Predicting the Maple Syrup Season with Maple Seed Helicopters

While there is no sure-fire way to predict the productiveness of an upcoming maple syrup season, nature provides some indicators that may help shed some light on future maple syrup output. Recent research suggests a potential link between the production of maple seed helicopters and the next season’s maple sap flow.

What are maple seed helicopters?

If you’ve ever seen small helicopter-like objects swirl to the ground in late summer or early fall, you were most likely standing near a maple tree. Maple trees produce winged seeds known as double samaras, which can vary in size and color depending on maple species. These seeds are most commonly called “helicopters” for their signature twirled descent, though some also refer to them as whirligigs.

“With last year’s low seed production, sugar levels should be high, but if maple producers don’t receive those freezing nights and warm days, production can still be low.”

In preparation for germination, maple seeds need several months of cold weather. Before the leaves appear, maple trees produce a cluster of blooms in early spring, which range in color from green to a deep red hue. Seedpods develop throughout the spring and summer, becoming shades of brown as the summer progresses. Once mature, the winged helicopters take flight and spread with help from the wind. It’s common to see a seed blanket beneath a maple tree in the fall, especially if there has been recent windy weather. Once on the ground, thee seeds will sprout and grow the following year.

Seed helicopters reflect the health of maples

Seed helicopters help tell the story about the health of the tree and what it may or may not be encountering. The production of the maple’s seedpods—whether there is an abundance or scarcity—reflects what the tree has encountered in the previous growing season. For example, let’s take a look at the connection between seed helicopters and pollination.

While maple trees are considered to be a wind-pollinated species, flying insects also help pollinate the maple blooms. At times there are obstacles to pollination such as when a late frost prevents pollination or rainy weather makes it difficult for the insects. Because poor pollination may cause a maple tree to skip a year in seed formation, there may be fewer seed helicopters in the fall. On the other hand, an exceptionally good pollinating season the year prior can also make the maple tree take a year hiatus.

And what of the years in which there is an over-abundance of seed helicopters? This may indicate the tree went through some stress during the previous year and it’s overcompensating through excessive seed production in attempts to carry on the species if the tree is anticipating more stress/death.

Using seed helicopters to predict upcoming maple syrup production

Scientists also use the production of seed helicopters as an indicator for the upcoming maple season. A new paper in Forest Ecology and Management suggests a scientific metric for predicting syrup production based on the number of seed helicopters that produced the year before. The authors of this study looked at what are known as “mast seeding” events at Harvard Forest in Massachusetts. A mast seeding event, also called masting, occurs when trees collectively produce many more seeds than usual. Sugar maple trees typically produce a mast seeding event every 2 to 5 years. In Vermont, past events occurred in 2000, 2006, and 2011. Most interestingly, the authors report that maple syrup production declined following every mast seed year in Vermont.

Why is there a decline the year after a mast seeding? Dr. Josh Rapp of Harvard, the first author of the paper, analyzed the factors influencing maple syrup production for 17 years at 28 sites in Vermont, and explains that while weather affects how much sap will flow out of the tree, sap volume is only one piece of the puzzle. What is equally important is the amount of sugar contained in the sap. Says Rapp, ‘”Sugar maple sap is 2 to 3 percent sugar. The rest is just water to boil off. Sweeter sap is more profitable. If you start with sap that’s 3 percent sugar, it takes a third less sap to make a gallon of syrup”.

Since weather is not the best predictor of the volume of sugar in the sap Dr. Rapp believes that something else is playing a part in this process. Elizabeth Crone, associate professor of biology at Tufts, explains just what that something more is: “Both seeds and sugar are made from carbohydrates stored in trees. When a tree produces a lot of seeds one summer, then the next spring, the carbohydrate bank account is low for making sugar. It’s a matter of budgeting resources.” Meaning that if a maple places all its efforts into making seeds, it won’t have a lot of reserve for making sugar.

Predicting the 2015 maple syrup harvest

As for the 2015 harvest? “At the Harvard Forest, and likely throughout the northeast, the seed crop was small this year, suggesting the 2015 maple syrup harvest should be a good one,” Rapp says. He continues: “The best way to predict syrup production is actually a combination of factors: proportion of trees with seeds, minimum and maximum March temperatures, and maximum April temperature. Those factors together explained 79% of the variation in syrup production in Vermont from 1998 to 2014.”

Rapp hopes this study can help maple syrup producers plan ahead, since seeds develop six months before syrup harvest. “Maple syrup is a complicated natural resource. Hopefully this research can give producers a window into the upcoming season,” he say

Crone has some final thoughts, too. “The idea of looking at the costs of seed production came from very abstract models developed by mathematicians in Japan. One of the purposes of academic science is to come up with general insights that help us see applied problems in new ways. This is a good example of that kind of insight,” she concludes.

Other maple syrup production influencers

As producers get ready for another maple syrup harvest, nature will determine just how the story will unfold. Will the “sugaring weather” (mild daytime temperatures and below freezing nights) be optimal? Will unseasonably warm or cold winters impact the sap flow? That’s all up to Mother Nature. With last year’s low seed production, sugar levels should be high, but if maple producers don’t receive those freezing nights and warm days, production can still be low.

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