What are those fuzzy, orange balls appearing on oak trees? An expert explains

Ohio

They're also called oak galls, and they're harmless to humans, animals and plants

MAHONING COUNTY, OH (WKBN) – Once the go-ahead was given that being outdoors and getting fresh air was good during the pandemic, it seemed everyone became one with nature, which led to some discoveries.

Haley Shoemaker, the program coordinator of agriculture and natural resources of the OSU extension of Mahoning County, said they’ve been bombarded with people bringing them branches and oak leaves with little fuzzy orange balls on them.

“Those are actually basically little houses for the insects that grow inside of them,” said Shoemaker, “What we’re seeing now are mostly wooly oak galls, and those house little insect wasps that are actually inside. They provide protection from weather, from predators, from parasites.”

Before they’re fuzzy and orange, the galls start off green and change as time goes on. The wasp inside grows up to be about a millimeter in length.

“The insect starts growing, and this is kind of just a natural process. The gall starts growing around the insect to provide it with nutrition,” said Shoemaker. “It takes nutritive value from the surroundings, which is the leaf or the twig, and it provides that protection and nutrients to the insect wasp as it’s growing and developing.”

They’re completely harmless. If anything, they’re an eyesore, depending on who’s looking. Think of it as like an ornament on a Christmas tree, except maybe not as shiny or awe-inspiring.

“I would say the most harmful thing is mostly a visible annoyance to whoever is looking at the tree,” said Shoemaker. “It’s more of a cosmetic effect, there’s really no adverse health benefits to the tree. We’re not going to see it trying to harm or sting any humans. They’re fairly harmless.”

Well, there is one downside: if there’s a large population of them on one leaf, it might weigh down the leaf and cause it to fall earlier than intended, and for the most part, they don’t have any predators to stop it from happening.

“If the bird was feeding on the tree and they were snacking on that leaf or that twig, or they were using that twig, say for a nest, and they took the twig away from the tree, that would be considered something that was predatory,” said Shoemaker.

She also said that it’s a yearly occurrence, but there are different factors that can play into population size.

“If there was a very large adverse effect from a predator or outside disease, the galls will try to offset that by upping their population,” said Shoemaker. “That could be what we’re seeing now; we’re seeing a lot.”

She also said people are getting outside more so that could be the reason that more people are noticing them.

“If you notice an infestation or presence of oak galls on your trees, there is no need to go out and start cutting those branches off,” said Shoemaker. “This is something that will naturally take care of itself as the leaves fall, and again, it is a harmless addition to your tree, even though it might not be as visually appealing as the nice fall leaves that we’re seeing elsewhere.”

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