Potentially fatal beech tree disease discovered in several WMass communities

  • Arborist Greg Beck, of Bartlett Tree Experts, talks about beech leaf disease next to a healthy European beech tree on Thursday morning on the Town Common in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • The leaves of a healthy European beech tree on Thursday morning on the Town Common in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • Arborist Greg Beck, of Bartlett Tree Experts, describes the signs of beech leaf disease next to a healthy European beech tree Thursday morning on the Town Common in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • European beech trees line the Town Common on Thursday morning in Amherst. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • Plant Health Care Specialist, Peter Prange, of Barlett Tree Experts identified beech leaf disease in Amherst a few weeks ago while mountain biking in the woods. Bartlett’s diagnostic lab confirmed the the results.  CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/11/2022 7:46:48 PM
Modified: 8/11/2022 7:43:33 PM

AMHERST — An emerging disease that is known to weaken and contribute to the decline of beech trees has been confirmed in some trees in Amherst and other communities in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

The malady, beech leaf disease, causes damage to a tree’s leaves, leading to reduced vigor and can eventually lead to tree mortality, according to Nicole Keleher, forest health program director for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Bureau of Forest Fire Control and Forestry.

“It’s still at a pretty low level in this area and not as severe as in locations in the eastern part of the state, but it’s here,” Keleher said by phone from her Amherst office.

The tree affliction was spotted a few weeks ago by Peter Prange, an astute plant health care specialist from Bartlett Tree Experts, headquartered in Stamford, Connecticut, according to Greg Beck, an arborist who works in the company’s Northampton office. Prange, who was familiar with the disease, was mountain biking in Amherst when he stopped to have a sip of water in the woods and noticed symptoms of leaf disease on a beech tree.

“He took a sample and sent it to our lab in North Carolina and they confirmed that it was, in fact, beech leaf disease,” said Beck. “I believe that was the first documented finding in Hampshire County.”

Since then, Beck said, Bartlett has identified the disease at client properties in Easthampton, Westhampton and South Hadley.

The DCR’s Bureau of Forest Fire Control and Forestry has also noted that the disease has been detected in the Franklin County towns of Deerfield and Ashfield.

Beech leaf disease was first identified in the U.S. in an American beech tree in northeastern Ohio in 2012. It has since spread to other counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut and Ontario, Canada.

It was first detected in Massachusetts in Plymouth in June 2020.

Although the finding in Amherst isn’t new to Massachusetts, this latest detection in July does mean that the disease has been found in every single county in the state and more than 80 communities, Keleher said. Infected trees include American, European and oriental beech trees.

“It’s very widespread and has hit the state very hard,” she said.

What causes this disease?

The disease is caused by a microscopic worm of the foliar nematode species. Symptoms of the nematode infection can be identified by the distinctive marks it leaves behind — dark stripes between the veins of beech leaves, Keleher said.

“If you look up underneath the tree canopy on a bright sunny day, the dark bands will really stand out,” she said.

Eventually, as the disease progresses, leaves that are symptomatic on an infected tree will appear weathered and curled, or develop a leathery texture, she said. Beech trees that are especially impacted may appear to have a thinner canopy or have sections of branches that have died.

As the tree becomes weakened by the disease, it becomes that much more susceptible to secondary invaders like the twolined chestnut borer, which are opportunistic insects that go after stressed trees, Beck said. The twolined chestnut borer is a long, slender black beetle that has a bluish to greenish hue and has two faint, yellowish stripes along their back.

“As beech leaf disease is rampant through our area, more than likely the population of the twolined chestnut borer is going to grow on the heels of that, and the twolined chestnut borer is a native pest,” he said. “It’s going to be hungry and going after more and more beech trees.”

On top of that, with the state suffering a “critical” level 3 drought, trees are already stressed, he added.

Although symptoms of the malady have been observed, unlike other current forest health threats, there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to beech leaf disease.

“The emerald ash borer, for example, we know how they function and can draw upon our knowledge of other species, but this disease is really different. We don’t know how it was spread, how it moves or how to treat it,” said Keleher. “We have no tools, and it’s moving really quickly through our state.”

Can the disease beprevented or stopped?

Currently, research is being conducted by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies, but there are no chemical control options at this time.

At Bartlett, Beck said the company has ongoing research trials in New York and Connecticut to study the disease and the associated nematode, and look at different treatment options.

“Addressing cultural and environmental issues such as buried root collars, girdling roots, proper mulching, drought stress, and fertilizing will help offset infestation of secondary invaders and will likely buy us time to better understand and research the disease and develop a treatment plan,” said Beck. “If you have a feature beech tree I recommend contacting a local arborist who is well versed in dealing with beech trees and has experience with beech leaf disease.”

Beck advised property owners to let beech trees live out their lives rather than cutting them down. 

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation Forest Health Program is surveying beech trees across Massachusetts to determine the extent of the disease in the state.

Amherst Tree Warden Alan Snow said that if someone spots a beech tree that they believe may be infected with beech leaf disease, they should report it to DCR by sending an email to Keleher at nicole.keleher@mass.gov or call 857-337-5173.

He encouraged providing details about the tree’s location, symptoms and severity of the disease, and any photographs.

Snow also noted that the town will be providing education to the community about the disease via the town’s website.

“This really drives home that we need a healthy, robust and diverse tree canopy in our community,” Snow said.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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