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Humbugs: Your Tree May Be Trimmed With 'Hitchhikers'
From the Wall Street Journal of Tue, 23 Dec 2014 22:55:23 EST

SALEM, Ore.—’Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring—well, except for the needle midges, root weevils and aphids.

Those Christmas trees we so carefully pick out on the lot or farm and lovingly trim? They can be crawling with bugs and other pests, most microscopic, but also such hefty specimens as slugs and yellow jacket queens. The latter “are flying to find a nice place to spend the winter, and a baled-up tree is the perfect place,” said Helmuth Rogg, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s plant program, which oversees the nation’s top Christmas tree-producing state.

Maura Coulter and her husband, Brian, learned about this yuletide phenomenon a few years back, when they brought a Noble fir tree home from a lot near their San Francisco home. They decorated it—then watched “something fly out of it and nosedive behind the piano,” said Ms. Coulter, 51 years old, a registered nurse and mother of two. “The next morning the living room was swarming with little annoying bugs. So gross!”

Ms. Coulter used a vacuum to clear the insects from her walls, furniture and carpet, while the lot replaced the tree with one less buggy.

The Christmas tree business is a big one, especially in Oregon. In all, 33 million real Christmas trees were sold in 2013, with an estimated retail value of $1.16 billion, up from $1.01 billion in 2012, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.

Officials of the trade group in Chesterfield, Mo., say the public shouldn’t be overly concerned about bugs.

“Out of 33 million trees, the number of noticeable bugs is extremely small,” said Rick Dungey, executive director of the group. “If it happened more often, I would hear about it.” Still, Mr. Dungey recommends tree owners “give it a vigorous shake yourself, and thump it up and down on a hard surface” to rid any pests and dead needles before bringing it inside.

Growers are going to greater lengths to remove critters from their trees—even though they say they are perfectly natural.

“Having more bugs means you have healthy trees,” said Gary Snyder, co-owner of Kirk Co., a tree farm with operations in Oregon and Washington, among other places.

But that isn’t what many customers want to hear. In the past five years, important export markets like Hawaii and Mexico have begun clamping down more on certain pests they consider invasive species. As a result, Mr. Snyder’s farm now gives the trees it ships to Hawaii a hot bath to kill slugs, which are banned there.

Its trees are placed in stands on an assembly line and run through spray jets like in a carwash, using water heated as high as 120 degrees. Mr. Snyder said his son, Daniel, built the wash two years ago at the company’s biggest loading yard in Oregon City, Ore., after Hawaiian inspectors rejected half the company’s shipment of about 30,000 trees after finding slugs and other pests.

Now, he said, the rejection rate has dropped to about 15%, which may be as good as things can get. “We can’t heat the water anymore because it would scald the trees,” he said.

A more common technique is putting trees in a mechanical shaker, as required on shipments to Mexico. “When it’s going, it’s shaking very vigorously to remove beetles and other insect pests before shipping,” said Bob Schaefer, general manager of Noble Mountain Tree Farm outside the state capital of Salem, standing over a pile of dead needles the hydraulic shakers left behind.

Hawaiian inspectors have a similar but low-tech method of checking for bugs. “We take a random tree, pound it on the ground and see what comes out,” said Chris Kishimoto, entomologist with the state’s Department of Agriculture. Slugs are a concern because they can eat local crops, he said.

None of the pests pose a serious threat to humans, though they can generate alarm, according to a 2004 paper by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. If left indoors on a tree, tiny aphids of the genus Cinara, for instance, “may produce offspring, and winged forms may occur,” according to the paper.

If a tree suddenly seems to develop its own “flocking,” the paper says, the likely culprit is the pine bark adelgid, a sap-sucking bug that covers itself with a white wax.

Christmas trees can have as many as 25,000 insects and other pests each, most not visible to the naked eye, according to Bjarte Jordal, an associate professor at Norway’s University Museum of Bergen. Entomologists in Oregon say mice, small snakes and frogs have occasionally decorated a tree.

In a two-year survey ended in 2012, state entomologists in Oregon counted a total of 67,330 bugs and other small pests from 836 species in 100 evergreen fields they inspected. James LaBonte, entomologist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, described most of the bugs as “hitchhikers.”

“A lot of them are passing through and a Christmas tree is a good place to hang out,” Mr. LaBonte said in an email. Some, he said, “are predators feeding on everyone else, including each other.”

Spiders fall into the latter category, as Missy Henriksen of Falls Church, Va., discovered four years ago. She and her husband had chopped down a Douglas fir, as is their tradition, and brought it home with their children, then aged 9 and 12. They didn’t realize it apparently came decorated with a spider egg sac.

“We thought we had the perfect tree, and all of a sudden we had hundreds of spiderlings in our home,” said Ms. Henriksen, 48, who happens to be spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association. “This is why you need to do a thorough check.”

A creature even more sinister could be haunting Christmas trees’ future, warns Oregon’s Dr. Rogg. A voracious pest called the brown marmorated stink bug has begun infiltrating Oregon’s farm country, and showing up in 41 other states as well. The bug, which originated in Asia and gets its name from the foul odor it can give off, could start latching onto Christmas trees, Dr. Rogg said. It is a prospect he finds less than jolly.

“I call it the bug from hell,” he said.

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