Emerald ash borers have been called the most destructive forest pest in North America, even though they were only discovered in 2002. Each fall, the beetles burrow into millions of American ash trees as larvae and damage them by feeding on the innermost layer of the bark.
This decimation of ash trees, which make up about 10 percent of the forests in Ohio, threatens extinction of the species and could lead to disastrous consequences for the ecosystem.
That cycle of destruction is precisely what Ohio State professor Daniel Herms is working to understand, and if possible, prevent.Herms is the chair of the entomology department at OSU and has been a leader in research on the emerald ash borer since its discovery.
His work over the last decade led the International Society of Arboriculture to honor him this year with their R.W. Harris Author’s Citation award. The award, which has been given out since 1963, is “granted to authors of outstanding publications for sustained excellence in the publication of timely information pertaining to the field of arboriculture,” according to the ISA website.
ISA is a nonprofit that has worked for more than 80 years to improve tree care research and education, and has a membership of about 20,000. Herms became a member of ISA in 1982, but said he was shocked when the president of ISA called him to tell him he was being given the Author’s Citation.
“I had no idea I was being considered for the award and I didn’t really know that I would be competitive for it. It was just a really nice surprise,” Herms said. “Getting an award like this from the society that has done so much to enhance the professionalism of the tree care business, and for my peers to think I’ve made a substantial contribution to that, it’s very rewarding.”
His boss, Steve Slack, the director of the OSU Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center, said Herms is “the person who’s looked to nationally, for his insights, observations and for direction on how we ought to be looking at a problem of this type.”
Slack believes Herms’ blend of passion and critical thinking makes him the ideal personality to protect Ohio’s forests.
“Dan was born and raised a Buckeye and he’s passionate about Ohio and its natural resources,” Slack said.
He added that Herms brings unique qualities to his position.
“As a citizen of the state, he cares very deeply about that and therefore, he tends to look at these things pretty holistically. He’s interested in the science, but he’s also interested in the outcome and how that’s going to impact the state,” Slack said. “It’s an interesting combination because what you have is a person that brings a lot of passion and a lot of curiosity to the problem but he does that in a way that he can step back and look at the questions objectively and help drive the discussion that needs to occur as a broader society.”
That broader discussion is something Herms and his colleagues believe is imperative to understand the destructiveness that the emerald ash borer is capable of.
His holistic view, Slack said, has allowed Herms to foresee the problems that could come from a species like the ash tree being removed from an ecosystem where the interconnected nature of organisms are what maintain the environment’s balance.
American ashes play a vital role in the nutrient cycling of wetlands and prevent erosion along floodplains, Herms said. The destruction of the ash would create a gap in the canopy that will change the environment of the forest floor and can facilitate the spread of more invasive species.
Even in light of the award, Herms believes his most important legacy is the students he teaches.
“We train these wonderfully talented students and then they go off and they kind of magnify your work because they make their own contributions to the field. It’s really what it’s about,” he said.
Mary Gardiner works with Herms as an assistant professor of entomology and said Herms’ generosity has made him a great leader.
“Dan has led the way in helping to understand how invasive species spread and how they change the ecosystem. I’ve learned a lot from him about forest entomology and a lot about mentoring graduate students,” Gardiner said. “He’s the kind of person who makes you feel like he has time to talk to you, even though he probably doesn’t.”