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Beetle ravaging LI pine barrens is target of DEC project

The Southern pine beetle, above, a tree-killing insect,

The Southern pine beetle, above, a tree-killing insect, is the focus of a state DEC project to determine ways to slow the bug's advancement in Long Island's pine barrens. Credit: USDA Forest Service, Region 8 /

To stop the Southern pine beetle from ravaging Long Island’s pine barrens, the state DEC will explore ways of helping the strongest trees survive an assault by the ravenous insects, officials with the agency said Tuesday.

Scientists say the tiny beetle — about the size of a grain of rice but able to starve pine trees — is native to the southeastern U.S. but has migrated north along the East Coast likely due to the warming climate.

After entering the pine through crevices in the bark, the Southern pine beetle burrows in, digging S-shaped tunnels that disrupt the flow of nutrients, killing a tree within 2 to 4 months, according to officials with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

Since the 2014, discovery of the beetle in Suffolk County, it has spread throughout wooded areas across Long Island, the DEC said.

The state agency’s experiment, which will focus on 27 of the 6,000-acre Rocky Point pine barrens forest, is designed to stem the bug’s advancement.

“It’s safe to assume it’ll spread throughout the pine barrens,” John Wernet, a regional forester with the DEC. “That’s why this is a research project.”

In one 9-acre plot, the pines and other trees will be divided into three-acre blocks with some of them chopped down and left to rot, Wernet said. In another nine-acre area — also separated into three smaller plots — crews will fell some of the trees and burn them, Wernet said, along with much of the underbrush. Wernet said a third nine-acre section will be left untouched to serve as a control group.

Fires can help pine trees thrive by opening their cones, allowing the seeds to spread, according to the DEC. Selectively cutting down pine, scarlet, and white oak trees in the various blocks should help strengthen the ones left standing, the DEC said.

The remaining trees will get more sunlight and nutrients, and thus should have a better shot at fending off the beetle invaders.

Which blocks are the more successful will be analyzed by the federal and state agencies.

That could take many months or more though both Long Island and Fire Island already have lost thousands of trees to the Southern pine beetle.

The Fire Island National Seashore’s park biologist, Jordan Raphael, noted the beetle, first discovered there in 2014, had led the park to fell 1,500 trees, as a “suppression” measure.

As of last summer, the beetle had found its way to seven locations in the national park: the Lighthouse Tract, Sailors Haven/Sunken Forest, Carrington Tract, Blue Point Beach, Watch Hill, Otis Pike Fire Island High Dune Wilderness Area, and the William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach.

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