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Researchers, Foresters Meet To Discuss Maple Pest

February 19, 1989

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) _ While New England’s maple sugar producers prepare for the coming season, 150 scientists are meeting to discuss a little-known pest threatening the spring tradition and $25 million industry.

The three-day conference this week in Burlington will focus on the pear thrips, a tiny insect that last year defoliated 469,000 acres of forest in Vermont, 1.2 million acres in Pennsylvania and additional acreage in the other New England states and New York. The damage in Vermont compares with 21,000 acres the year before.

Bruce Parker, an entomologist at the University of Vermont, said research is continuing on the sliver-shaped insects, which begin their damage in April by climbing into maple buds and feeding on the tender young leaves.

″We’re going to have problems this year but the extent of the problems we don’t know yet,″ he said.

Maple producers are beginning to bore tap holes and set up the tubing that collects the maple sap as they get ready for the sugaring season, which begins in early March. For them, the overriding question is what effect the pear thrips will have on their source of income.

″Nobody knows, and all you can do is guess, but I’m optimistic to think it’s not going to be the end of sugaring,″ said Everett Willard, maple marketing specialist for the Vermont Department of Agriculture.

However, 54 percent of the state’s maple sugarers are planning to reduce their taps, partly because of last year’s infestation, said Sandy Wilmot, the pear thrips coordinator for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

Pear thrips damaged more than one-sixth of Vermont’s maple forests last year. Significant damage was also spotted in Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut, with lesser damage in New Hampshire and Maine.

Scientists believe the thrips population exploded last year because cool spring weather allowed the maple buds to grow more slowly and gave the thrips more time to feed.

Many trees grew a second set of leaves, salvaging the region’s lucrative fall foliage season that draws thousands of tourists.

But damage by the thrips, combined with last year’s spring and summer drought, caused widespread concern about the overall health of the maple forest and how much stress a tree can take.

It also forced scientists to produce the first research about an insect that has only been considered a forest pest in this country since 1979. Before then it affected mostly fruit orchards.

″I think people are generally pleased with the fact that we mobilized very quickly, and it’s such a cooperative effort to find out the answers,″ said Wilmot, whose department has worked with the University of Vermont, state agriculture workers and the federal government.

″We’ve made good progress,″ agreed Parker, whose office is analyzing 2,000 samples taken from 210 sugarbushes or maple groves across Vermont. He and six researchers are trying to determine where pear thrips are and how many of them exist.

Parker and the state have already come out against widespread aerial spraying of the toxic pesticide carbaryl, saying it is unclear whether the benefits would outweigh environmental risks.

This week’s conference will attract scientists and foresters from the United States, Canada and England.

And scientists in other states are keeping an eye on Vermont’s research and plan more studies of their own.

″We’ve always tried to keep abreast of new developments in forest pests and this one, which has seemed to move east in recent years, is of particular concern,″ said Dick Dearborn, an entomologist with the Maine Forest Service who plans to attend the conference.

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