Early Spring Pest Control for Pine Trees

Correct timing on pest control measures is key to successful management, but that’s difficult when symptoms from the insect or disease attack don’t show up until after the window for control has passed. This week, we’ll look at three common pine tree pest problems which need to be addressed early in the growing season. They are listed below in order of the timing for control.

Watch for the designated growth stages listed below for control of each pest. Watch for evergreen bud break and time your applications accordingly.

Zimmerman Pine Moth
Pine moths are serious pests of pines in Nebraska. Their larvae, which are caterpillars, damage trees by tunneling just beneath the bark of the trunk and branches, most commonly on the trunk just below a branch. The tunnels they make can girdle the trunk or branches, or physically weaken them so they are easily broken out of the tree by wind or snow. Heavily infested trees are often deformed and may eventually be killed.

The first sign of infestation by pine moths is the appearance of soft, pinkish pitch masses on the trunk or branches. These pitch masses, which form where larvae are feeding beneath the bark, may be found anywhere from the top to bottom of the tree’s trunk and commonly look like masses of bubble gum. After the larvae finish feeding, the pitch masses dry and become light yellow to cream colored, hard and brittle. The pitch masses may remain on the tree for many years and are often not noticed unless the tree is examined closely.

Ponderosa, Austrian, and Scotch pines are highly susceptible to pine moths. Jack and white pines can be infested, but are usually not seriously damaged. Pines from 5 to 15 feet tall are the most heavily infested and damaged. Smaller trees are less frequently attacked. Larger trees are often heavily infested, but they are not likely to be severely damaged.

Young larvae, which hatched out last fall and spent the winter under loose bark scales or in old tree wounds, are susceptible to insecticidal control in spring. Spray bark on the tree trunk and base of main branches with a drenching spray of permethrin or bifenthrin in the second week of April and again the second week of August.

The next two diseases – diplodia tip blight and dothistroma needle blight – are both extremely common. In fact, it’s often hard to find Austrian and Ponderosa pines which don’t have some level of infection, although in healthy vigorous trees the infection is at a very low level. 

New shoots killed by Diplodia infection, arah Browning, Nebraska Extension

Diplodia Tip Blight
This fungal disease of Austrian and Ponderosa pine kills current-year shoots and, in years with heavy disease pressure, can kill whole branches. It’s most common and damaging in mature trees, but young trees can be affected, too.

The most conspicuous symptom of Diplodia tip blight is stunted new shoots with short, brown needles, which never fully elongated and are still partially encased in their sheath. Infected shoots are quickly killed and may be located anywhere in the tree’s canopy, although damage is generally first evident and most severe in the lower branches. After two or three successive years of infection, a heavily infected tree’s canopy may be extensively thinned. Repeated infections reduce growth and deform trees.  Branches that have been infected several years in a row often die back completely.

Small, black, pimple-like structures develop at the base of infected needles and on the backside of pinecone scales. These structures produce additional fungal spores that can re-infect the tree.

Spray branch tips thoroughly when new growth starts usually around the third week of April, just before needles emerge from sheaths, and 7-14 days later according to the label with thiophanate-methyl (such as Cleary’s 3336 or Fungo), propiconazole (Banner MAXX) or copper fungicides.  Also improve overall tree health and vigor by mulching with wood or bark chips and watering about 1 inch per week during dry periods. When watering is needed, apply it very deeply (12-18 inches), but infrequently – one or two times per month, instead of one to two times per week used for turfgrass. Pines should never be watered multiple times per week using the shallower application methods typical of lawn irrigation.

Diplodia Tip Blight of Pine.

Needles infected by Dothistroma fungus, Sarah Browning, Nebraska Extension

Dothistroma Needle Blight
This fungal disease is responsible for a majority of the premature needle drop seen in windbreaks and ornamental pine plantings. Twenty pine species are affected by this disease, but in the central and eastern United States the fungus is found most commonly, and causes the greatest amount of damage, on Austrian and Ponderosa pine.

Initial infection occurs during rainy periods from May to October. Germinating spores enter the needles through natural openings and the infection process begins. Symptoms on newly infected needles appear about three to four months after the first infection, usually becoming visible in late fall. 

Symptoms are seen as yellow or tan spots on needles of the current year’s or older growth. These spots darken and become brown or reddish-brown then spread to form a band around the needle. These bands are often bordered by a yellow, chlorotic ring on each side. The fungus grows within these tissues, killing that portion of the needle beyond the lesion.

Initially, the tip of the needle dies while the base remains green, but eventually as the disease progresses, the base of the needle also dies, and the entire needle drops off the tree. Typically, clusters of needles within a shoot are infected. Lower branches of trees are most severely infected although the entire tree can be affected. Usually the greatest amount of needle drop is seen in the late spring or early summer following infection.

Spray trees with a fungicide as needles are emerging (mid-May) and after new growth has occurred (mid to late June). Increasing air-flow around the healthiest trees by removing older, declining trees will also reduce disease pressure.

For More Information

Insect Pests of Evergreen Trees.

Diseases of Evergreen Trees, Nebraska Forest Service,

Reference to commercial products is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by Nebraska Extension is implied. Mention does not imply approval or constitute endorsement by Nebraska Extension. Nor does it imply discrimination against other similar products. 

Feature Image – Zimmerman Pine Moth Pitch Mass, Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org

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