New York State IPM Program

July 10, 2018
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on New Field Crops and Livestock Coordinator Joins NYS IPM

New Field Crops and Livestock Coordinator Joins NYS IPM

Greetings!  I’m Jaime Cummings, the new Field Crops and Livestock Coordinator at NYS IPM. My job? To work with field crop and livestock farmers on more than 3 million acres statewide who grow corn, hay, and other field crops and contribute to New York’s livestock industry. These farmers know all too well the problems that come with insect, disease and weed pests—problems that can change year to year.

They need IPM. Which means that each person who lives in New York and eats or drinks anything produced on a farm also needs IPM.

Jaime Cummings

Meet Jaime Cummings. Farmers, you’ll be seeing a lot of her soon.

My background is in plant pathology, and I come from Cornell’s Field Crops Pathology program. While there I focused on field research for dealing with plant diseases and mycotoxins (aka fungal toxins). I also provided diagnostics for statewide disease surveys on all major field crops. Along the way I also earned my Certified Crop Advisor certification (CCA) for the Northeast.

Integrated Pest Management for Field Crops and Livestock

Field crop and livestock farmers in New York face problems both new and old. For starters, unpredictable weather patterns can favor a different spectrum or intensity of disease and pest problems that vary from one year to the next. Meanwhile, invasive pests of all sorts are ever knocking at our borders. It’s critical to know not only how to address each issue, but also know when it’s economically feasible and environmentally responsible to do so. IPM scouting networks and forecasting methods help us better understand pest levels. This in turn helps farmers use well-defined thresholds for making solid management decisions.

And of course, IPM works for organic and conventional farmers alike. They all know there are no silver bullets or one-size-fits-all management strategies when it comes solving disease or pest problems—which is why we need to integrate pest management strategies for the best success. Any approach to managing pests and protecting crops that minimizes health and environmental hazards by the most economical means should be thoughtfully considered and implemented.

The goal? To prevent problems in the first place. True, sometimes nature tosses us a wild card we couldn’t have guessed at. Regardless—IPM helps farmers avoid wasteful treatments while offering other options that are good both for the environment and the farmer’s bottom line.

Looking Forward

Want to learn about IPM options for your farm? Please email me at jc2246@cornell.edu.  And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the weekly field crops pest report http://blogs.cornell.edu/ipmwpr/ to stay up to date on statewide scouting and management updates.

I look forward to the opportunity to work with you and wish you a safe and productive season.

June 8, 2018
by Matt Frye
Comments Off on Tick and Mosquito Repellent Safety—for You and Yours

Tick and Mosquito Repellent Safety—for You and Yours

You might have noticed that we’re having a bit of a crisis with ticks and mosquitoes. They bite, they suck, and they can transmit pathogens to us during their feeding. One of the many things that we can do to avoid ticks and mosquitoes is to use repellents. But there are two important ideas to consider before picking a product from the shelf:

  1. Not every product has been proven effective, and
  2. The safety of a product depends on how you use it.

Product Efficacy
More than ever, an old adage reigns true: buyer beware! When it comes to tick and mosquito repellents, there are a number of products that claim to be effective—but offer no evidence or data to support the claim. This is especially true of many “natural” products with essential-oil active ingredients. Why? Products with essential-oil active ingredients don’t have to pass a scientific review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and can go to market without demonstrating that they work. These products give users a false sense of security that they are protected against biting insects when they are not. Learn more about this topic from our Tick FAQ section, What natural products can I use to repel ticks? For details on what products work, see the Insect Repellent Buying Guide from Consumer Reports

A confusing mix: some of these products can be applied to skin, others should not under any circumstance contact skin while wet. Read the label before using any pesticide product.

Product Safety and Use Restrictions: The Label Is the Law
As a pest management educator, I’ve said a million times, “the label is the law.” This is literally true—all labels of EPA registered products read, “It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling.”

Here is a critical distinction about the products you might see on a shelf:

  • Products with the active ingredient permethrin can actually kill ticks and mosquitoes. According to one label, “This product must not be applied to clothing while it is being worn. Under no circumstances should bare skin or clothing on the body be treated. In other words, if you’re going to use permethrin, you have to treat your clothing or gear before you intend to use it so the pesticide can dry. According to the label on one product, this may be two to four hours.
  • On the other hand, products with active ingredients DEET, picaridin, and IR3535 can be sprayed on clothing and skin to repel biting pests. These products work by masking the cues that make you smell tasty to mosquitoes and ticks. According to one label for these products, Use just enough repellent to cover exposed skin… Do not use under clothing… Frequent reapplication and saturation is unnecessary for effectiveness.” 

We want you to enjoy the outdoors—and we want you to do it safely. Both types of products can be used to protect you, your friends, and families from the bite of blood-feeding organisms. To further protect health, always read and follow label instructions.

For more information:

May 23, 2018
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on The Invasive of the Month Is … (Drum Roll)

The Invasive of the Month Is … (Drum Roll)

Drum Roll: The Spotted Lanternfly

Southeastern Pennsylvania, the epicenter of spotted lanternfly’s arrival in 2014, might seem far enough away to give us in New York prep time for dealing with this new pest, a weak flyer that usually hops to get around. But with the spotted lanternfly (Lycorma delicatula—and SLF for short), all bets are off. After all, it took over Korea, whose climate is surprisingly like our own, in no time flat. And now it’s in Maryland. Delaware. Virginia. New Jersey.

New York’s first find happened to be dead. Blind dumb luck.

A bit creepy, how cool it looks. (Photo insectimages)

How anything so pretty could be so nasty boggles the mind. But it’s the nature of nature. Since ID’ing SLF correctly is key to good IPM, let’s start with the nymphs—the young-uns. In this case they come in two snazzy colors. The early-stage nymphs are straight-on black or, once they’ve molted, black and white—handsome devils or trendy fashionistas; take your pick. For late-stage nymphs (late-stage means they molted—again—and outgrew the skin they had after they hatched), add blobs of blood-red, and that critter looks ready to conquer the world.

Which it might.

Does that bright, traffic-light red signal toxicity, as it does for many other potential prey? Right now all I know is that birds have been seen throwing up after grabbing one for a snack—and yes, they are toxic to us.

Red is ever a reminder to other critters: this might be toxic. (Photo Penn State)

Meanwhile, adult SLFs look positively benign. Lovely, in fact. Don’t believe it for a minute. These classy lads and lassies resemble butterflies or moths, but don’t believe that either—they are, you’ll recall, planthoppers; the name refers to its mode of locomotion.

Whatever. Spotted lanternflies have a destiny. Their natural expertise in the pole-vault isn’t their only way to get around. How many roads (think interstates especially) wend their way from southeastern Pennsylvania to points north, south, east and west? Lots.

Consider your car or camper, for starters. Firewood? You’d be slack-jawed at the degree to which firewood fits into the equation. Just the eggs alone—not easy to see with a cursory look—can easily hitch rides to new areas, meaning that New York is a mere hop, skip and a jump away. Trains, tractor trailers, wheel wells, the cargo hold in a jet—this pest doesn’t need to lay its eggs on organic matter.  Planning a long-distance road trip? California, here we come.

“I don’t want to scare people,” says Dr. Surendra Dara, an IPM and crop advisor at the University of California, “but it has the potential to spread, and we do not have a biological-control agent.”

Which is why you, dear reader, are our eyes on the ground.

But wait. Other than toxicity, I haven’t even told you why to be alarmed about this critter. Grapes, apples, hops—these and more high-value crops rank in the billions for New York. Apples alone ring the register at about $317 million.

New York’s forestry crops are vital, too. Here’s what forest crops provide:

  • jobs for 49,200 people with payrolls of over $1.6 billion;
  • manufacturing, recreation and tourism providing over $11.0 billion to our economy;
  • removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, sequestering carbon, and producing oxygen critical for all life on earth;
  • filtering and buffering clean drinking water for millions of New Yorkers.

As our eyes on the ground, here’s what you need to know. Signs that spotted lanternfly are at our collective doorstep include:

  • sap oozing or weeping from tiny open wounds on tree trunks;
  • a yeasty smell (been near a brewery lately? That’s it);
  • inch-long, brownish-gray egg masses—like waxy mud when new, brown and scaly when old
  • heaps of honeydew under trees and vines and covered, often as not, with black sooty mold.

When you see this many SPFs in your orchard (this is Pennsylvania, mind you) — watch out. (Photo Smyers, Penn State)

Besides fruit and hops, what’s at risk? Everything from willows to walnuts—and smooth-barked trees especially. But keep in mind that many a mature tree which, once it has packed on the pounds around its waist and takes on a decidedly rough or furrowed look, looks svelte and clean-cut while still relatively young. Go outside and look at any gently-furrowed tree, and chances are you’re looking at a host. For those areas where tree-of-heaven runs rife, well—you’re looking at what might be its most favorite host of all.

Though it’s hard to wrap your mind around, it sups on some—maybe all—field crops. “We’ve seen it in some of the grain crops that are out there, soybean and what have you,” said Fred R. Strathmeyer Jr., Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of agriculture. “It’s able to feed on many, many different things.”

Now think about honeydew. Not the drink, not the melon; rather the stuff bugs secrete as they feed. A case of in one end, out the other as they move down the chow line. Although native insects also secrete honeydew, the size of the SLF and staggering numbers that congregate from place to place makes for a remarkable amount of honeydew. Parked your car beneath an infested tree? Time to clean off those sticky windshield wipers.

For sure—this sticky mess and the swarms of insects it attracts gets in the way of outdoor fun. In Pennsylvania, where SLF populations are the densest, people near the heart of the problem can’t go outside without getting honeydew on their hair, clothes, and whatever they’re carrying. At which point “outdoor” and “fun” no longer have all that much in common.

So that’s it in a nutshell and, for spotted lanternfly, all the news that’s fit to print. For now.

Wait … now for the late breaking news:

Lanternflies Eat Everything in Sight. The U.S. Is Looking Delicious …

 

May 2, 2018
by Joellen Lampman
Comments Off on Let’s work on being less attractive (to blood-thirsty mosquitos)

Let’s work on being less attractive (to blood-thirsty mosquitos)

We have been thinking a lot about ticks these days, so we are particularly grateful to our guest contributor, Paul Hetzler, for writing about another blood-sucking ectoparasite – mosquitoes.

Originally published on April 28, 2018 – Courtesy of Paul Hetzler, CCE St. Lawrence County

Hooray—it’s the end of April and the snow has mostly receded. Before it warms up too much, though, we really should try to solve our attractiveness problems. I recommend doing this through some tweaks to our attire, diet and lifestyle. With all the bloodthirsty mosquitoes outside, there is no sense being more alluring than necessary.

The Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus) is an invasive day-biting mosquito from Asia.

We are lucky in Northern New York that of the approximately 3,000 mosquito species on the planet, fewer than 50 live here. (If only that was the number of mosquitoes, not species.) Some, such as the Culex species which carry the West Nile virus, overwinter as adults and can appear on the first breath of spring. Most spend the winter in the larval or egg stages, and may take a week or more before they take to the skies in the spring.

An article which appeared on April 16 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences spilled the beans on what mosquitoes find most attractive about us. Number one on the list of what drives female mosquitoes wild: unwashed socks worn for several days by malaria-infected children. You may as well take those out of your sock drawer right now. That particular study, by the way, was aimed at finding the best chemicals to use in mosquito traps, not at giving practical wardrobe advice.

Because all mosquitoes are annoying, and a tiny fraction of them (two species in the U.S. at the moment) can transmit life-threatening illnesses such as the Zika virus, they are the subject of a lot of research. It is good to separate fact from fiction regarding what mosquitoes like and what they don’t.

They like compounds we give off, especially carbon dioxide. Aldehydes are semi-aromatic chemicals, mostly naturally occurring (formaldehyde is an exception; mosquitoes do not fare well in that) on out skin, especially after a beer or two. Lactic acid, another ’skeeter treat, accumulates on our skin when we sweat.

We can rinse often, or maybe skip the drink at a cookout, but some things are harder to avoid. Most people like to exhale on a regular basis, for example. If you have Type O blood, tough luck—you’re a ’skeeter magnet. Type A blood on the other hand, is not at the top of mosquito menus. And expectant women can expect twice as many visits from mosquitoes than those who are not pregnant.

DIYers can treat their own clothing with permethrin. Be sure to read and follow label directions carefully.

Where ’skeeters are concerned, the best defense is a good defense. Clothing that is factory-treated with the insecticide permethrin is excellent at repelling both mosquitoes and ticks. It remains effective for months, through dozens of wash cycles. Permethrin spray can also be purchased at hardware stores for use on clothing and gear. Just don’t use it on your skin.

N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, known affectionately as DEET, has been around since the 1940s, and is labeled for use on both clothing and skin. DEET is effective for roughly seven hours depending on conditions and its strength, which typically ranges from 12 to 30 percent, although 100 percent formulations are available. Picaridin is a less-toxic option which is becoming more widely used. It is equally effective as DEET but may have to be reapplied slightly more often. (Picaradin is not suggested as a tick repellant, though.)

While botanical oils are not effective against ticks, many do keep mosquitoes away. Eucalyptus oil in particular seems to be one of the best. The down side is that they are often only effective for one to two hours.

Apps available for mobile devices claim to keep biting insects at bay, but evidence shows they do not work. Not even a little. And though some people swear by home remedies such as garlic or B-vitamins, repeated trials indicate these are also of no use as repellents. Since these are good for you, in moderation, there is no need to quit — just use something that works in addition.

I always assumed mosquitoes whined to raise the blood pressure of their victim to ensure a fast fill-up. Apparently that is how they communicate — their antennae sense this vibration. In one experiment, if female mosquitoes did not whine, the males paid no attention to them.

In case you think mosquitoes have no redeeming quality, they actually pollinate certain flowers. Photo: k yamada flickr

In case you think mosquitoes have no redeeming quality, they actually pollinate certain flowers. The males in particular, which do not drink blood, can be found visiting sunflowers if you go out at night with a flashlight. Just leave the beer at home.

For more information on mosquitoes and using IPM to prevent them from breeding near your home, visit https://nysipm.cornell.edu/whats-bugging-you/mosquitoes-and-other-biting-flies.

Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

March 14, 2018
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on When It Rains, It Pours: Anatomy of a Wet Year

When It Rains, It Pours: Anatomy of a Wet Year

Remarkable, how much things can shift in a single year. Case in point: the growing season in 2017 compared to that in 2016. The contrast was stark, with ’17 as wet as ’16 was dry.

These things matter to all of us. After all, there are over 35,000 farms in New York, covering over 20 percent of the state’s land. New York ranks in the top six nationally in the production of more than 22 agricultural commodities. Our ag economy contributes a lot to New York’s economic well-being. Milk alone is worth nearly $2.5 million.

True, it wasn’t wet everywhere in New York. But the places that were? Like they say: when it rains, it pours. Results?

  • Saturated soil.
  • Flooded fields.
  • Delayed planting (or no opportunity to plant).
  • Unable to get equipment into the field.
  • Crop disease (wet soils promote disease).

More than half of farmers ranked these as extremely or very important. All were all directly linked to yield loss. But here’s something: 95 percent noted a negative effect on the quality of their crop.

So many options! A pie chart can be worth a thousand words.

Farmers in the wettest areas were the ones who responded to a recent Cornell survey seeking to learn the impact these heavy rains had on farmers and what they’d have done differently—had they but known. It’s title: The Anatomy of a Wet Year: Insights from New York Farmers.

For instance, 82 percent of farmers use drain tile or ditches to help cope with relentless rain. Seventy-two percent said the rains showed weakness or limitations in drainage infrastructure.

Here, farmers noted which practices lessened the impact of heavy rains.

If you know the IPM mantra, you know that prevention is key to good IPM. But how do you stop the rain? The take-away: our farmers are likely to face new and potent climate-related problems, whether it’s increasingly heavy rains or short-term droughts. Researchers, extension educators, NYS IPM, NGO’s, planners, engineers, NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets—anyone with ties to agriculture in New York will be called on to help farmers adapt to an uncertain future.

_________________

References:

Northeast Regional Climate Center (NRCC) www.nrcc.cornell.edu/regional/monthly/monthly.html.
National Climate Assessment (NCA; 2014) nca2014.globalchange.gov/report/our-changing-climate/heavy-downpours-increasing#graphic-16693.
Sweet et al. (2017). www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168192317302800
Wuebbles et al. (2014). journals.ametsoc.org/doi/pdf/10.1175/BAMS-D-12-00172.1

“Anatomy of a Wet Year” was funded by Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and The Nature Conservancy. For more information, contact Shannan Sweet: 607 255 8641, sks289@cornell.edu

March 7, 2018
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on So many acres, so little time: IPM’s answer to where the pests are

So many acres, so little time: IPM’s answer to where the pests are

It might not look that way from your car window, but farmland covers 23 percent of New York. It’s the foundation of New York’s multi-billion-dollar agricultural economy—one that benefits all of us, no matter where we live.

Zooming out to read the report? How easy it is to forget a severe drought after a year like 2017.

Most of that cropped land? It’s in field crops: corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and the like. (These crops sustain New York’s dairy industry, third in the nation.)  Scouting all that land for pests? A job for super-heroes—or lacking that, an efficient, well-designed app.

So IPM researchers built the app. Now Extension educators with their boots on the ground and a smartphone in their pocket can note hotspots for bad little buggers. Each entry helps map trends that matter: where the pests are, when they got there, and where they’re likely to show up next.

The educators’ audience? Why, farmers, of course.

True, right now the app is mainly used by educators tracking data. But the turnaround is quick, keeping farmers in the know and New York’s farm economy healthy. Think of it as scouting on steroids. Scouting is what keeps farmers abreast of what’s happening out in the field and what they can do to prevent or minimize damage (core values of IPM!). Downloading the data farmers need, then visualizing, manipulating, and editing it—that and more, this app does it all.

March 1, 2018
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on Climate, Weather, Data: Change Is the Name of the Game

Climate, Weather, Data: Change Is the Name of the Game

Nearly two years ago, NYS IPM convened “Climate, Weather, Data,” a statewide conference focused on pests and our changing climate. Because it’s here. It’s real. So … what will a shifting climate mean for our farms and forests, our parks and gardens?

The Climate Change Garden plans and plants for the future. Photo credit E. Lamb.

We brought together researchers, crop consultants, farmers, and more from New York and the Northeast for an eye-opening glimpse into the future. One example must speak for the rest: the Climate Change Garden, housed at the Cornell Botanic Gardens, demonstrates how a range of food and nectar crops are like messengers from the future. They speak to the effects of warming oceans, drought, heavy rain, and rising temperatures on food crops, pollinator resources, and superweeds.

As if on cue, the winter of 2015-16 followed by the drought of 2016 (not to mention the rains and temperature swings of 2017) was a messenger from the future in its own right. Drought threw a monkey wrench into IPM-funded research intended to create weed forecasting models in both conventional and organic systems. Conclusions? As the researcher charitably put it, the unusual 2016 weather provided a good opportunity to look at the limiting impact of low soil moisture; with additional years of data collection, this should be a valuable year.

And take IPM research on the brown-marmorated stink bug, aka BMSB. Because of the staggering number of crops on its chow-list, and, come winter, its role as a most unwelcome houseguest in offices and homes, BMSB has plenty of people riled. But dramatic temperature swings in winter and spring (especially spring) tricked BMSB into ditching its cold hardiness too soon and falling prey to that last sudden cold snap.

We could go on, but do we need to? You get the picture. It’s a brave new world out there, and change is the name of the game.

 

February 21, 2018
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on Planning for pollinators: No time like now

Planning for pollinators: No time like now

$1.15 billion. That’s what the 450 species of wild pollinators that call New York home contribute to our agricultural economy each year. But we’ve seen alarming declines in pollinators of every stripe and color. Some are bees and wasps. Others are flies and butterflies (and on the night shift, moths). Their loss is worrisome to everyone from rooftop gardeners to farmers with a thousand-plus acres in crops. These people depend on pollinators to grow the foods we eat, foods ranging from pumpkins and pears to blueberries and beans.

In fact, anyone with a garden or even planter boxes on their balcony has reason to care about pollinators. And there’s no time like the present to start planning for this year’s pollinator plantings.

This hover fly is among the hundreds of wild pollinators that contribute to NY’s ag economy—not to mention our parks and yards. (Photo courtesy D. D. O’Brien.)

IPM’s mission covers everything from farms and vineyards to backyards and parks, protecting all kinds of non-target plants and animals (even covert pollinators like tiny bees and flies ). That’s why we were invited to help out in 2015 when Governor Cuomo announced an interagency task force, led by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and the Department of Environmental Conservation, to develop and promote the New York State Pollinator Protection Plan, or PPP. In fact, New York is among the first 10 states to officially adopt a PPP.

The PPP was released in 2016. And the best thing is, it’s not going to stay on the shelf. This is a living document, a roadmap of sorts to guide IPM researchers and educators, farmers and householders as they plan IPPM—Integrated Pest and Pollinator Management protocols — to keep pollinators healthy for decades to come.

We’re pleased to be aboard.

January 16, 2018
by Mary M. Woodsen
Comments Off on We give awards: IPM, excellence, and Julie Suarez

We give awards: IPM, excellence, and Julie Suarez

True — this media release dates back to January 4. But that’s not so long ago, and for someone like Julie Suarez it bears repeating. In short: we presented Julie (whom you’ll meet in a minute) with an Excellence in IPM award for—well, we could name a host of reasons. But we’ll let this speak to some of the best.

Advocacy and accolades earn Excellence in IPM award for Cornell champion Julie Suarez

Four hundred-plus wild
pollinators: this hover fly is
one of many that contribute to New York’s multi-billion-dollar
ag industry — not to
mention flowers in our landscapes. Courtesy Dawn Dailey O’Brien.

GENEVA, NY, January 4, 2018: Julie Suarez’s passion is people. People at work, people at home, people in need. Whether it’s about the farm or urban communities, she’s keenly aware of the pests and the problems. She knows the issues, the legislators, the associations and nonprofits. She’s a natural.

Now Suarez, assistant dean of Governmental and Community Relations at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS), has received an Excellence in IPM award from the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYSIPM) for her unstinting advocacy for the people and programs at Cornell on issues that matter to all New Yorkers.

An accomplished facilitator, Suarez helps people

  • deal with invasive pests that threaten the livelihood of many farmers
  • preserve the pollinators—the honey bees and their kin—that are key to growing fruits and vegetables worth $1.15 billion to New York’s economy
  • cope with the relentless pressure of ticks and tick-borne diseases, which affected an estimated 8,000 New Yorkers in 2017 alone

Accolades for Suarez include:

  • Julie was instrumental in addressing the crisis when a new pest, a tiny fruit fly the size of a pinhead, threatened to put berry farmers out of business. She would answer questions, provide guidance and inform—usually responding to emails within minutes. I don’t know how she did it.
  • Julie reached out to me about research on pollinator health as soon as I arrived at Cornell. I’m impressed with the breadth and depth of her knowledge and her ability to work with scientists, officials and stakeholder groups statewide.
  • Julie is keenly aware of the key issues for state legislators, noting the committees they serve on and the needs of their constituents. That’s how the NYSIPM Program became involved with the Senate Task Force on Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease.

“Julie is proactive, strengthening the bonds between  the  IPM  Program  and the community at large,” says New York Senator Sue Serino, herself a leader in the fight against Lyme disease. “She consistently exceeds the expectations of those around her.”

“Julie brings legislators in Albany to Cornell and Cornell researchers to the legislators. She gets it that programs like ours take science to the people,” says Jennifer Grant, director of NYSIPM. “It’s a privilege working with Julie to serve all New York’s citizens.”

Suarez received her Excellence in IPM award on January 4 at the NYS Agricultural Society’s Annual Forum in Syracuse, NY. Learn more about IPM at nysipm.cornell.edu.

Left to Right: L-R: Dean Kathryn Boor, CALS; Commissioner Richard Ball, NYS Ag & Markets; Assistant Dean Julie Suarez, Governmental and Community Relations, CALS; Director Jennifer Grant, NYS IPM ; President Beth Claypoole, NYS Ag Society. Photo provided.

November 22, 2017
by Joellen Lampman
Comments Off on Gray squirrels skittering around to keep up — their pantry or yours?

Gray squirrels skittering around to keep up — their pantry or yours?

PUBLISHED ON November 11, 2017 | Courtesy Paul Hetzler, CCE St. Lawrence County

“Squirrels have been criticized for hiding nuts in various places for future use and then forgetting the places. Well, squirrels do not bother with minor details like that. They have other things on their mind, such as hiding more nuts where they can’t find them.”

Although those that feed birds think squirrels are there strictly to torment them, squirrels are quite useful in maintaining hardwood forests.

Unfortunately, that succulent passage was penned in 1949 by W. Cuppy in his book “How To Attract A Wombat.” I say unfortunately because I wanted to write it first, but was unable to get born in time. The tradeoff, which is that I got to be quite a bit younger than he, probably worked out for the best anyway.

Before learning stuff like “facts” about squirrels, it made me feel smug to think that their attention span was even worse than mine. Popular wisdom used to hold that the fluffy-tailed rodents spent half their lives burying nuts, only to forget about most of them a few minutes later. I figured that was why they generally seemed frantic, always thinking they hadn’t stored any food yet.

The great thing about the whole affair is that tons of butternuts, oaks, hickories and walnuts get planted each fall, mostly in flower boxes, but some in actual forests where they can grow to maturity. As a kid I would see untold numbers of squirrels in parks, on college campuses and around dumpsters, but few in the woods. The latter, I assumed, were lost, or in transit to a day-old bakery outlet.

So it came as a surprise to learn gray squirrels are native to temperate hardwood forests, at home in large unbroken tracts of woods. In fact, squirrels are critical to the survival of many nut-bearing trees. Walnuts, acorns and hickory nuts, which do not tend to waft on the breeze so well, and which soon dry out and degrade on the ground, need someone to cart them off and plant them in the ground.

Gray squirrels can be so numerous in the human domain that they become pests. Photo credit: get down flickr

The irony is that while gray squirrels can be so numerous in the human domain that they become pests, they are disappearing from the forests that depend on them for regeneration. The reason is that most woodlands today are patchwork. In a shocking failure of the free market, it seems no one is making large contiguous tracts of forested land any more, even though they’re increasingly rare.

It’s hard to criticize agriculture, especially if you eat on a regular basis, but clearing land to grow food has fragmented our woods. One problem with breaking up forest land is that animals may need more than just a piece of it at a time.

Gray squirrels have large, shared territories with no real borders. Although they are great at things like tree planting and eating the faces off Halloween pumpkins, they’re not so good at running across fields to the next patch of trees. Well the running works OK, but not the looking out for predators. Gray squirrels evolved in a world where hiding places grew on trees. As a result, predation was low. But since the time they have been forced to hike out in the open, hawks, coyotes and foxes have taken a bite out of wild squirrel populations.

Red squirrels, however, are moving into habitats once occupied by gray squirrels. It seems logical to think that an army of red, fluffy nut-planters would be just as good as propagating an oak-hickory forest as the gray, fluffy sort were. Not so. The reds, which evolved among conifers, are accustomed to stashing pine, spruce and fir cones in hollow trees or right out in the open. When they encountered acorns and nuts, they carried on with this tradition. In the open-air caches of the red squirrels, tree nuts desiccate and become non-viable. Nothing gets planted. Also, red squirrels have smaller, discrete territories they do not share, so they’re not as apt as the grays to gallivant over to a nearby block of trees, and thus they avoid those pesky carnivores. In this way they’re better adapted to a fragmented forest than the grays are.

Getting back to forgetfulness, science has polished up the reputation of gray squirrels by observing them. Evidently no one thought of doing this novel procedure until 1990. That’s when Lucia F. Jacobs and Emily R. Lyman of Princeton University’s Biology Department set up a series of nut-caching experiments with gray squirrels. And hopefully a few interns as well. Their impressive article was published in the Journal of Animal Behavior in 1991, and is readily available online in case anyone has an attention span longer than mine.

I should mention that gray squirrels are considered “scatter hoarders,” stashing nuts and acorns all over the place. They tend to dig them up and rebury them as many as five times prior to winter, possibly to confound greedy neighbors or pilfering jays. Each successive re-cache takes them farther and farther from the parent tree, which is good in terms of forest ecology.

Jacob and Lyons concluded that even after waiting 12 days, gray squirrels quickly located about 2/3 of the nuts they buried, but that they also exhumed a few that weren’t theirs. However, each squirrel managed to end with at least 90% of the original number provided by researchers. This shows that memory is the primary means of locating cached tree nuts. And that while they don’t plant as many trees as we once thought, they make up for it by planting each one many times.

The search continues for a squirrel-proof bird feeder. Photo credit: Ken flickr

Many thanks to Paul for letting us share his piece! For more information on what to do to prevent squirrels from planting trees in your flower boxes or, worse yet, nesting in your attic, visit the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program’s What’s Bugging You – Wayward Wanderers webpage. When it comes to keeping them out of bird feeders, you are on your own.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County

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