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Business Report
Steve Porter
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Arming trees against pine beetle invasions

BERTHOUD - A company in Berthoud is producing a chemical solution it says could help turn the tide in the ongoing battle against pine beetles that are ravaging trees across the state.

This summer AgriHouse Inc. introduced ODC, a trademarked mixture it claims is an "all natural biopesticide" that can reduce the impacts of the voracious flying bugs that are turning Colorado's forests brown.

The tiny beetles do their damage by burrowing into pine trees and laying their eggs. The hatched larvae further tunnel into the trees to feed. The beetles also carry a blue-stain fungus that inhibits the transfer of water through tree tissue.

It's the larvae and particularly the blue-stain fungus that soon kills pine trees that have had their natural resistance lowered by hot, dry summers and warm winters in recent years that weren't cold enough to kill the insects.

The result has been an explosion of beetle-killed trees in forests across the West and Northwest, making those areas fire-prone while damaging residential property values.

And while there are toxic pesticide sprays on the market that can kill the larvae, AgriHouse President Richard Stoner claims ODC is completely harmless to people and animals. To underscore that point, he pops open a one-ounce bottle of the mixture and gulps it down.

Now it's not something Stoner recommends, but his point is that the main ingredient in ODC - a colloidal chitosan solution made from Icelandic shellfish - is not toxic to mammals or the environment as other beetle treatments can be.

"It's definitely a tool in integrated pest management for homeowners, nursery people and forestry people and it's available right now, and that's why we're excited about introducing it," Stoner said. "It's a natural defense response in the tree that we're elevating."

EPA approved

AgriHouse received its approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on June 30 and is now selling ODC on its website, Stoner and his fellow AgriHouse owners, CSU microbiologist Jim Linden and retired CSU plant pathologist Ken Knutsen, say the product works by helping the tree increase its resin output, forcing out a tunneling beetle before it can lay its eggs and infect the tree with blue stain.

"If the beetle gets pushed out, that blue stain won't get established," said Linden. "We believe we're overcoming those two factors."

The mixture was tested by the U.S. Forest Service last year and preliminary results showed it increased resin pitch by 40 percent in pine trees, according to AgriHouse. Beetle egg production was also reduced by 37 percent in the test. "That would reduce the number of beetles in following years by that amount," Linden noted.

At the moment, ODC is only available for individual tree application. The mixture is applied by pouring it around the base of the tree and is absorbed through its roots. The Forest Service study, conducted in Louisiana, showed a significant boost in resin production through root application but ODC has not yet been shown to be effective in an aerial spraying application, the kind that might offer protection to whole forests.

"I believe as AgriHouse continues forward we'll develop additional variations of this product to add the aerial spray," Stoner said.

ODC is available for purchase only on AgriHouse's website for $14.99 per one-ounce bottle, which treats up to 30 trees when properly diluted with water. Cost per tree treatment is about 42 cents, Stoner said, and a total of three treatments per beetle season - between May and October - are recommended.

Known for decades

Chitosan, derived from the exoskeleton of shellfish and the main ingredient in ODC, has been known for decades as a substance that can boost seed germination, encourage seed sprouting and activate disease resistance.

"The principle of eliciting a response in plants has existed 20 or 30 years," Stoner said. "But the most important research on what it can do has only been understood in the last five to 10 years."

ODC is produced at AgriHouse's manufacturing facility in Berthoud and bottled in other locations around the country, Stoner said. With the battle against the pine beetle continuing to heat up this summer and fall, Stoner said property owners - and perhaps someday the Forest Service - have an eco-friendly tool to fight off the little pest.

"We're activating a whole host of chemical engines (within the tree)," said Stoner. "We're pre-arming the plant to defend itself."