When one thinks of environmental disasters, it usually involves bold destruction: weather or earthquake, fire or pollution, the results usually widespread and dramatic enough for the evening news.
However, there are some cases of quiet environmental disaster that overwhelm with a whisper. Over the last couple of years the residents of Long Beach, California, have noticed their cars often have a shellac of little sticky droplets all over them in the morning. Overhead, thousands of local magnolia trees have become half-covered with a black tar-like substance.
With more than 7,000 magnolias in the city, officials have estimated 1,000 to 2,000 of them are infested with tuliptree scale, an insect that feeds on the tree’s sap and can often cause the tree’s death.
The city is considering removing and replacing all of the affected trees. On Oct. 22, the Long Beach City Council heard presentations regarding the matter and how to address it as part of its regular meeting agenda. On Oct. 8, the council requested the city manager’s office to prepare a report on the issue and return it in 90 days.
“They are, in turn, ordered to work with the Public Works Department and return to council within 90 days with various recommendations on how to improve the current policies and processes surrounding tree infestations, as well as a cost estimate for the removal and replanting of all affected magnolia trees within the city’s boundaries and a cost estimate for water-blasting all affected sidewalks to remove tulip tree scale secretions,” said Detrick Manning, communications deputy for Mayor Robert Garcia’s office.
The recommendations will then be studied, discussed, and voted upon as part of the city council’s long-range agenda, said Manning.
The city of Long Beach has at least 29,000 trees, which have been valued at around $112 million. The magnolia is a particular favorite, and the bountiful and closely planted magnolia trees have graced the boulevards of Long Beach for generations. A primary street leading down to the side of City Hall is even called Magnolia Avenue, lined with hundreds of the trees along its length.
Tuliptree scale impacts 19 states in the country, with California being the only western state. California has reports of the insect dating back about 40 years. The Long Beach infestation emerged only a few years ago, but the suddenness, severity, and overwhelming spread of the problem has brought the issue to the forefront.
Infested trees exhibit a number of symptoms, with the more prominent signs being a black fungus that covers the tree’s trunk and limbs and a sticky substance coating the leaves, ground, and unfortunate cars that happen to be parked underneath. Experts say the sticky shellac substance is a byproduct created by the insects feeding off the tree’s sap and then excreting a “honeydew” onto the tree, which can reduce its ability to photosynthesize.
Officials said in September the city has set aside $100,000 for treating infected trees with insecticide. Unfortunately, in past attempts at treatment, only about 20 percent of the trees began to improve.
Don Hodel, an emeritus environmental and landscape horticulture adviser with the University of California, co-authored a report (pdf) in 2018 that focused on the outbreaks in Long Beach.
“We had never seen anything even remotely close to the damage and nuisance this pest was causing. At various sites many trees were damaged and dripping with honeydew and several trees were dead. The honeydew was so abundant it made nearly any type of activity beneath the tree impossible,” Hodel wrote.
Hodel said the adult insects permanently attach themselves to the host tree, while the young insects can be spread by wind or by the movement of infested plant material. Meanwhile, the wind in Long Beach comes from the west, and the infestation was first identified near the ocean and spread east over time.
The report notes that combinations of insecticidal oils, chemical sprays, and “natural enemies,” including moths, wasps, and fungi, can be used to treat the magnolias. However, it may be too little, too late for Long Beach.
“It doesn’t look good for the magnolia trees,” Hodel told The Epoch Times. “I think a great many of them will die. Some city arborists are worried the community could lose them all.”