Dec. 6, 2017 -- Sam Minturn's Christmas tree farm in Hilmar, CA, sits next to an alfalfa field. One recent holiday season, the ladybugs from the field decided his trees were the perfect warm place to spend the winter.
"We went out and put a ribbon on every tree that had ladybugs" to alert customers, he says. After he donated a tree to a local church, "some ladybugs came out during the sermon," says Minturn, the executive director of the California Christmas Tree Association.
He tells the story to illustrate that yes, your Christmas tree may indeed have hitchhiking bugs.
Bugs in Christmas trees have become this year's holiday buzz, after an organic pest control products company issued a news release that said a single tree could have 25,000 bugs.
Really? Did someone actually count those bugs and do a scientific study?
The number "is an estimate," says William Klinedinst, a spokesman for Woodstream Corp., which markets organic pest control products and came up with the number. It's based on some research and some math, he says. While he can’t point to a published study to support that number, "I believe it to be within reason when taking a variety of insects' reproductive habits into consideration," Klinedinst says.
When we asked entomologists for their take, the consensus was: Inspect the tree, shake it, relax, and enjoy it. Maybe get out the vacuum.
And what kinds of bugs and gunk might you be shaking off? According to Klinedinst:
- Spiders and mites
- Adelgids (look like a dusting of snow on the tree)
- Pine needle scales
- Sawflies (brown cocoons that hatch black and yellow flies)
- Praying mantises
- Bark beetles
While that may sound scary to the bug-averse, Klinedinst says, "none of the bugs you are going to find are particularly worrisome. They would be more of an inconvenience than an actual health issue."
Eric Day, manager of the Insect Identification Lab at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, agrees. "None of the insects and mites that occur on these trees harm humans," he says, adding that most tree sellers use pest control before selling the trees.
"All commercially grown Christmas trees are probably going to be pretty clean," agrees Lynn Wunderlich, farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension, Central Sierra Region. If you don't buy from the big commercial sellers, you might find more bugs, she says. "If someone goes to a choose-and-cut farm, it's possible that farmer doesn't use as many pesticides."
While aphids are fairly common (their signature is a sticky substance), "you aren't going to find black widows or brown recluse spiders in Christmas trees," Wunderlich says. They prefer to hang out in more protected surroundings, she says, such as the corner of your dark garage or shed.
Shaking the Hitchhikers
To lower the chances of getting a buggy tree, it's a good idea to inspect the tree at the lot, Wunderlich says.
Once home, "if you are concerned about bugs in your Christmas tree, shake the tree before setup and wash it with a water hose if you are concerned about pollen or have allergies," says Doug Hundley, a retired integrative pest management specialist and now a spokesman for the National Christmas Tree Association.
Once the tree is hosed off, Minturn says, "put it in water, and wait a day or two before bringing it inside."
And if you find bugs when the tree is inside?
"I do not recommend that people spray trees once the trees are brought inside," Day says. "The occasional harmless aphid can be vacuumed off, and praying mantis egg cases can be placed outside when found."
Or, Hundley says, carefully remove the eggs, put them in a jar, and let your kids or grandkids watch them hatch.
Bugs or not, real Christmas trees leave less of a carbon footprint than artificial ones do, Wunderlich says. "Real trees can be completely recycled, they support farmers, and they are grown in the U.S.," she says.