Damon Howell / Photo
Dr. Mike Shearer treating a stand of hemlock trees. This begins his months-long endeavor to save as many trees from insect infestation as he can.
It was a warm, sunny afternoon in February, ideal weather for the first day of Dr. Mike Shearer’s busy season.
“I’ll be working almost every day from now until it starts to slow down in June,” Shearer said at a Pickens home where he was treating Canadian hemlocks, a native species in danger of extinction from the hemlock woolly adelgid.
The aphid-like insect feeds on sap at the base of the hemlock’s needles, which eventually turn brown and fall off. The trees starve to death over the next three to five years.
Dr. Shearer points out the egg sac of a hemlock woolly adelgid as he works on a home near Lumber Company Road.
Shearer, aka “The Hemlock Doctor,” walked over to one of the few easily accessible evergreens on G.A. Sullivan’s property in the Lumber Company Road area, where a steep slope falls 300 feet to Talking Rock Creek. He turned over a few needles in search of the woolly adelgid’s eggs.
“The bug is as small as a pepper, but you can see their white egg sacs,” he said.
Shearer didn’t find any sacs on that tree, but he did on many others at the property. Despite the woolly adelgid’s tiny size, it has created a massive problem in this region. The issue, Shearer explained, is that the insect is non-native with no natural predators. Without intervention, it is expected to devastate the hemlock population. The National Park Service has reported infestations on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a decade, and in Shenandoah National Park since the late 1980s. In these areas as many as 80 percent of the hemlocks have died due to infestation.
According to the Georgia Forestry Commission, infestations have been confirmed in 19 nearby counties -- Rabun, Habersham, Stephens, Banks, Towns, White, Hall, Union, Lumpkin, Fannin, Gilmer, Pickens, Dawson, Murray, Whitfield, Cherokee, Gordon, Walker, and Dade -- reaching as far west as Cloudland Canyon.
Shearer somberly recalls a forest service road near Noontootla Creek that has been hit hard by the tiny bug, impacting 90-100 percent of hemlocks there.
“Once they start dying they’ll fall over that road, and I’m not sure if they won’t have to close it when that happens,” he said. “It’s terrible.”
Boots on the ground
The tree doctor, who incidentally earned his doctorate as an English teacher of over 30 years, has spent retirement passionately trying to keep these evergreens alive. He’s fully licensed, and has treated over 12,000 trees so far, with no signs of stopping. Ten years ago he was inspired by the trees on his own property.
“I live in Dahlonega on four acres and had some on my land, but the cost to treat them was so high,” he said. “People were really taking advantage. I learned how to do it myself and figured if I needed help to save the trees others did too, so I don’t charge that much.”
But these trees are more than just pretty to look at, or unsightly when large swaths succumb to the woolly adelgid, Shearer said. They also play a role in cooling mountain streams and providing animal habitats, preventing erosion, and increasing property value and tourism.
The doc pulls out a soil injector, the primary tool for his first 2018 project. It looks like a giant hypodermic needle, and operates in a similar way. Shearer fills a tank in the middle of the tool’s long body with a chemical and injects it in several spots in a circle around the base of the tree. He then marks the tree with chalk to signify it has been treated. There are other methods of treatment depending on the severity of infestation, but they’re all good for five to seven years.
This is the first time Sullivan has had his own trees treated, but it is such a simple process he will definitely do it again. When asked how Shearer made it to trees farther down the steep slopes of his property, Sullivan said he “just climbs down like a mountain goat.”
“These trees are so beautiful,” Shearer said before lunch break. He identified them as “charismatic megaflora,” or species that are both exceptionally large and visually appealing.
“My own property would have been devastated if these trees died, like other areas,” he said. “If I can help keep our area beautiful with these beautiful evergreen forests I want to.”
Shearer’s wife Donna Shearer is the chair of Save Georgia’s Hemlocks. Anyone who wants to learn to treat their own hemlocks and/or help save trees on our public lands can visit www.savegeorgiashemlocks.org or call the Hemlock Help Line at 706-429-8010 for information.