Post-treatment of bush honeysuckle infestation, Sangamon County. Photo by Ben Stevens.
When Hunting Season’s Over, Habitat Season Begins:
Part 3 – Bush Honeysuckle; A Hunter’s Foe
In Part 1 of our new series “When Hunting Season’s Over, Habitat Season Begins” we introduced this new series and provided general resources and ideas to promote the enjoyable and rewarding pastime of wildlife habitat management during the offseason from hunting; or others generally interested in improving habitat for wildlife. Afterall, aren’t we always looking for a reason to escape from our fast-paced lives and connect with nature? In Part 2 we dove deeper into the subject of woodland management from a forestry perspective on ways to enhance desirable tree species and densities while also improving habitat for wildlife, such as deer and turkey, by getting sunlight on the ground.
This time, let’s go deeper into the woodlands and tackle what is essentially an environmental disaster slowly unfolding in recent decades in Illinois’ forests, as well as a large swath of North America. Yes, the invasion of bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii), also known as Amur honeysuckle, Asian honeysuckle, and by other names. Of course, there are more than one species of invasive honeysuckles in Illinois, and many invasive shrubs and other plants of concern (e.g. autumn olive, Bradford pear, etc.), but let’s not get “lost in the weeds,” or invasive shrubs in this case, as there is plenty of information on invasive plant issues and management if you care to dive deeper. Rather, let’s talk about why you should care and what you can do about it.
When it comes to the bush honeysuckle problem, it seems many in the general public are mostly oblivious to this invasion that has occurred notably in the last two decades, but it’s a problem that “once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” That is, the dense green understory of bushes in our forests that really shows itself when the native trees drop their leaves, yet the honeysuckle remains green and active longer. This typically occurs around Thanksgiving. Take a look at our woodlands as you’re driving to Thanksgiving dinner to visit family this year. You won’t be able to unsee it!
Honeysuckle Impacts on Wildlife
You have probably heard folks talk about, or you have witnessed, deer utilizing honeysuckle thickets in some way. Some companies in the deer hunting industry have even gone as far as to promote, with much criticism of course, invasive bush honeysuckle as a “good plant” to improve deer habitat. Without further investigation one would be quick to assume that if they are using it, it must be good for the deer then, right? Not exactly… Sure, honeysuckle thickets do provide cover and bedding areas for deer, but so do a lot of other native plants. Fallen trees and native grasses, forbs, and shrubs provide ample cover for deer without all the adverse impacts of bush honeysuckle. Afterall, white-tailed deer have thrived in North America for millennia before Asian bush honeysuckle was introduced by humans.
Deer are also known to browse on bush honeysuckle, but that’s more likely a case of being readily available and palatable rather than being a preferred or even highly nutritious food for deer and other wildlife. In fact, their diet needs to include a diverse range of plants to meet seasonal and nutritional needs. The problem with bush honeysuckle is it forms a dense understory in woodlands that shade out native trees and herbaceous plants, which provide way more diverse habitats and food options for wildlife. Under a bush honeysuckle thicket you will find bare soil, little to no ground cover for wildlife, and little plant diversity. Left uncontrolled, these thickets are sure to expand and continue to degrade wildlife habitat on your property and limit forest regeneration.
The impacts of bush honeysuckle on turkeys is of no less concern. Turkeys prefer open woodland habitats with large mature trees for roosting, insect-rich grasslands for brood-rearing, and denser brush with good ground cover for nesting. Turkeys are used to being on the menu and rely heavily on their eyesight to avoid predators. Sticking to more open woodland and grassland habitats where they can easily spot danger or hide in ground cover during nesting is their preferred strategy. Thick stands of bush honeysuckle make it hard to quickly evade a predator and the lack of ground cover under the honeysuckle canopy makes hiding difficult as well. For these reasons, you will rarely see turkeys spending time in honeysuckle thickets. More on managing turkey habitat and bush honeysuckle can be found here.
Honeysuckle Impacts on Hunters
As if the habitat impacts to wildlife aren’t enough, there’s also the issue of trying to hunt a property with an understory dominated by bush honeysuckle or other invasive shrubs. I know all too well from experience! Visibility for the hunter is significantly reduced and the deer will be right on top of you before you know they are there, assuming they aren’t too quick to spot you first. Further, trying to walk through honeysuckle thickets will literally bring you to your knees as you will have to crawl, and good luck tracking a deer through it or let alone retrieving one out of it. It’s just no fun! And if you’re not a fan of ticks and tick-borne diseases, you will want remove that honeysuckle sooner than later. Research has shown that tick densities infected with bacteria that cause human disease was 10 times higher in areas invaded with honeysuckle.
Methods of Control
There are lots of guidance documents available on how to control bush honeysuckle with some provided in links below. The method of choice will depend on level of infestation, goals, budget, and how much labor you are willing to do yourself. The common methods include chemical, such as foliar spraying (aerial spraying with helicopter, airplane, or simply a backpack sprayer) and mechanical, such as cut stump with a chainsaw, weed eater with saw blade attachment, or skid steer with forestry mulcher. However, mechanical cutting should be immediately followed by chemical treatment of the stump. It also helps to implement prescribed fire after treatments to maintain the progress made and prevent re-infestation while also promoting high quality woodland habitat.
I have used all of the above methods on our family-owned 40-acre woodland property in Montgomery County with varying degrees of success and each with its pros and cons. In the early stages about 12 years ago we used cut stump and spray with chainsaws in the worst areas, about 10 acres. It was labor intensive and hard on the back, but made the most dramatic change and left no standing stems, which can last a few years. We made brush piles out of the stems to serve as cover for wildlife. I still use this method, but more selectively. Twice we had the property aerial sprayed in the fall by aircraft using Rodeo® when native trees go dormant and bush honeysuckle is still green, which is right around Thanksgiving. Costs ranged from about $45-65 per acre depending on the market and contractor. General observations suggested roughly a 70 percent kill rate on the bush honeysuckle with no noticeable impacts to native plants. These results are similar to others in the state.
This method quickly gave us the upper hand on the infestation, especially with a follow-up treatment a few years later. We have used a forestry mulcher and it has its place if you need a “hard reset” of a heavily infested area, but this tool will take your desirable native hardwood saplings with it, if there are any present, and there will be few identifiable stumps left to spray. Re-sprouts from remaining roots can be expected and will require follow-up spraying. Again, implementing prescribed fire into your management plan will greatly help to prevent re-infestation and promote quality woodland habitat.
Lately though, I am using a foliage application with a backpack sprayer to address a few more stubborn acres along the forest edge and spot treatments throughout to maintain our progress. I simply spend a few hours at a time, during the fall, walking the property with the backpack sprayer mixed with 2-4 percent glyphosate and surfactant. (Pro tip: add forestry dye to keep track of what you have sprayed). This can be conducted in late summer as well; however, after a couple of agonizing rounds with chiggers on our property in late summer, I tend to stay clear at that time! Further, depending on the objectives and level of infestation, there is a greater risk of damaging native plants with foliage treatments in late summer that should be considered.
Time Spent on Habitat is Time Well Spent
While most avid deer hunters understandably want to minimize disturbance in the woods during deer season, the best time to do these foliage treatments is during the fall. I too am an avid deer hunter. However, managing quality native wildlife habitat on the property is just as important and enjoyable to me as being in the tree stand. In fact, sitting in the tree stand is where I do my best thinking about my next habitat projects. Thus, to maximize my available time, I bring my spray equipment with me, some rain gear to minimize odor on myself, and quietly knock out a few acres before or after a hunt (I can typically treat about an acre an hour). Not every time I go hunting of course and I try to avoid the most sacred if times, prime rut in early November! I run cameras 24/7 on the property and am still seeing plenty of deer, including quality bucks. Afterall, deer are no stranger to occasional human disturbance on the landscape.
While the theme of this series is, “When Hunting Season’s Over, Habitat Season Begins,” the bush honeysuckle problem is one that may require at least some investment of time during the fall hunting season and the amount of time will depend on the severity of the infestation in your favorite hunting woods. We must dedicate some time to managing the habitat if we hope to have future success and enjoyment of our woodlands. That is, woodlands that support quality habitat for deer, turkey, and other wildlife that is not dominated by bush honeysuckle and other invasives.
Additional Resources on Control Methods
Bethke, T., C. Evans, & K. Gage. Management of Invasive Plants and Pests of Illinois. Southern Illinois University. Illinois Extension. Available here.
Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. 2017. Vegetation Management Guideline; Bush Honeysuckles: Tartarian, Morrow’s, Belle, and Amur Honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica L., L. morrowii Gray, L. x bella Zabel, and L. maackii (Rupr.) Maxim.). Available here.
Enroth, C. 2018. Identify and Manage Invasive Bush Honeysuckle. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Illinois Extension. Available here.
Moore, A., J. Decker, & J. Shew. 2023. Students Study Invasive Bush Honeysuckle. OutdoorIllinois Journal. August 2023.
Nathan Grider is an avid hunter, angler and conservationist with a Master’s in Biology from the University of Illinois, Springfield. He has been employed at the Illinois Department of Natural Resources for 12 years where he currently serves as the Wildlife Programs Section Manager in the Division of Wildlife Resources. He was raised in Montgomery County and currently lives in Springfield.