The Budworm Tracker program, which involved field reports from ‘citizen scientists,’ received an “unheard of” 90 per cent return rate on the data, says Rob Johns, a forest insect ecologist with Canadian Forest Service in Fredericton.

“To put it in perspective, if you can get 20-40 per cent back from a citizen scientist program you’re really happy, so we were ecstatic by the response by people involved,” he said.

It’s been about 35 years since the spruce budworm was a major problem for New Brunswick, but millions of hectares in Quebec have been destroyed in the current outbreak and the budworm is heading east.

Earlier this year, the Budworm Tracker program recruited 294 members of the public to trap and collect moths between July and August, and estimate how many were caught in the pheromone traps that were provided.

The $18 million federal project is tracking the insect in six eastern Canadian provinces and Maine to study where the budworms are migrating, as well as the travel patterns of the moths they become.

About 150 of the traps were placed in locations around New Brunswick.

Speaking to Information Morning Fredericton, Johns said, “One of the biggest mysteries about spruce budworm outbreaks and how it spreads is the extent to which migration by the moths contributes to the spread.

“A big part of our program is geared at trying to understand if migrants, coming from areas where there are outbreaks, are flying into other locations and causing populations to beef up,” he said.

‘Surgical focus’

Scientists are still processing the data, but early results revealed “quite a bit” of migratory activity in the province, Johns said.

And genetic analysis done on the moths that were collected show a number of different subpopulations from areas outside of New Brunswick, possibly from Quebec.

“But we’re not sure where those populations come from,” said Johns.

Johns says if problem populations are found early enough, they can be treated on a small scale to keep the budworm numbers in check.

“If we can identify these embers starting to heat up, we can get in there quickly and rapidly and start pushing those down again,” he said.

“It ends up being a more narrow, surgical focus strategy to slow the spread of the outbreak.”

Forestry scientists should have a better sense of the budworm’s presence in the province in the coming years.

They hope to distribute traps to new locations to pick up on the insect’s migration into urban areas.

The insect feeds on the needles of balsam fir and spruce trees, often killing large areas of forest.