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Tiny Insect Called Pear Thrips Threatens Vermont Maple Syrup, Fall Foliage

June 24, 1988

BENNINGTON, Vt. (AP) _ Lush, green mountainsides in southern Vermont have been scarred with patches of brown, the work of tiny insects that are threatening the state’s maple sugar industry and tourism.

A bug known as the pear thrips is blamed for damaging nearly 500,000 acres of forest in Vermont this year. By comparison, 21,000 acres were damaged last year, said H. Brenton Teillon, chief of forest protection for the state Department of Forests and Parks.

Officials say the bugs that attacked millions of maple trees this spring are the state’s worst insect problem in more than 25 years. The current drought is putting still further stress on trees.

The maples are a source of income for hundreds of Vermonters who tap them to produce syrup and sugar candy. The state produced 370,000 gallons of maple syrup this year, leading the nation, and that generated $12.5 million in income.

The loss of a significant portion - some foresters fear up to a fifth - of the maples could also mean far fewer dollars this fall from tourists who come to view the foliage.

From a window in a four-seat plane, state forester Pete Norkeveck assessed the damage over Bennington on Thursday afternoon. Some forestland had retained its brilliant green, but there were wide swaths of shriveled brown foliage with tints of gray and orange.

″Those trees are in real trouble,″ says Norkeveck. ″If we don’t get some rain in the next couple of weeks, we’re looking at a very high mortality rate. Even with some rain, a lot of them might not survive.″

Pear thrips have been in the United States since the early part of the century, but historically they have been a problem mainly in orchards.

Norkeveck said the pear thrips attack a tree’s flowers in early spring. The bugs then enter a period of dormance.

Experts are unsure why the problem flared up this year. They cite a variety of possible factors, including the drought, a heavier-than-normal blooming of the maples this spring, and a cold snap at a key time this spring that may have been a boon to the insects.

Bob Twitchell of Landgrove said he was one of the first maple growers to be affected. He first saw the defoliation in the early summer of 1985. To reduce stress on the maples on his 60-acres, he decided not to tap his trees the following spring, losing his main source of income for a year.

″If you don’t tap for one year, you don’t have the resources to continue,″ he said. ″A lot of people just do it as a part-time thing and they don’t depend on it as much. But if I let up for one year, I’m done for.″

The problem has grown only worse.

″It looks like winter. There’s nothing there,″ he said. ″I just don’t know as there’s anything I can do.″

He’s given up sugaring completely for lumbering, and talks of selling off some of his property to make ends meet.

A similar sense of worry and uncertainty was evident Thursday among 50 maple sugar producers, landowners, state and Canadian officials who met in Bennington to discuss the problem.

To a lesser degree, the infestation has also affected parts of other New England states, New York and Pennsylvania, foresters said.

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