On the East Coast between two large metropolitan cities — Philadelphia and New York City — there’s a surprisingly large corridor of green forest. The first of the nation’s National Reserves, these one million acres are known as the New Jersey Pinelands. It is one of the last, and largest, examples of an Atlantic Coastal Plain ecosystem and a Global Biodiversity Hotspot, as designated by Conservation International.
Commonly called the Pine Barrens, this preservation is an ecological habitat that includes thousands of species of plants, birds and insects. Its quintessential characteristic is the overall dominant pitch pine and various shrubby oaks rooted in sandy, acidic soil.
These trees are generally wind pollinated, and the seeds provide nutrients for the local animals. However, beneath the boughs, the understory is alive with native plant species such as lowbush blueberries and huckleberries, rare gentian, seductive orchids, tall bog asphodel, and delicate sand myrtle. Many of these plants are eager for insect visitors.
Besides its great biodiversity, the Pine Barrens also have a unique relationship with fire. This particular pine-oak habitat is a relatively high fire frequency ecosystem. In other words, the native plant, animal and insect species found here have all adapted and evolved alongside the environment’s frequent fires over the past few thousand years.
Stephen Mason Jr., graduate research associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences and PhD candidate at Drexel, has been researching different fire characteristics and its effect on ecosystems in many places, including the Pine Barrens. He’s taking on the collective knowledge of fire with a macro-level approach, using historical literature and current research on fire from all over the world. He catalogs their impact level, magnitude, effects, timing and location.
The most important thing to understand about fire, he said, is that it is dynamic — there is no one type of fire. Its behavior will vary by place and season. One instance of a fire will have a very different duration, coverage pattern and level of intensity if it simply occurs at a slightly different location or at another time of year.
Its effect on the livelihood, food sources, and reproduction cycles of insects in any particular ecosystem is still poorly understood. Much of the research that he encounters will conclude that some type of fire either helped or hurt certain species of insects in a specified location, but most don’t really address the larger ecosystem questions, the interrelationship of fire, plants and animals or how they shift post burn.
Mason is curious about the quantification of these fires: their descriptive features and different types and how it can impact our understanding of insect species’ habitats as a whole.
His goal is to create a global qualitative synthesis. Mason believes such an approach can better inform the scientific community, as well as help scientists and organizations make predictions about future fire impacts on the insect community, especially in environments like the Pine Barrens.
Even if a particular location like this one is adaptable and accustomed to fires, Mason noted, there will always be winners and losers within the flora and fauna. During a fire, some species will be able to survive and potentially thrive afterwards, and others may not. Predictions of which are most at risk could help bolster these more tenuous insect communities both before and after a fire.
Native bees in the Pine Barrens are usually winners. As strong flying insects, bees can get away from the heat and smoke. And since many nest underground or in dead wood, their young are also better protected. Both of these traits usually allow for a resurgence after the fire has passed.
However, certain kinds of insects, such as moths and butterflies, face greater hurtles. And timing is what really matters. As adults, they have wings and can fly away from the flames. But half of their life is spent as larvae or caterpillars exposed on branches and on the ground where they cannot escape fast enough. A fire may extingish a whole generation of local pollinators if it occurs when species are vulnerable in the developmental stages of their early life cycle.
Fires can cause destruction in native species population. But we shouldn’t fear fire or consider suppressing it entirely. In places like the Pine Barrens, fires help create and maintain the habitat. And it offers a variety of pioneer species that sprout quickly in the newly scorched habitat the chance to flourish.
We can try to have a happy-medium, and we achieve that balance by essentially fighting fire with fire, according to Mason. By controlling when and where wildland fire fighters burn – also known as prescribed fires – we can give the environment what it may need to grow and thrive, while also providing escape routes and refuges of protection for our pollinators.
Prescribed fires are man-made fires created and controlled by certified, trained organizations, such as the New Jersey Forest Fire Service or the National Fire Academy. Part of their job is to provide these ecosystems that require a certain frequency of fires to thrive — anywhere from once every year to once a century or so — with what is necessary, while also encouraging biodiversity and community safety.
These fires can also maintain habitats. Without fires at certain intervals, the Pine Barrens may turn into an oak-hickory forest. A change in tree variety can negatively impact many insect and animal species. Prescribed fires help keep things natural, or the way they evolved, replacing the fires that would normally be started by lightning and burn wide swaths without human intervention.
So with careful precision, experience, and education, prescribed fires can be used in selected areas, while leaving the surrounding areas untouched. After the burns, the habitat will then go through a successional process.
The communities that live near or within the Pine Barrens have a long history of understanding the importance of fire for the health, stability and longevity of their very unique ecosystem.
Ultimately, Mason hopes that his research can teach everyone else the role fire plays in their own ecosystem, especially as fires will become more frequent with climate change.
By Brigette Brown, a librarian, freelance editor and science writer in Philadelphia. Photos by Steve Mason.
This article was adapted from the Winter 2021 issue of 2 Million Blossoms, a new quarterly magazine on all things pollination.
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