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Meet the parasitoid wasps scientists hope will save (some) of Vermont's ash trees

A bright orange canister, that looks like it would come from a pharmacy, is strapped to a small ash tree with black wire ties. The canister has a paper towel inside it covered in little dots that are eggs containing wasp larvae. The canister's opening is covered in a net of mesh. There are blurred green leaves and trees in the background.
Abagael Giles
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Vermont Public
Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation is releasing parasitoid wasps that prey on emerald ash borer larvae. The wasps are native to parts of Russia and eastern China, where they appear to keep emerald ash borer populations in check. This canister contains emerald ash borer eggs that have been hijacked by wasp larvae. If all goes as planned, the wasps will mature and hunt for more emerald ash borer eggs to prey on.

On a warm afternoon in early fall, Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation protection forester Chloe Sardonis taps a tiny parasitoid wasp out of a compostable coffee cup and onto an ash tree near Plainfield’s Spruce Mountain.

The wasp is small and black, and at first glance, it doesn’t look like much more than a gnat. Except that it’s going to hunt for emerald ash borer larvae through this tree’s bark.

More from Vermont Public: The Emerald Ash Borer Is Here. So What Should You Do With Your Ash Trees?

The invasive beetle emerald ash borer was first spotted in Vermont in 2018. Since that time, it’s spread to 13 of the state’s 14 counties. The insect is on track to kill hundreds of thousands of mature ash trees in Vermont in the coming decades. But some scientists hope these tiny wasps might give the next generation of ash trees a fighting chance at survival.

Sardonis explains the process as she works.

“We walk around and find a tree with symptoms… walk over to that, take some info down for the government about tree size, etc., open it up, take the lid off and tap ‘em out,” she says, adding to the wasp, “Be free! Do your thing!”

A man wearing a gray-blue baseball hat and faded orange work vest holds a clear plastic cup labeled with masking tape, above the bark of a small ash tree. He taps the cups bottom, as a few tiny black wasps fall out. The background is a see of leaves, he's in a forest.
Abagael Giles
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Vermont Public
Josh Halman with Forests, Parks and Recreation taps wasps out of a clear cup and onto an ash tree in L.R. Jones State Forest in Plainfield. The hope is that these wasps will prey on emerald ash borer larvae.

This wasp’s “thing” is to paralyze the emerald ash borer larva and inject it with its own eggs, which then hatch and eat the grub.

State scientists are releasing three of these special wasp species at three sites across Vermont — here in L.R. Jones State Forest, as well as at a campground on South Hero and at another site in Bennington.

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The wasps don’t sting people. They have a very specific taste for beetle larvae, but only at certain phases of their life cycle. One species being released targets the emerald ash borer’s eggs.

Today’s batch of nearly 1,000 wasps traveled to Vermont from Michigan by way of UPS, in cups with a little honey.

“It’s a very delicate process of encouraging them to leave their honey-filled home,” Sardonis says as she taps a few out.

A big, square cardboard box lined with a pale green compostable trash bag sits on gray gravel in a parking lot. A person in blue jeans and hiking boots can be seen behind it, and the bumper of a car next to it on the left. Inside the box are clear plastic cups aligned in a grid.
Abagael Giles
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Vermont Public
The parasitoid wasps started out at a U.S. Department of Agriculture laboratory in Michigan. From there, they were shipped via UPS, in clear cups, like the sort you might get an iced coffee in. They have to be released the same afternoon they arrive in Vermont.

The wasps are part of a nationwide effort to save future forests from this super invasive shiny green beetle.

Emerald ash borer was first found in Vermont four years ago. By the time you can tell an ash tree is infested, it’s already too late. The beetles eat away at the cambium, the part of a tree that moves water and sugars up and down the trunk. They can kill a mature ash tree in just a few years.

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Josh Halman is a forest health specialist with the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. He helps keep track of invasive species and their impacts on Vermont’s forests, and he says the beetles basically girdle trees.

“They’re pretty much strangling the tree and making it impossible for those nutrients to get up to those tissues in the upper crown, where they’re needed,” Halman says.

Emerald ash borer arrived in the United States in 2002. It’s likely the beetles made their way here in wood packing materials. Vermont watched for the insects for years before finding them here in 2018.

Two photos -- on the left, a brown and yellow flecked wasp has all four legs on a vertical piece of ash bark, which is textured and brown. On the right, a shiny green beetle eats a jigsaw puzzle piece pattern into a bright green ash leaf.
Jian Duan
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U.S. Department of Agriculture
Spathus galinae, left, one of the wasp species being released in Vermont, hunts for emerald ash borer larvae through the bark of an ash tree. Right, an emerald ash borer eats an ash leaf.

Now that they’re in Vermont, scientists expect emerald ash borer will kill most of the mature ash trees in the state, as they did in many parts of the Midwest.

But some scientists say these wasps offer a glimmer of hope for the next generation of trees.

“The eradication of emerald ash borer is pretty much impossible here and elsewhere,” Halman says. “But what these insects can do, is they can reduce the population to the point where the next cohort of ash trees that are growing up will have a fighting chance to defend themselves against emerald ash borer as they grow.”

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The wasps are native to eastern Russia and China, where they hunt emerald ash borer larvae and eggs in the wild. The U.S. Department of Agriculture spent about a decade running tests in a quarantine facility in Michigan before they released them, to try to make sure they wouldn’t harm other species in the U.S.

Jian Duan is an entomologist and the lead scientist working on this at the USDA.

“To get regulatory approval, we need to conduct safety testing… just to make sure these natural enemies do not attack our native insects,” he says.

oobius-agrili-emerald-ash-borer-preying-wasp-inserts-eggs-courtesy-jian-duan-usda-20221018.mp4

So far, things look promising.

Duan says the wasps are very specific about how they hunt, following the vibrations the larvae make under an ash tree’s bark when they feed.

That specificity made them a good bet for biocontrol — when scientists or farmers use a pest’s natural enemy to control its population.

In fact, Duan says one species of the wasps is so particular that: “If you peeled the ash bark and took the emerald ash borer larvae out of the tree, and put them into a petri dish, these wasps cannot attack the larvae… because they have to go through this process.”

Vermont is the 31st state to release these wasps. Duan says in parts of southern New England, they’re killing as much as 50% of all emerald ash borer larvae.

A long, clear, white emerald ash borer larvae shown in a gallery, the space they chew out as they eat their way through in an ash tree. The larvae is full of tiny white cylinders that are wasp larvae.
Jian Duan
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U.S. Department of Agriculture
An emerald ash borer larvae shown inside one of the galleries it chewed in an ash tree. This larva has been consumed, or parasitized, by a clutch of Spathius galinae wasp larvae that have formed cocoons.

But this approach has its limitations. It’s expensive to raise the wasps.

“We always struggled with the number of parasitoids the lab can produce,” Duan says. “It is very labor-intensive to rear this biocontrol agent.”

Additionally, the wasps won’t save trees that are already facing infestation.

In fact, 20 years after emerald ash borer first came to the United States, the federal government has largely given up on efforts to quell its spread. In 2021, the USDA lifted regulations on moving firewood across state lines.

Instead, the feds say they’re putting those resources towards rearing more wasps.

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Elise Schadler would like to see more federal money set aside for something less glamorous: removing dead ash trees.

“Tree removals — I mean, excuse my French — but it’s just not sexy,” Schadler said.

Schadler runs Vermont’s Urban and Community Forestry Program. They help towns manage their urban trees, everywhere from town forests to village greens to city streets.

She says it’s not the first time Vermont has faced something like this. A hundred years ago, the American elm dominated New England city streets. They were favored for their shade and their shape.

But when Dutch elm disease — a fungus — came through from 1940 ro 1960, it killed some 11,000 elms in Burlington alone.

Many of those elms were replaced with fast-growing, salt-tolerant green ash trees.

An illustrated image of a street and sidewalks lined with trees, with the text Northfield, Vt. Central Street at the bottom. The trees have green leaves and are set against a blue sky, with sunlight streaming between the trunks.
Northfield Historical Society, Courtesy
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A postcard from the early 1900s showing the elm tree-lined Central Street in Northfield.

In fact, Schadler’s organization has mapped more than 90,000 ash trees in public right-of-ways around the state. And she says there are more, squeezed between old houses in Burlington’s north end or growing wild along town roads.

She says if all these trees die at once, it will be an expensive proposition for towns to remove them.

“You know, you’d think we would have learned our lesson after Dutch elm [disease] came through, but we certainly did not,” Schadler said.

As for Vermont’s ash trees, Schadler says towns can save money by planning ahead and removing trees now, or working with a licensed arborist to treat them annually with a state-approved non-neonicotinoid insecticide.

That option has some downsides, though. While it’s not terribly expensive to treat trees, the pesticides can seep into the soil or nearby waterways, and they also kill native insects.

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Some towns are already doing this work and have been for a long time. But Schadler says the vast majority of Vermont towns don’t have an arborist on-staff. This work gets done mostly by volunteers, and she says this problem is too big for volunteers to take on alone.

Schadler’s organization can help towns with the logistics and with securing funding. She says replanting with more diverse trees is key in the face of climate change, which could bring more forest pests.

“We don’t know how … changes in extremes and temperature increases are going to impact the urban forest like everywhere else. So diversity, diversity, diversity — that’s not just species diversity, but age diversity,” Schadler said.

 A person with shoulder-length dark curly hair and a blue-gray baseball hat hikes in a red-orange reflective vest through dense northern hardwood forest. They are carrying a big, square cardboard UPS box in one hand.
Abagael Giles
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Vermont Public
Chloe Sardonis, with the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, hikes a box full of wasps in L.R. Jones State Forest, to be released at a site with a severe emerald ash borer infestation.

Forester Chloe Sardonis with Forests, Parks and Recreation says that’s important for all of Vermont’s forests.

“There’s a suite of issues that comes with climate change or introduced pests,” Sardonis said. “They tend to compound on each other … It’s like a one-two punch for our native species.”

It’s too soon to know if the wasps will be enough to give younger ash trees in Vermont a fighting chance.

Vermont started releasing them during the pandemic, and data from the USDA show it will take about three to five years for them to make a dent in the emerald ash borer population here.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Abagael Giles @AbagaelGiles.

Abagael is Vermont Public's climate change and environment reporter. She joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.