I feel heartsick on this August morning, saddened to the core by two ailing spruce trees in my home’s front yard.
Only a week earlier the large, mature trees seemed to be doing fine despite our unusually hot and dry summer and a new outbreak of spruce bark beetles. But now—suddenly, it seems—large quantities of needles are falling from the brown, drooping limbs of one tree; and the trunks of both show clear evidence that beetles have eaten their way through the bark and into the soft phloem tissue that carries sugars necessary to a tree’s survival.
I first noticed the sagging, browned limbs while watering the trees’ roots, something I’ve faithfully done a few times every week since early June, when daily temperatures began pushing toward 70 degrees and rain clouds disappeared from Anchorage’s skies.
Only a few days before, I hadn’t detected anything unusual about the trees while moving around the yard with my garden hose, though during the previous week I had spotted several spruces with large, rust-colored blotches within a block or two of my home. Those were the first sure and unsettling signs that spruce bark beetles had begun to infest the neighborhood. When I’d surveyed local streets this past spring, all the spruces had been green and appeared healthy, at least from a distance.
Now a large swath of branches were discolored on my trees’ north side. How had this happened so quickly?
Moving in for a closer look, I lightly shook one of the lower limbs and bunches of dry needles fell to the ground. All of this concerned me, but I thought—hoped—it might simply be a response to the extreme heat and dryness of this record-setting summer.
Then I checked the spruces’ trunks. That’s when my heart sank and gut clenched and the first spirit-dampening sense of loss surged through me.
“No, no, no,” I whispered, while looking at the hard truth before me. Dozens of small, sappy lumps were scattered across the bark of the larger tree. Scientists call these masses “pitch tubes.” Some were white to pale gray, but others—the majority—were dark reddish brown.
I knew that healthy spruce trees “pitch out” attacking beetles before the insects can reach the vulnerable phloem layer. But if a tree is old and weakened by drought or other conditions, it may not be able to produce sufficient sap. And if enough beetles bore into a spruce, even healthy trees will eventually succumb.
I then checked the other spruce, which has two trunks. The smaller one was oozing sap and had a few milky white lumps. The larger trunk exhibited few pitch tubes. But it had many small holes, about an eighth of an inch across, that I’d never before noticed when checking the trees.
With a growing sense of dread, I did an online search, which confirmed my worst fears. As one website on bark beetle infestations succinctly explained, “A white pitch tube means the beetle was successfully repelled by the tree. If the pitch tube is reddish-brown, most likely the beetle was successful in attacking the tree.” And those small holes? It’s possible the spruce no longer had enough sap in the one trunk to even attempt a pitch-out, giving the beetles easy access to the phloem tissue.
With that, my sorrow swelled and nagging doubts began to form.
Had I failed to adequately protect those trees?
I first became acquainted with spruce bark beetles during the 1990s outbreak that devastated spruce forests throughout much of Southcentral Alaska. At the time I lived on a 1¼-acre Hillside lot that was home to dozens of spruce trees.
Dulcy Boehle and I initially resisted spraying pesticides on those trees. But after we’d lost many spruces to the beetles, we reluctantly arranged for a commercial operator to spray several of the surviving trees with carbaryl, a supposedly “mild” toxin reported to be highly lethal to insects but only slightly to moderately toxic to birds and mammals (though it can be highly toxic to fish).
The carbaryl worked as advertised and saved at least some of our spruces. Though relieved and appreciative, I continued to worry about putting toxic chemicals into the landscape. Over time, my misgivings about—and resistance to—pesticides and other toxic chemicals have only grown. For some time I’ve considered the notion of a “mild” pesticide to be oxymoronic. These are chemicals designed to kill.
Following the end of my marriage to Dulcy in 2006, I moved to Anchorage’s Turnagain area and rented one side of a duplex. I really didn’t expect to stay more than a few years in this house, but here I remain, 13 years later.
Over those years, I’ve grown attached to the spruce trees in “my” front yard (though just how deeply attached I hadn’t realized until recently). So when word began to spread that a new outbreak of bark beetles was killing trees in parts of Anchorage and the Turnagain area was among the areas hardest hit, I vowed I would do my best to protect these spruce—but without using pesticides.
If my landlord had wanted to spray the trees with carbaryl, I probably would have tried to talk him out of it. But it seems the spruces and the beetle outbreak haven’t been on his personal radar, so we never had that discussion. And I went with my tree-watering strategy, recommended as the best non-toxic alternative to pesticides.
Both last summer and this one, I generously watered the spruce trees during extended periods of dryness. I don’t recall having to water them too often last summer. But since early June of this year, I have regularly soaked the ground around the spruces, so that water would seep down to their “feeder” roots and be taken in by the trees, keep them hydrated enough to fight off a beetle attack.
I even began watering two large spruce trees on the north side of the house, one on my landlord’s property and the other just beyond the fence, in the neighbor’s yard. From what I’ve observed, those big old trees have been largely ignored and neglected, and seemed more likely beetle targets. But as long as I was watering the spruces (and birches) in my yard, it seemed worthwhile to water them too.
I thought the watering would be enough, but I was wrong.
So now I’m filled with sadness. And sometimes feel conflicted. I held to my values, by not using toxic chemicals. But in doing so it appears I’m losing two old friends who, in a way, have become something of my extended family. Shouldn’t a person do everything in his power to protect members of his family? Should a person compromise his values to defend what’s important to him? For me there are no easy answers. I accept my choice—and still I seem to carry some regrets.
In my search for greater clarity, or at least greater understanding of what’s happening, I’ve talked with Jessie Moan, an integrated pest management (IPM) specialist with the University of Alaska’s Cooperative Extension Service, and Pam Miller with the group Alaska Community Action on Toxics I’ll discuss what I learned from them in next week’s City Wilds column, and also offer some additional thoughts about the nature of my relationship with the spruce trees and where things go from here.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.