Life, Stories told

An expensive little bug

I have enough experience with small engines to know that the sounds my push mower was making were terminal. I lack enough experience with small engines to know exactly what was wrong. It didn’t matter: the engine made a sudden, sickly “hwangggg!” sound and lurched to its final rest.

Push Mower with Tractor in the Background

RIP, mower in front

Thankfully, I also have a tractor, so I could still cut my grass last Friday evening. As I drove it around the yard, I stole glances up into my trees, which are just starting to bud and leaf. My yard is heavily wooded, trees reaching 60 feet or more into the sky, three or four dozen of them. They veil the house and keep it cool all summer. But on this early spring day, branches mostly bare, I looked up for signs of damage. I saw signs in so many trees. So many.

When I first mowed a couple weeks ago, I noticed a few trees missing bits of bark in large patches. I thought it odd; I grew concerned. So I researched it on the Internet. I learned that this is called “flecking,” and is caused by woodpeckers feeding on insects underneath. The number one delicacy for which woodpeckers fleck trees is the emerald ash borer, a green Asian beetle.

fleck1

Flecked and tagged

These bugs bore under the bark of ash trees and lay eggs. The larvae feed on the layer under the bark that allows nutrients to flow through the tree. The tree starves and dies.

The ash borer probably entered North America in ash shipping boxes. Its natural predators don’t exist in the United States, so it has spread unchecked across 25 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. It threatens to wipe out the ash tree in North America.

I don’t know an ash from a poplar from an elm, but the arborist I brought in does. He told me that I have 21 ash trees, all badly infested with the borer. He told me they’ll all have to come out. He quoted a price equivalent to a modestly equipped new family car.

I drive a nine-year-old, paid-for family car because I’ve been saving to send my older son to Purdue in the fall. I’ve been living frugally for years in preparation, actually. But not frugally enough to solve this problem and pay for college without taking on debt.

fleck2

Flecked way up high

After I finished mowing, I walked through my neighborhood looking for flecking in my neighbors’ trees. I saw distressed ash trees in every yard on my street and in most yards on other streets in my subdivision. The borer has borne down hard on my neighborhood.

My yard has more ash trees than any of them, though. And after looking closely at all 21 trees, I see some level of flecking in all but a few. My research suggests that this means the trees are too far gone to be saved. So now I must decide whether to remove the most damaged two or three trees every year for the next seven or eight years to distribute the cost — or ask for a steep discount to have the whole job done at once, perhaps over the winter when they’re not very busy.

My little house (crop)

Happy and healthy trees in 2011

I hope to move on from here within two to five years. I’d probably have to disclose this expensive problem to a buyer. It seems like biting the bullet and removing them all is the cleanest solution, if I can scrape together the cash. Paying for it will more than consume the equity I have in my home. In my neighborhood, home values haven’t recovered and may have continued to decline slowly after the housing bubble burst in 2008.

There’s no recovering from this. I’m just going to have to suck it up.

I now have enough experience with ash trees to know that mine are almost certainly terminal. I lack enough experience to know the best course of action. At least this makes unexpectedly needing to buy a new push mower seem like no big deal.

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16 thoughts on “An expensive little bug

  1. I’m sorry to hear of your trouble – but better to have the trees removed before one lands on the house. We had a large liquidamber branch just miss our bedroom window one morning and had to get the arborists in to remove the rest of the tree. It sure does cost…

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    • I had a very large branch land on the house once and crush part of my roof, so I’m totally with you. It will be hard to bite this financial bullet, but time and chance do happen to us all.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m just spitballing here, Jim, but if it’s a problem through the neighbourhood, what about forming a corporation with the affected neighbours, getting a loan, and working out a repayment schedule over a few years? Your arborist might give you a more generous round number if he knows he’s going to be handling several jobs. I don’t know about US tax law but there might also be significant advantages and write-offs in having a corporation doing it, rather than just folks. Anyway, it just occurs to me… I am sorry to hear about this for a number of reasons, and not just the bottom line. What a shame to have to lose so much simple beauty.

    What ARE the natural predators of this beetle, anyway? Maybe we should be talking to China.

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    • I’ll have to chew on this suggestion. I don’t know most of my neighbors, and a considerable percentage of the homes in my neighborhood are rentals. I’m not even sure where to begin.

      It’s a shame to lose trees, cost aside — but these are not beautiful trees. They’re tall, gangly things. There are enough of them close enough together that they grew way up tall as in a forest, rather than out as in suburbia.

      I don’t know what kills these beetles! Here in North America it’s the woodpecker. I read one article saying that the woodpecker might end up ending this epidemic here. But just one.

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  3. It may be a long-shot, however it is possible that a logger might be interested in your trees. Wood from borer infected trees is usable if the bark is properly removed. And many lumber mills are set up to handle this. 21 trees that which may have fairly straight trunks might be worth a logger’s time. I am not sure what the logging situation is in central Indiana, however southern Indiana used to have a fair number of loggers.

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    • I wouldn’t even begin to know where to find a logger.

      Many of these trees are within 10 feet of my house. Would they not all have to come down in sections small enough not to be of real use to anybody?

      Clearly, I’m no expert.

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      • You could probably do a search for loggers in Indiana. It looks like there might be at least two or three in your area. Considering the money you could save it would probably be worthwhile to look into it. Probably a lot of it would depend on what the demand for ash wood is these days. If it is something they have a market for they would go to some trouble to get it. I do know that many of the tree removal companies sell the lumber they get to lumber mills. So they can get two pay days.

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        • The comment thread about this post on Facebook is suggesting that there are uses for the logs and that perhaps even my tree service will double dip: charge me to haul the logs away, and charge someone else to use them. I dunno, seems like I have nothing to lose to make some calls.

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  4. Jon says:

    Shipshewana Hardwood Middlebury Hardwood there are many places up here but they won’t just come for a few they want at least a full truck load or more. I am not sure if it is legal to move infected wood???

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    • 21 trees is probably a truckload. But there are restrictions on moving this wood outside the county because of the quarantine we’re under. Maybe a lumber company here could use the wood.

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  5. Ugh! I just hate it when trees have to go. It’ll change the whole look of your house, your yard, and your neighborhood. So sorry to hear it. Takes years and years to grow and they’ll be down on the ground in a few chops. Sorry about the money too. Perdue is a great school. Congrats for your son going there!

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    • Thanks for sympathizing! My yard is like a mini woods – these are tall, scraggly trees. So it might not be too too bad when they’re gone. We will see!

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  6. I’m really sorry to hear about this Jim. I’ve struggled a bit with money for all of my life, so i can really understand what a financial blow this must be. When I bought my own place I thought life would get easier but you just end up with more responsibility and more things to worry about!

    I do think the suggestions other have offered so far are worth considering. You don’t need to rush in to any decision, so take your time have a think about all the options and get as much advice as you can.

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    • Gerald, you are sure right about owning your own place and all the things to worry about. If I had it to do over again, I think I might have rented during this period of my life. I owned a house with my wife while I was married, and after the divorce I was eager to get into ownership again, but this post-divorce period might have benefited from me being less tied down. And it would certainly have involved less financial frustration when surprises come up. This is the biggest surprise by far, but there have been others.

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  7. Steve Miller says:

    Ash is kind of a drug on the lumber market in Indiana right now, but the woodworker in me hates to see these trees go to firewood. There’s a small lumber mill hidden just up Michigan Road from you — heading north at about 65th Street, look for a small sign on the left reading “Firewood.” These are “The Green Guys” — you want to talk to David. They don’t, as I understand, drop the trees, but can put you in contact.

    You can tell ’em I sent you, but that probably won’t get you anything.

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    • Thanks Steve. I know the property you’re talking about. I’ve seen the Firewood sign for years.

      I got a second opinion on the job that came in at less than half the first, so things are looking up a little.

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