Pine needles showing aftermath of western blackheaded budworms damage. (Courtesy photo / U.S. Forest Service Alaska Region)

Pine needles showing aftermath of western blackheaded budworms damage. (Courtesy photo / U.S. Forest Service Alaska Region)

The defoliator coming to a forest near you

Tongass National Forest visitors can help document western blackheaded budworms’ impact.

This article has been updated to change a reference from frap to frass.

The western blackheaded budworm is back in Southeast Alaska, and while the larvae lack the appendages needed to make an Instagram post, people recreating in the Tongass can help catalog budworms’ meals.

Scientists are asking people to provide photos, videos, or information related to the sightings of the insect or its damage to the Alaska Forest Health Observation’s citizen science project, iNaturalist, a collection of observations of insects and pathogens of forest health interest in Alaska.

“People can really help us improve our monitoring of the forest and be our eyes on the ground,” said Elizabeth Graham, an entomologist for the U.S. Forest Service Alaska Region. “We’ve noticed this year that the caterpillars are starting to feed on Sitka spruce, so any observations people can upload are extremely helpful.”

According to Graham, female budworms lay their eggs on the underside of needles and since most of the focus up to this point has been on the Hemlock trees, those are now heavily defoliated without a lot of needles left on them, leaving little option for the budworm but to move on to the Sitka spruces, giving the Hemlocks a much-needed break.

The most-recent outbreak was first noticed in 2020. Outbreaks can last for several years and can even look quite dramatic in certain areas, however, Graham said it’s not only a natural occurrence within the forest, it can actually be beneficial to the forest floors in the long run.

“As far as a broader ecological standpoint, they’re a natural part of the forest, and really one of their jobs is to kind of create some gaps to the canopy so that there’s more light that can reach the forest floor and really create some change within the forest, even the frass that’s raining down is actually a little bit of a nutrient boost,” Graham said. “They really have a role that they play here, so it’s kind of neat to sort of watch an outbreak like this unfold and see how it can really impact the whole landscape.”

While most of the trees survive the appetite of the budworms and some trees even come out in better conditions, heavy concentrations of activity can lead to the death of some trees.

The last time a major outbreak like this took place in Southeast Alaska was from 1992 to 1995, and this current outbreak is still far from being finished, with the western blackheaded budworm being predicted to continue feeding for weeks to come. The damage will become more apparent over time.

Graham said community engagement through programs like iNaturalist is both important and helpful.

“We really appreciate the eyes from the public, our forest health team is really small, so the observations that we get through iNaturalist and other avenues like that are really helpful to us, in fact, that’s how we first found out about the Hemlock sawfly outbreak was from a member of the public reporting it to us, we definitely wouldn’t have known about it if it wasn’t for that report,” Graham said.

Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at jonson.kuhn@juneauempire.com.

Reddish-brown discoloration beginning to show in forest trees from western blackheaded budworm damage. (Courtesy photo / U.S. Forest Service Alaska Region)

Reddish-brown discoloration beginning to show in forest trees from western blackheaded budworm damage. (Courtesy photo / U.S. Forest Service Alaska Region)

Western blackheaded budworm out to lunch on a Sitka spruce tree. (Courtesy Photo / U.S. Forest Service Alaska Region)

Western blackheaded budworm out to lunch on a Sitka spruce tree. (Courtesy Photo / U.S. Forest Service Alaska Region)

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of July 6

Here’s what to expect this week.

Disney Williams (right) orders coffee from Lorelai Bingham from the Flying Squirrel coffee stand at Juneau International Airport on Thursday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
New coffee stand at airport stirs up heated dispute about having proper authorization to operate

Fans of Flying Squirrel Espresso praise location, hours; officials say FAA violations could be costly.

Nano Brooks and Emily Mesch file for candidacy on Friday at the City and Borough of Juneau Municipal Clerk’s office in City Hall. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)
City and Borough of Juneau regular municipal election candidate filing period opens

So far, most vie for Assembly District 2 seat — mayor, Board of Education, and District 1 also open.

Killah Priest performs at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center in December 2019. (Photo courtesy of Lance Mitchell)
Killah Priest sets new record with Alaskan artists on ‘Killah Borealis’

Wu-Tang Clan rapper seeks to lift Alaskan voices and culture in his return performance to Juneau

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, July 10, 2024

For Wednesday, July 10 Attempt to Serve At 10:06 a.m. on Wednesday,… Continue reading

Commercial fishing boats are lined up at the dock at Seward’s harbor on June 22. Federal grants totaling a bit over $5 million have been awarded to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute to help Alaskans sell more fish to more diverse groups of consumers. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Federal grants to state agency aim to expand markets for Alaska seafood

More than $5M to help ASMI comes after Gov. Dunleavy vetoed $10M for agency.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy holds up the omnibus crime bill, House Bill 66, after signing it at a ceremony Thursday at the Department of Public Safety’s aircraft hangar at Lake Hood in Anchorage. At his side are Sandy Snodgrass, whose 22-year-old son died in 2021 from a fentanyl overdose, and Angela Harris, who was stabbed in 2022 by a mentally disturbed man at the public library in Anchorage and injured so badly that she now uses a wheelchair. Snodgrass and Harris advocated for provisions in the bill.Behind them are legislators, law enforcement officers and others. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Goals for new Alaska crime law range from harsher penalties for drug dealers to reducing recidivism

Some celebrate major progress on state’s thorniest crime issues while others criticize the methods.

Juneau Board of Education President Deedie Sorensen (left) and Vice President Emil Mackey, holding his son Emil Mackey IV, listen to discussion about next year’s budget for the school district during a meeting March 14 at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. Recall votes for both board members were certified this week for the Oct. 1 municipal election ballot. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Petitions to recall two Juneau school board leaders get enough signatures for Oct. 1 election ballot

President Deedie Sorensen, Vice President Emil Mackey targeted due to school district’s budget crisis.

Most Read