Experts say summer beetle boom could be a bust by next year

SHELTON, Wash. - The damage caused by thousands of black beetles may be done this year, but new information from bug experts means homeowners need not worry -- those trees that look dead now should return to their lush, green selves next year.

This summer, in what the Department of Natural Resources believes was a leaf beetle irruption, dozens of residents in Mason, Thurston, Kitsap, Lewis and Skagit counties were left wondering what to do about the insect seen overtaking their willow, alder and poplar trees.

"Now we have all these bare trees with brown leaves falling," says Jeri Plews, a Mason County homeowner. "It's ugly."

But after weeks of observations and information gathering, experts say it appears what happened to the Plews and their neighbors in Mason County was a natural insect outbreak -- a common survival strategy known as "predator satiation."

"Having a huge, infrequent population irruption, insect hatch, or seed production is a way to avoid getting eaten," says Karen Ripley, a forest health program manager with the Department of Natural Resources.

While that may not be what homeowners in the affected counties want to hear, Ripley says she would be surprised if any of the trees the beetles attacked this year don't return next year.

"Getting rid of the beetles is probably unnecessary because these natural host trees are very resilient to defoliation," Ripley says. "They can tolerate a lot of leaf loss without long-term consequences,"

Ripley recently shared this latest information via email with a number of local experts who residents had contacted after noticing an increase in beetle activity.

For those homeowners bothered by the beetles, Ripley recommends using a hose to wash them away. She says to try and stay away from applying any sort of pesticide and pretty soon, if not already, the beetles should start to disappear as they find places to ride out the winter.

What remains an unknown right now is what the populations will look like in the future. Ripley says a combination of factors, including wet weather, beetle disease, low nutritional leaf quality and predator awareness could help the beetles fall back to more normal levels within the next one to three years.