The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid is attacking trees in the Finger Lakes region

A new research lab announced for Cornell University will fight a tiny pest destroying hemlock trees. The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid is threatening trees in about half of the state’s 62 counties and more than a dozen states nationwide. In Ontario and surrounding counties the invasive specie has been found around Canandaigua and Honeoye lakes and other areas.

The $1.2 million laboratory will focus on research and biological controls — ways of stopping the insect from killing trees other than relying on insecticides. Cornell entomologist Mark Whitmore will head the new biocontrol lab to be housed on the Cornell campus in Ithaca. It will be partially funded by the state Department of Environmental Conservation with monies from the state’s Environmental Protection Fund.

"Preventing the spread of invasive species is the most effective way to fight and address the damage these species can cause to our natural resources," stated DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos. He mentioned the DEC’s partnership and ongoing work with Cornell University and said that the use of better biological controls will bolster “ongoing efforts to protect New York’s irreplaceable hemlock forests.”

The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid came from East Asia and was first discovered in New York in 1985. It attacks forests as well as ornamental hemlock trees. The pest feeds on young twigs, causing buds to die and needles to dry out and drop prematurely. Once infested, the trees typically die within four to 10 years. The insect has already killed great sections of hemlock forest in the Appalachian Mountains and the southern Catskill Mountains.

Work at the new lab will find ways to use natural enemies in managing population of a pest. In the case of HWA, this means using predatory insects found in areas where HWA is native.

“The focus of the HWA biocontrol lab is to research methods to grow healthy colonies of predatory insects and evaluate their effectiveness in managing HWA population growth,” stated the DEC. “The goal is to establish multiple predator species throughout New York to reduce HWA populations below the level where they cause hemlock trees to die.”

Kathryn Boor, the Ronald P. Lynch Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the HWA is “spreading at an alarming rate.” She added that the Cornell CALS “is a leader in the discovery of new and improved bio-controls” such as parasites, predators and weed eaters, that naturally minimize pest damage to fruits, vegetables, and natural resources such as hemlocks and cattails.

Eastern hemlock trees are among the oldest trees in New York with some reaching ages of more than 700 years. They typically occupy steep, shaded, north-facing slopes and stream banks where few other trees are successful. The DEC stated that the trees help maintain erosion control and water quality, and the hemlocks shade cool waters providing critical habitat for many of New York's freshwater fish, including native brook trout.