Authorities Hope Beetle Invasion Can Be Ground to a Halt

Crystal Franciosi, a U.S. Department of Agriculture tree climber, records her findings after checking for Asian longhorned beetles in Worcester, Mass.
Crystal Franciosi, a U.S. Department of Agriculture tree climber, records her findings after checking for Asian longhorned beetles in Worcester, Mass. (Stephan Savoia - AP)
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By Rodrique Ngowi
Associated Press
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

WORCESTER, Mass. -- A wood-devouring beetle has gained a foothold in New England, and authorities plan to cut down large numbers of infested trees and grind them up to stop the pest from spreading to the region's celebrated forests and ravaging the timber, tourism and maple-syrup industries.

The infestation of Asian longhorned beetles in the Worcester area marks the fourth time the pests have been found in trees in the United States and the closest they have ever come to New England's great woods, which erupt in dazzling colors in the fall.

"This insect scares us to death because, if it ever got loose in the forests of New England, it would be just about impossible to contain and it'd change the landscape dramatically," said Tom McCrumm, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.

Calling it a national emergency, federal authorities have committed themselves to spending tens of millions of dollars to fight the invasion. They have sent in smoke jumpers, tree climbers and other experts to identify infested trees.

The affected area covers 62 square miles around Worcester and four neighboring towns, and at least 1,800 trees have been tagged for destruction.

The outbreak was detected this summer when Donna Massie spotted beetles on a tree in her back yard in Worcester. She caught one, searched online to identify it and then called agriculture authorities. Now her tree is riddled with dime-size holes.

"It looks like someone opened fire with a machine gun," Massie, 53, said of the signature exit holes gnawed away by the bullet-shaped black beetle, which has white freckles, long antennae and a voracious appetite for hardwood.

The beetles first appeared in the United States in 1996 in Brooklyn, probably arriving in the wood of a shipping crate from China, and have since shown up in New York's Central Park and parts of New Jersey and Illinois. Authorities think that the Massachusetts infestation is unrelated but that the beetles probably arrived the same way.

Eradication efforts in New York, New Jersey and Illinois have cost $268 million over the past 11 years. Thousands of trees have been cut down.

The beetles have no natural predators in North America, and regular insecticides are useless once the eggs hatch in hardwoods such as birch, poplar, willow, sycamore, maple and elm.

The beetles lay their eggs in small depressions that they chew in tree bark. The larvae and pupae consume the tree from the inside, leaving a trail of tunnels. They eventually chew their way out as adults. The tunneling slowly kills the tree.

"The movement of firewood is probably, in my mind, the biggest threat in this area because so many people burn wood, so many people move wood without thinking, 'Oh, I could be transporting a pest,' " said Tom Denholm, who has set up a federal program to fight the insects in New Jersey and was sent to Massachusetts to help. "We can move the beetle a lot faster moving firewood than the beetle moving on its own."

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