass  out of their galleries to keep them clear. This time of year the larvae are getting very big and thus feeding heavily. Adults will emerge soon. Thus, the holes in the pictures are from last year when adults emerged front he same trees. That is why they did not have characteristic pupal casings sticking out of the holes.

Sawdust in clumps and round exit holes on tree bark. Photo: Mark Danieley

Sawdust in clumps and round exit holes on tree bark. Photo: Mark Danieley

Urbanization is good for pests and bad for trees

My wife is from a neighborhood outside Baltimore called Lawyer’s Hill. This is where, in the 18th century, lawyers (and I assume doctors and other gentlemen) had country houses and could escape the summer heat. Lawyer’s Hill is only 3 miles from Baltimore but, based on their significant investment in houses and land, it must have provided significant relief. So what was (and still is) the difference between Baltimore City and Lawyers Hill? Trees.

Historic Lawyer's Hill (left) and downtown Baltimore City. Images from Google Maps.

Historic Lawyer’s Hill (left) and downtown Baltimore City. Images from Google Maps.

Trees cool the environment by shading houses, roads, and sidewalks that absorb heat. If

Damage by gloomy scales. Notice dead branches and sparse canopy. Photo: SD Frank

Typically shabby red maples with damage by gloomy scales. Notice dead branches and sparse canopy. For more (better) pictures visit Adam’s picture gallery featured in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Photo: SD Frank

you have every walked barefoot from the pool (or wherever you spend time barefoot) to your car you know that pavement is hot and that you scurry from one patch of shade to another. All the heat absorbed by pavement that does not radiate into the soles of your feet radiates into the air. Trees also cool the environment by evaporative cooling called transpiration in which they release water vapor through their leaves. Of course there are other reasons cities are hot. Air conditioners, industrial processes, and vehicles all generate heat. An unshaded bus stop is hot but even hotter when the bus is idling next to it.

All this heat can be bad for people. Heat alone poses a risk to human health as does exposure to solar radiation and pollutants that become more concentrated in hot areas. So why don’t cities plant more trees? Many of them do and try to preserve the trees they have. Unfortunately, arthropod pests are more abundant on urban trees and urban tree survival is low.

In two papers released today, Adam Dale, PhD student extraordinaire, has tackled the questions of why herbivores are more abundant on urban trees and what are the consequences for urban tree health. Adam works on gloomy scale, Melanaspis tenebricosa, an armored scale that feeds on almost every red maple within city limits (go look at the closest red maple, then get back to work).

All the gray bumps on this trunk are gloomy scales sucking nutrients from the tree. Photo: SD Frank

All the gray bumps on this trunk are gloomy scales sucking nutrients from the tree. For more (better) pictures visit Adam’s picture gallery featured in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Photo: SD Frank

In his first “Urban warming trumps natural enemy regulation of herbivorous pests” published in Ecological Applications he shows that urban warming seems to be the primary factor associated with gloomy scale abundance on urban trees. He supports this by identifying an amazing physiological mechanism: scales at warm sites can have 3 times as many babies as scales at sites just 2.5 degrees cooler!

Adam came up with a way to count gloomy scale embryos to determine that warm scales produce more babies. Photo: AG Dale

Adam came up with a way to count gloomy scale embryos to determine that warm scales produce more babies. For more pictures of scale embryos visit Adam’s picture gallery featured in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Photo: AG Dale

Adam’s next question was: So what about the trees? Do scale insects and temperature increase plant stress or reduce tree growth? This is what urban foresters need to know if they are going to make management decisions. Why manage scales if the heat kills trees anyway? Adam’s second paper “The effects of urban warming on herbivore abundance and street tree condition” in PloS One shows that both scale insects and heat are associated with poor tree condition. This means trees with scales and particularly hot trees with scales are more likely to have dead branches, sparse foliage, and generally look worse that cool trees without scales.

Urbanization is increasing and a new paper from Adam Terando and colleagues from NCSU and the USGS Southeast Climate Science Center suggests urbanization will expand more than previously thought. See a piece on The Rise of Charlanta by Rob Dunn. You notice in the image of Lawyer’s Hill that subdivision construction is underway. Each of these house will get a lollipop tree, probably a red maple or worse an ornamental plum, but the canopy will never be restored. To conserve trees and their valuable benefits for human and environmental health we need to understand even more about why pests become more abundant on urban trees and which trees should be planted to establish resilient urban forests. Its clear from Adam’s work that red maples are not a good choice for hot southern cities.

A gallery of photographs of Adam’s research was featured in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.

Imported willow leaf beetle

Imported willow leaf beetle (Plagiodera versicolor) adults are metallic blue. This time of

Imported willow leaf beetle. Photo: SD Frank

Imported willow leaf beetle. Photo: SD Frank

year adults and larvae are feeding on willows. The adult beetles overwinter outdoors under bark or in leaf litter. They and emerge from hibernation sites in spring around the time willows start getting leaves since adults prefer new leaves. Females lay pale yellow eggs that hatch into voracious larvae. Adults and larvae skeletonize leaves which can give trees a brown cast as damaged leaves crisp in the sun. In some cases though they can eventually defoliate trees like the one I saw walking to work today. Insecticides labeled for leaf feeding beetles such as spinosad, imidacloprid, and chlorantraniliprole can be used if needed. Unfortunately, these beetles are here to stay so efforts to prevent any

Imported willow leaf beetle eggs. Photo: SD Frank

Imported willow leaf beetle eggs. Photo: SD Frank

damage to willows is in vain. High populations that cause complete defoliation pose a risk to tree health and may warrant management. Otherwise some damage is inevitable so go out and look at the beautiful beetles.

 

Tuliptree scale primer

If you haven’t met tuliptree scale, Toumeyella liriodendri, its high time you did. I found

Tuliptree scales on tulip poplar twig. Photo: SD Frank

Tuliptree scales on tulip poplar twig. Photo: SD Frank

dense patches of it at a local playground the other day. I was tipped off by honeydew, which can mean tulip poplar aphids, but also scales. Tuliptree scales feed primarily on tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera, though it is occasionally found on other trees including Magnolia spp. It occurs throughout the eastern US from New England to Florida.

Unlike many other soft scales in our area, tuliptree scale produces crawlers at the end of summer and into fall. The scales overwinter as 2nd instars on twigs. In spring they develop to adults and produce lots of honeydew throughout the summer. In late summer honeydew production declines as female scale begin producing eggs and crawlers. A single female can produce over 3000 crawlers over three months. This could make control difficult since you cannot target a whole cohort of crawlers with a single application of oil or insecticide.

Honeydew from tuliptree scale supports dozens of other species. Researchers have recorded 93 hymenopteran species that collect honeydew of tuliptree scale and a dozen or so ant species. This is an amazing diversity of creatures that would not be in a tree if these scales were absent. This disproportionate effect of one species on the animal community

Distribution of tuliptree scale as of 1969 from Burns & Donlely 1970.

Distribution of tuliptree scale as of 1969 from Burns & Donlely 1970.

suggests a potential foundational or keystone role. Since these scale produce so much honeydew they can be heavily tended by ants. Ant tending can reduce scale mortality by predators and increase scale abundance.

Tuliptree scale cause considerable damage to trees. They can kill central leaders resulting in bushy plants with codominant leaders. They can kill trees or reduce tree growth rate. High densities of scales can remove more carbon than a tree produces. In this case trees are surviving on reserved energy that is gradually depleted.

Reference: Burns, DP, Donely, DE. 1970. Biology of the Tuliptree Scale, Tourneyella liriodendri (Homoptera: Coccidae). Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 63, 228-235.

 

 

Keep alert for a new crape myrtle pest

Most folks realize that international commerce delivers a steady stream of new pests on our shores. You probably also realize by now that I rarely deliver good news. One of the newest pests to plague urban trees is the Crape myrtle bark scale, Eriococcus lagerstroemia. It is not yet in North Carolina but it is probably coming.

The first detection of Crape myrtle bark scale in the US was just outside Dallas, Texas in 2004. Since then it has spread throughout much of Texas. It has also spread to Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. This is a worrisome development because the climate of Tennessee is similar to many parts of North Carolina suggesting this pest is not limited to warmer areas of the South. Just last week it was found in Georgia.

Crape myrtle bark scale on crape myrtle in Dallas. Photo: SD Frank

Crape myrtle bark scale on crape myrtle in Dallas. Photo: SD Frank

Female scales produce fluffy white filaments that cover their body. In spring they produce eggs beneath their body then die. Tiny crawlers hatch from the eggs, settle in their new spot, and begin producing white filaments. They have at least 2 overlapping generations in Arkansas and probably more in warmer areas.

At low density, crape myrtle bark scale feeds in rough areas around branch collars but as the population increases all the bark may be covered. These scales are most often noticed because trees become covered in black sooty mold. At first many people assume this is from crape myrtle aphids so the scales may go undetected. If you notice unusually heavy honeydew and sooty mold on crape myrtles take a closer look at the bark.

Since this is such a new pest in the US we do not have a good idea how to manage it. Drench applications of neonicotinoids have provided some control in Texas. However, since crape myrtles flower continually and attract a slew of pollinators this may not be the best option. Insect growth regulators such as pyriproxyfen and buprofezin are effective for many other scales and may be a good option. Horticultural oil, especially the heavier dormant rate, can reduce scale abundance also.

But control is not our biggest concern in North Carolina. We should be most concerned about this pest getting into our nurseries and landscapes to begin with. Sedentary pests like this often spread on infested nursery stock or when someone moves here and brings a sentimental plant along with them. We just analyzed the Raleigh street tree database and found that crape myrtles are the most common tree. When I was in Dallas last fall the crape myrtle trees lining streets of downtown and tony residential neighborhoods looked terrible. They were black and crusted with scales. Stumps indicated that many had already been removed.

So what is my message for North Carolina urban forests? First, this is another great reason to buy locally. So far you can be pretty sure crape myrtles from North Carolina will be scale free. The larger message is that it may be time to stop planting so many crape myrtles. Each one you plant is likely, at some point, to require extensive (and expensive) pest management . Diversify.