Observed and anticipated impacts of drought on forest insects and diseases in the United States

Thomas E. Kolb, Christopher J. Fettig, Matthew P. Ayres, Barbara J. Bentz, Jeffrey A. Hicke, Robert Mathiasen, Jane E. Stewart, Aaron S. Weed

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

289 Scopus citations


Future anthropogenic-induced changes to the earth's climate will likely include increases in temperature and changes in precipitation that will increase the frequency and severity of droughts. Insects and fungal diseases are important disturbances in forests, yet understanding of the role of drought in outbreaks of these agents is limited. Current knowledge concerning the effects of drought on herbivorous insect and pathogen outbreaks in U.S. forests is reviewed, and compared between the relatively mesic and structurally diverse forests of the eastern U.S. and the more xeric forests of the western U.S. Theory and limited evidence suggests a non-linear relationship between drought intensity and outbreaks of aggressive bark beetle species (i.e., those capable of causing extensive levels of tree mortality), where moderate droughts reduce bark beetle population performance and subsequent tree mortality, whereas intense droughts, which frequently occur in the western U.S., increase bark beetle performance and tree mortality. There is little evidence for a role of drought in outbreaks of the southern pine beetle (Dendroctonus frontalis), the only bark beetle species that causes large amounts of tree mortality in the eastern U.S. Defoliators do not show consistent responses to drought. The response of sapfeeders to drought appears non-linear, with the greatest performance and impacts at intermediate drought intensity or when drought is alleviated by wetter periods. Interactions between tree pathogens and drought are poorly understood, but available evidence suggests reduced pathogen performance and host impacts in response to drought for primary pathogens and pathogens whose lifecycle depends directly on moisture (humidity). In these cases, rates of reproduction, spread, and infection tend to be greater when conditions are moist. In contrast, secondary fungal pathogens (i.e., those that depend on stressed hosts for colonization) are anticipated to respond to drought with greater performance and host impacts. In the western U.S., drought increases stress on trees severely infected by mistletoes thereby predisposing mistletoe-infected trees to attack by insects, particularly bark beetles and wood borers. Research needed to advance understanding of drought impacts on forest insects and diseases, and the role of forest management in mitigation of infestations during drought are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)321-334
Number of pages14
JournalForest Ecology and Management
StatePublished - Nov 15 2016


  • Climate change
  • Drought
  • Forest health
  • Forest insects
  • Forest pathogens
  • Herbivory

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


Dive into the research topics of 'Observed and anticipated impacts of drought on forest insects and diseases in the United States'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this