This article was taken from our archives. It originally appeared in the September 2002 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did in print originally.
Bermuda tried everything from mass spraying to importing beetles to halt the advance of the scale that was killing cedars, but to no avail.
The disaster began, officially, on August 27, 1945 at Chelston in Paget. One cedar tree had died; five more looked unhealthy. Experts had inspected them. Maybe it was the Juniper midge, some said. Maybe the Cedar hopper. Bur nobody was sure.
Then, that summer day, 10 days after the Japanese had surrendered and the Second World War had ended, Bill Evans and C.A. Baker from the Department of Agriculture went up to the estate of the American oil heir C.P. Dubbs to check the trees again.
This time they saw them: little white pinpricks on the green branches. With a magnifying glass they could see each scale’s pale yellow centre. It looked like a miniature fried egg. Beneath the scale was a tiny, formless insect with a proboscis that drilled right into the cedar itself. Diaspis visci. Juniper scale. Within three years it would infect every cedar in Bermuda. In less than a decade, it would kill almost every one of them.
Cedars on the hillside and at the water’s edge at Harrington Sound around 1908.
Green forests of cedar had blanketed Bermuda’s landscape since the first settlers arrived. Even in the 1940s, the endemic cedar counted for well over 90 per cent of all the trees on the Island. They were planted so thickly that the Department of Agriculture calculated there were an average of 300 cedars on every one of Bermuda’s 13,000 acres, to the exclusion of almost every other tree and hedge.
Its wood was used to make cradles and coffins, house rafters and sailing ships. Its branches were cut down for Christmas trees.
The cedar, in short, was part of the heart and soul of Bermuda. It was as Bermudian as the Bermudians themselves. And it would not be allowed to die without a struggle.
The first reaction was to spray. That had worked in the past. A scale problem on cedars on Hinson’s Island in the 1930s had been controlled with a sulfur-lime spray, for example.
All trees within a 200 yard radius of affected trees at Chelston were sprayed to keep the scale from spreading. But when Evans and Baker returned three weeks later it was clear that more trees were dying.
There was no cause for panic. Juniper scale was found in a lot of different places around the world, and rarely killed large trees. Besides, cedar problems were nothing new. Earlier that year, in fact, the Department of Agriculture had brought in Dr. RL. Parker, a cedar disease expert from Kansas State College, to conduct a two-month study.
Parker noted a lot of mites and midges and diseases of various kinds. The most worrying was a different scale insect, Lepidosaphes newsteadi, the Oyster-shell scale. Trees turned grey with the scale. Then the top died. Then the rest of the tree died, slowly.
It had been discovered by T.A. Russell near Harrington Sound in December 1944. By the end of 1945, it had spread around Castle Harbour Hotel, Tucker’s Town and Walsingham.
The Oyster-shell scale apparently arrived in imported conifers, imported to be planted in the Castle Harbour Hotel area, some time before 1942.
With a new pest on hands, a check revealed that Chelston had received a shipment of conifers from a California nursery on December 12, 1942. The young trees had been inspected by the Agriculture Department, but a couple of white pinpricks would have been almost impossible for inspectors to catch.
Over the next months, as Bermuda busied itself rebuilding tourism after the war, the Juniper scale slowly spread. By August 1946, one year after it was first discovered, it had spread a few hundred yards east to the Agricultural Station, though the infestation at that point seemed mild.
There were a few other pockets of infestation in nearby areas. Reid Street Extension, for some reason, was badly affected. The Department of Agriculture kept spraying, mainly with oils, and tried dusting as well.
A.B. Dick of Inwood, on Lovers Lane just down the hill from Chelston, conducted his own spraying programme. He brought in Dr. George Plumb, the assistant entomologist of the Connecticut Agricultural Experimentation Station, who directed the operation. But it didn’t save his trees.
By the end of 1946, the Board of Agriculture realised that spraying simply wasn’t working. It asked the House of Assembly for £13,800 to fight the scale and to bring in a foreign expert. And in February 1947, Dr. W.R. Thompson, the director of the Commonwealth Bureau of Biological Control, arrived from Canada.
Bill Thompson wasn’t sure which of the two scales should worry him most. Both pests were still localised, but both had shown they could spread rapidly.
If they were going to be controlled, it would have to be with predators and parasites, by beetles which would eat the scale, and by wasps whose larva would destroy it. His first tests suggested that the Juniper scale was more attractive to predators and parasites. “It is possible that the parasite in the near future will bring Diaspis under control,” he reported to the Board of Agriculture.
The Oyster-shell scale was still confined to the eastern end of the Island. Although spreading slowly at that time of the year, he expected it to accelerate when the weather got warmer. The data suggested, he said, “that the Oyster-shell scale is an even more dangerous pest than the Diaspis scale. The Oyster-shell scale is capable, by itself, of destroying practically all the Junipers in Bermuda within the next few years.”
Spraying, he warned, should be abandoned immediately. It was not killing the scale, but it would certainly kill the parasites and predators that were the only hope. Besides, there were millions of cedars on the densely-forested island. Spray could never cover it all.
Though the situation was serious, “my personal view is that it should be possible to make Bermuda a safe place for the Bermuda Juniper,” Thompson concluded, ”though not before many more trees have perished.”
Thompson arranged preliminary shipments of ladybird beetles from California and Trinidad. Two colonies of the insects were liberated in infected areas, but more shipments were needed and beetles needed to be bred locally.
The primitive facilities at the Agriculture Station were inadequate. Thompson moved his laboratory operations to a cottage at the Princess Hotel, adjacent to the rooms where he and his wife were staying.
Over the next few months, 1,425 mites and 6,500 wasps were imported from Canada and liberated around the Island. From Trinidad came 23 shipments of scale-feeding ladybird beetles, containing 5,600 individuals. But the plane went via New York, and the vast majority died en route. New shipments were sent through Jamaica, but these beetles, it turned out, had an appetite only for coconut and bamboo scale.
Another beetle attacked only cirrus aphids; the Department’s pathologist Jock Waterston released them in his orchard, and they moved on.
In ltaly, contact was made with Professor F. Silvestri of Naples, who secured a shipment of a species of ladybird credited with reducing Juniper scales on cypress trees in Morocco. Silvestri also sent a consignment of Oyster-shell scales containing a parasitic wasp. But though shipped by air, the shipment took more than a month to reach Bermuda; only 30 of 1,000 specimens survived.
A selection of beetles arrived from Canada. The most promising in the collection were the Lindorus beetle, which bred in Bermuda and would eat Juniper scale. Some 4,800 were colonised in bags and released at 20 sites around Bermuda.
By May, Thompson had imported 19,500 insects of 16 different species, of which 14,500 had been liberated among the cedars.
Thompson still focused on the Oyster-shell scale as a “special cause for anxiety.” Relatively light infestations could kill the cedars, making it more difficult for predators to work effectively: they would have to travel farther to get sufficient food.
But there were no other options, Thompson told the Board of Agriculture. “The most reasonable course therefore is to concentrate on mass introduction of the tested species. This is a case in which we are working against time. We should introduce them in very large numbers.”
By the middle of the year, the Juniper scale had spread as far west as Belmont Manor, and as far east as Harrington Sound.
On December 15, 1947, the Board of Agriculture met for an update on the infestation. Thompson brought with him the chief of the Biological Control Unit of the Canadian Department of Agriculture, A.B. Baird.
The Board Chairman, the gruff mayor of Hamilton the Wor. H. St. George “Georgie” Butterfield, reluctantly agreed to let reporters into the room, on condition that they submit their notes to Bill Thompson for checking.
During the year, 40,000 parasites had been distributed. They had done some work, but not enough. The Juniper scale had now been discovered in St. George’s and the tip of Tucker’s Town, and as far west as Warwick Camp. The Oyster-shell scale, meanwhile, had spread to St. George’s too, and reached as far west as Flatts.
All told, cedars over an area of five square miles had been killed. The best remaining wooded areas were now in St. George’s and St. David’s, and in Southampton and Sandys.
There was talk of reforestation. Thompson urged that planting begin at once, even with young cedars “with the hope that the scale would be under control by the time the young tree had become vulnerable.”
Things seemed to be going better in the first part of 1948. The scale was spreading but so were the parasites and predators. At some point, the experts believed, a new balance would be achieved and there would be enough parasites and predators to keep the scale in check.
Then, on September 13, a hurricane struck Bermuda. Winds averaged 80 to 100 miles per hour, with gusts as high as 130. Hurricane-force winds, loaded with spray and rain, lashed the island for six hours.
There was more salt spray with this hurricane than people remembered from past hurricanes. And because the rains came early, and then ended while the salt spray continued, the salt wasn’t washed away.
Leaves throughout the Island were burnt. Even the salt-resistant cedars were badly affected. Foliage reddened and dried up, especially along the South Shore. The Juniper scale, however, seemed entirely uninjured by the storm, even in exposed areas.
A second hurricane struck on October 7. It was short but severe. Rain and spray came together, diluting the salt, and there was not so much damage. But it looked worse. It stripped trees of their foliage and revealed the damage from the previous hurricane. In some places, roads were covered with cedar brush.
The sight was horrific. It was as if for the first time it was clear to every Bermudian that the trees that were so much a part of their lives and their culture were being wiped out.
For the first time too, the destruction of the cedars entered the public arena in a major way. There were long discussion in the House of Assembly, newspaper editorials and letters to the editor. There was frustration, anger, blame and defensiveness.
At a Warwick Parish Vestry meeting in early December, for example, residents complained about the appearance of their trees and raised fears that fire would spread among the dead branches. Cedars were the main topic at a meeting of the Civic Association that same month. One citizen, Stuart Outerbridge, spoke passionately of cedars. Bermudians love them “almost as another Bermudian and are taught as children that to cut a cedar is almost murder,” he said.
Outerbridge suggested that clergymen preach about cedars from their pulpits, and suggested prayers in churches for their recovery, “It may be a far-fetched idea but it might do something for our trees.” This idea was repeated in the House of Assembly.
In the House meanwhile, many members were pointing the finger of blame at the Board of Agriculture. At the November 3 meeting, there were many calls for a “clear statement” from the Board of Agriculture.
Edmund Gibbons appeared to be leading the charge. “Unless something is done, and done immediately,” he declared, “we will no longer be able to use the slogan ‘Beautiful Bermuda’. You only need to look out these windows to see that it is getting worse and worse every day.”
F.C. Misick said: “I am surprised at the defeatist attitude some of the members of the Board have taken regarding this disease. If we are going to adopt such an attitude, then the cedar is over and done with as far as Bermuda’s landscape is concerned.”
This must have been infuriating to Butterfield, the Agriculture Board chairman. He was a man who was genuinely knowledgeable about plants, and was largely responsible for the reintroduction of citrus in Bermuda. His board had gone to the best experts in the world in search of answer to the cedar infestation, and appeared to have followed all of their advice.
Perhaps in exasperation, Butterfield urged the speaker to allow W.R. Thompson to appear before the House of Assembly, to give members an update on the problem in person, and to answer their questions. It was not the first time he had made the suggestion, but once again the speaker rejected the idea of Thompson speaking in the House chamber as “not proper;” this was a privilege reserved for heads of state.
Ford Baxter, chairman of the Board of Agriculture’s Reafforestation Committee, was clearly frustrated at angry questioners when he attended a civic meeting soon afterwards. “It is easy for people to become alarmed, and think nothing is happening when they don’t see people rushing about in front of the cedar trees. I feel the House may feel this, but their action is belated.”
Two weeks later, though, MPs were on the attack again, demanding solutions from the Board of Agriculture that Butterfield was unable to provide.
“It’s about time a real honest to God effort is made,” one complained.
Edmund Gibbons added: “I want to make a suggestion: Whatever is being done at present should be doubled, trebled and quadrupled, and immediately.”
A similar complaint session took place in Parliament two days later. “There seems to be some reluctance on the part of the Board to come to grips with this question,” one MP declared.
Again, Butterfield was put on the defensive. “We are not asleep at the switch,” he protested. “The Department is just as keen as anyone to save our trees.”.
Newspapers joined the attack. The Gazette columnist Mercury urged “immediate reafforestation work, and increased ladybird imports. This is a matter on which neither time nor expense should be spared. The consequences are too grave.”
While House Members talked and talked, the Gazette complained, “the menace has increased. It should now be realised that the time for words is over. Action is needed. Further delay would not only be dangerous but fatal to the tourist trade in the year ahead. Few tourists would come to a treeless paradise.” Newspaper letter-writers joined in, expressing fear of fire and offering solutions, many involving spraying.
In 1926, this cedar at Devonshire’s Anglican Church was said to be the oldest in Bermuda.
On December 5, Colonial Secretary William Addis issued an appeal to the people of Bermuda not to cut cedars for Christmas trees. The next day, the House of Assembly pledged support for a ‘Save Cedars’ campaign, and appointed a select committee chaired by Edmund Gibbons to tackle the cedar infestation. The House of Assembly, apparently, did not think Butterfield and his Board of Agriculture was up to job.
The next week, Butterfield announced that an “urgent request” had been made to Thompson to fly back to Bermuda. He arrived two days later, accompanied by Dr. Ullyet, the senior entomologist of the Commonwealth Board of Biological Control. Two days later, Dr. W.R. Thompson went up to Parliament Hill to address the House of Assembly.
The only outsiders ever allowed to address the House of Assembly before or since have been people of extraordinary stature. Winston
Churchill addressed the House in 1942; since Thompson, the outsiders have been The Queen, Prince Philip and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
Thompson was a short stocky entomologist, already in his 50s or 60s by the time he came to Bermuda. He was a studious man, who looked like a university professor. He was probably the first bug expert to address a parliament anywhere in the world.
“Extraordinary,” declares John Gilbert, a former Clerk of the House of Assembly who has written extensively on its history and traditions. “It was remarkable. But of course the members were worried.They must have been in a real panic.”
Thompson’s appearance in the House was the lead story in the next morning’s Royal Gazette. Other news, like the indictment of Alger Hiss in New York and the first photo of the new-born Prince Charles, were pushed to the side.
He spoke frankly about the gravity of the situation. The hurricane had been a “setback,” he said. The Oyster-shell scale, which he had feared as the graver threat a year earlier, had fizzled out for mysterious reasons. But the Juniper scale continued its relentless march.
Painstakingly, he explained how predators and parasites worked, and why they were the only possible solution. He told them that 25,000 ladybirds had been introduced in 1947, and had spread successfully. This year they had knocked 50 off a single tree. More species had been found in California “and we propose as soon as possible to set up facilities for breeding these in large numbers here in Bermuda.”
“I don’t think we will lose all the cedars, ” he told the House of assembly. “It was probably made more difficult by the hurricanes, but if there are no more, there is a very good chance that the cedar will not be lost.”
Thompson shot down arguments that the Board of Agriculture hadn’t been supportive. “Ample funds have been placed at our disposal,” he insisted, “and every effort has been made to provide us with the equipment we need. There is a limit to what can be done on the spur of the moment.”
It was a momentous occasion. The Gazette reported that the Legislative Council had its “dignity ruffled” by the fact it was not invited to attend. “An unfortunate oversight,” complained council president, Chief Justice Sir Brookes Francis.
Thompson was invited to appear before them, but was unable to attend; the council had to make due with W.R. Evans, who had been promoted to Director of Agriculture a few weeks earlier.
If Evans’ year-end report is anything to go by, the Legislative Council got the better speech.
“We should intensify the fight against the cedar infestation with every means at our command,” Evans declared in his report. “The Board feels that as long as there is some hope of saving even a small fraction of the Islands cedar’s, it is its duty to carry the fight, whatever the cost, to the last ditch.”
The removal of dead trees was about to begin in earnest, he announced, and in the first year alone, 15,000 would be cut down.
“It is anticipated that the stumps will yield enough firewood to keep the residents of Bermuda warm for the next 50 years,” he asserted, while admitting storage of the stumps “will be a tremendous problem.”
Felled cedars would be milled on site with portable mill saws. The storage of lumber, though, “will be a problem of considerable magnitude .”
And when it came to replanting new trees, Evans declared that the whole community will be asked to mobilise into a vast army of helpers, to plant thousands of trees in one of the greatest cooperative efforts ever attempted.
Such declarations seemed to have the desired effect. Members of Parliament seemed to abandon their attacks on the Agriculture Board, and immediately approved £10,000 for lab building in Bermuda and California. The only objection came from the notoriously thrifty Finance Committee chairman Ernest Vesey, who complained that £10,000 was “quite a lot of money.”
The House also approved £23,500 of the £33,500 the Agriculture Board wanted for reafforestation to pay for a bulldozer, mechanical
shovel, mechanical crane, power winch, two heavy trucks, power saws, hand tools and an additional team of 14 men.
It was clear there would be plenty of work for them to do, for years to come. E.C.C.Bedford, the Agriculture Department’s plant pathologist, reported that every single cedar in Bermuda now appeared to be infested with the scale, even those that appeared to be healthy.
Nevertheless, Bedford was optimistic about the progress of predator beetles. If they continued to spread through the coming summer, he said, “there is the possibility that Diaspis visci might be at least partially controlled.”
When the Bermuda lab opened for business in June 1949, Evans declared the start of “an intensive last-ditch campaign in mass rearing a number of species of ladybird beetles to supplement the work of Lindorus. “
The replanting work had begun two months earlier, in April, with fewer men than the Department of Agriculture had originally wanted. By the end of the year, 8,000 dead trees had been removed.
Th Agricultural Station already had 25,000 plants in tins. Other plants were being imported; for example, 5,000 seed coconuts were brought in from Jamaica.
Because of limited nursery space in Bermuda, and severe water restrictions, Evans recommended establishing nurseries in two or more islands in the West Indies to plant cedars and other plants; negotiations were begun with Dominica and Jamaica.
Volunteers were asked to help. On land at Horseshoe Bay, for example, the Chamber of Commerce and other organisations planted 400 coconuts, 300 bay grapes, 50 casuarinas, and 2,000 oleanders.
But the cedar was not abandoned. Sixty pounds of cedar berries were planted at the Agricultural Station in 1949. In addition, as a hedge against the complete obliteration of the species, cedar berries were sent to be planted in the Bahamas and to Jamaica.
A major beetle-breeding operation began. The new lab employed nine people, including one trained entomologist. A second entomologist and more staff were hired for the lab in California.
Dr. Walwyn Hughes. Photo by Charles Anderson.
One of the people working in the Bermuda lab was a student named Walwyn Hughes. He later became an entomologist, was a Director of Agriculture, and is now an independent Senator. “The ladybirds would come in little wooden boxes, 8 by 10 inches or maybe 6 by 8. I can picture them clearly,” says Hughes. “In Bermuda you had to feed them on something, and what we found is they could be reared on oleander scale.”
The oleander scale, still in its “crawler” stage, would be placed on potatoes, which were placed on large trays with wooden bottoms. The trays would be stacked up, and the scale would go through its entire life-cycle on the potatoes.
“In three or four weeks, the scale would be adult size and then we put in the ladybirds,” recalls Hughes.
When the ladybirds were ready to be liberated, “we’d go around with a little vacuum system and suck the ladybirds into vials and boxes.” By that time the Department had a couple of Morris Minors, and they would drive to wherever the beetles were needed, open the vials and boxes, and shake them out onto the trees.
Hughes remembers that the new labs were a major addition to the Department of Agriculture. They included air-conditioning, which seemed an unheard of luxury at that time, but necessary if the beetles were to be kept at constant temperatures in quarantine conditions.
Thousands of beetles were imported, not only from the U.S. and Canada and the Caribbean-Trinidad, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Jamaica-but from France, Switzerland, Ceylon, England, Portugal, South Africa and Mauritius. Millions more were bred in Bermuda and released.
But it didn’t work. The advance of the Juniper scale might have been slowed somewhat, but it was never halted. For a while it seemed that Somerset had been granted a reprieve, presumably because prevailing southwest winds blew the scale in the opposite direction. But the last remaining stands of cedars eventually perished.
By the time Hughes graduated from Cornell and returned to Bermuda as the Department of Agriculture’s Plant Pathologist in 1954, the battle was over.
Thompson and the Bureau of Biological Control had packed up and gone home. Hills that were once green were barren and grey. Buildings that had once nestled in cedar forests were exposed. The backs of buildings and rubbish dumps, once hidden, were there for all to see.
“Coming into the Island by plane it was absolutely horrendous,” says Hughes. “It was awful, it was terrible, it was depressing.”
Cedar skeletons were not good for tourism. In 1952, a law was passed giving the Department of Agriculture the right to chop down trees on private property within 50 feet of roads-increased three years later to 100 feet -and on golf courses and the islands of Hamilton Harbour.
“They had these gangs of Azorean workers with chainsaws,” Hughes recalled. “People were burning it. They burned it in the fields-great fires of burning cedar.”
Gilbert recalled similar scenes. He says: ” I remember bicycling around Bermuda, and you had these extraordinary views-places where houses had been hidden away for many, many years were completely denuded. I know people were getting annoyed they were so exposed. There were very few hedges in those days, and the cedar trees were a real forest. I can remember miles and miles and miles of nothing but grey. It was appalling.
“I recall vividly the horrific fires. It was unthinking. People just didn’t plan for the future. Now we are almost out of cedar, but so much was literally burnt up in one way or another. Sometimes they just burnt the trees down where they were, or they just left the roots in there and let them wither away. There was very little conservation.”
The warehouses stacked high with lumber and firewood that Evans imagined never materialised. ln the mid-1950s, Evans’ successor Gordon Groves estimated that only 25 per cent of felled trees were even capable of producing sound timber. Many were too thin, or had hollow trunks, or had large sections of decay.
The waste bothered Groves. A California firm was contracted by the Government to carry out research on how the wood could be used. The firm found that scrap cedar could be turned into compressed boards “of a pleasing design and colour.” Unfortunately, it would cost £70,000 to set up a plant to manufacture the board in Bermuda. With reafforestation already costing £60,000 a year, the money was never found.
Slowly, new trees began to rise form the wasteland. In 1953, for instance, the Department of Agriculture planted casuarinas, bay grape, scarlet cordia, palmetto, Norfolk Island pine, Australian silky oak, giant privet, Chinese hat palm, Indian Laurel, Olive, Natal plum, hibiscus and oleander. It sold 12,406 planes in one year, and donated another 4,000. More than 1,000 major roadside plants were planted.
Even in the late 1950s, Government was felling more than 13,000 dead cedars a year, and untold others trees were being chopped down on private property.
At least 90 per cent of the trees were gone, and most of those that remained were in the process of dying. In 1959, a survey found Juniper scale on every living cedar; on one tree, 5,000 scales were found on a three-inch twig.
In 1971, Government Conservation Officer David Wingate estimated that only one per cent of the cedars had survived.
In 1946, the Department of Agriculture estimated that there was an average of 300 cedars on every acre in Bermuda. If that estimate was accurate, 3.9 million trees perished. Even if the original estimate was overblown, however, it is hard to imagine that the toll was anything less than a million trees, killed in less than a decade.
All told, several million natural insect predators from more than 100 species collected from around the world had been released in Bermuda.
“We tried everything from everywhere,” Hughes says today. “Three or four of the ladybird beetles and some of the parasites really took hold but it just wasn’t enough. The trees were so heavily infested with the scale that it didn’t do the trick.
“Looking back, it was too late from the start. Because it is wind-borne, the scale was everywhere. The disaster happened when it was first introduced.
“But they never stopped trying. lt was probably one of the biggest attempts at biological control ever tried, worldwide.
” … Probably if we hadn’t done anything, there would have been a few cedars left.
“But maybe it did make a difference. Maybe it did mean there were a few more survivors, to carry on.”