They’re baaack! Those rascally spruce bark beetles that nearly wiped out spruce trees on the Kenai Peninsula a few years ago are now attacking trees in Anchorage and the Valley.

The nasty critters are only about a quarter-inch long but they can multiply at an incredible rate and make a sticky mess of a few spruce trees in relatively short order. (That’s in tree years, of course.)

In the last 50 years, spruce beetles have killed mature trees on 1.2 million acres of the Kenai Peninsula, about half of the peninsula’s forested land. And their impact was multiplied incredibly when we had a few dry years that resulted in some huge and very smoky forest fires that impacted the air over a large part of Southcentral Alaska for months.

In recent years the spruce bark beetles have attacked more than 6 million acres of trees throughout Alaska. And right now they are killing off thousands of acres of trees in the Anchorage Bowl and the Matanuska Valley. The areas under most severe attack are readily identifiable because the forest loses its green color and turns an ugly black shade that extends for thousands of acres.

At its peak on the Kenai Peninsula, the dead trees extended for mile after mile along the accessible highway areas. In the last 35 years spruce bark beetle infestations have resulted in the loss of an estimated 3 billion board feet of timber in Alaska.

I wasn’t aware that the beetles were back until I went to a neighborhood meeting recently at a friend’s house on the ongoing city election. One item on the ballot covers city spending in various neighborhood parks, spending that includes treating spruce trees to combat beetle infestations.

Many of those in attendance were getting ready to do a neighborhood blitz distributing cards encouraging voters to vote yes on the parks spending measure. They were reminding residents that money for parks in our neighborhood were going to be on the ballot.

We have a number of spruce trees on our lot and have to have them treated periodically to kill off eggs that the little critters leave in our trees. Knowledgeable folks like gardening columnist Jeff Lowenfels take care of their trees themselves, but uneducated folk like myself rely on contractors like Tall Trees, which looks after the eight spruce trees on my urban lot.

Tall Trees charges $280 for the first tree they treat and $30 for every tree after that, bringing our total to $490 per visit.

We usually skip a few years between infestations but when the beetles are really getting with their program it’s a worthwhile investment to treat your trees once a year. Remember, it takes a long time to grow one of those trees and the beetles can really do a job on them in short order if they get a head start on yours.

People who measure such things say a large, downed spruce tree can contain more than 100 beetles per square foot of bark. The prime season for the beetles is coming up. They fly from diseased trees in your neighbor’s yard to healthy ones in your yard when the temperature gets above 60 degrees, generally between mid-May and mid-July.

One thing to be careful about is firewood stored in your yard. The beetles can live in firewood for about two years after the trees are cut.

We have a bunch of firewood that has been in our yard for awhile, so after researching and writing this column I can count on some warm nights this summer while be burn off our firewood backlog.

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