Urbanization is good for pests and bad for trees

My wife is from a neighborhood outside Baltimore called Lawyer’s Hill. This is where, in the 18th century, lawyers (and I assume doctors and other gentlemen) had country houses and could escape the summer heat. Lawyer’s Hill is only 3 miles from Baltimore but, based on their significant investment in houses and land, it must have provided significant relief. So what was (and still is) the difference between Baltimore City and Lawyers Hill? Trees.

Historic Lawyer’s Hill (left) and downtown Baltimore City. Images from Google Maps

Typically shabby red maples with damage by gloomy scales. Notice dead branches and sparse canopy. For more (better) pictures visit Adam’s picture gallery featured in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Photo: SD Frank

Trees cool the environment by shading houses, roads, and sidewalks that absorb heat. If you have every walked barefoot from the pool (or wherever you spend time barefoot) to your car you know that pavement is hot and that you scurry from one patch of shade to another. All the heat absorbed by pavement that does not radiate into the soles of your feet radiates into the air. Trees also cool the environment by evaporative cooling called transpiration in which they release water vapor through their leaves. Of course there are other reasons cities are hot. Air conditioners, industrial processes, and vehicles all generate heat. An unshaded bus stop is hot but even hotter when the bus is idling next to it.

All this heat can be bad for people. Heat alone poses a risk to human health as does exposure to solar radiation and pollutants that become more concentrated in hot areas. So why don’t cities plant more trees? Many of them do and try to preserve the trees they have. Unfortunately, arthropod pests are more abundant on urban trees and urban tree survival is low.

In two papers released today, Adam Dale, PhD student extraordinaire, has tackled the questions of why herbivores are more abundant on urban trees and what are the consequences for urban tree health. Adam works on gloomy scale, Melanaspis tenebricosa, an armored scale that feeds on almost every red maple within city limits (go look at the closest red maple, then get back to work).

All the gray bumps on this trunk are gloomy scales sucking nutrients from the tree. For more (better) pictures visit Adam’s picture gallery featured in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Photo: SD Frank

Adam came up with a way to count gloomy scale embryos to determine that warm scales produce more babies. For more pictures of scale embryos visit Adam’s picture gallery featured in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America. Photo: AG Dale

In his first “Urban warming trumps natural enemy regulation of herbivorous pests” published in Ecological Applications he shows that urban warming seems to be the primary factor associated with gloomy scale abundance on urban trees. He supports this by identifying an amazing physiological mechanism: scales at warm sites can have 3 times as many babies as scales at sites just 2.5 degrees cooler! Adam’s next question was: So what about the trees? Do scale insects and temperature increase plant stress or reduce tree growth? This is what urban foresters need to know if they are going to make management decisions. Why manage scales if the heat kills trees anyway? Adam’s second paper “The effects of urban warming on herbivore abundance and street tree condition” in PloS One shows that both scale insects and heat are associated with poor tree condition. This means trees with scales and particularly hot trees with scales are more likely to have dead branches, sparse foliage, and generally look worse that cool trees without scales.

Urbanization is increasing and a new paper from Adam Terando and colleagues from NCSU and the USGS Southeast Climate Science Center suggests urbanization will expand more than previously thought. See a piece on The Rise of Charlanta by Rob Dunn. You notice in the image of Lawyer’s Hill that subdivision construction is underway. Each of these house will get a lollipop tree, probably a red maple or worse an ornamental plum, but the canopy will never be restored. To conserve trees and their valuable benefits for human and environmental health we need to understand even more about why pests become more abundant on urban trees and which trees should be planted to establish resilient urban forests. Its clear from Adam’s work that red maples are not a good choice for hot southern cities.

A gallery of photographs of Adam’s research was featured in the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America.

About the Author:

Steve Frank
I am broadly interested in the ecology and management of arthropod pests. Herbivorous arthropods cause extraordinary damage to plants in agricultural, urban, and natural ecosystems. Understanding interactions between pests and their environment, plant hosts, and natural enemies can improve management practices and reduce pesticide applications.