Burncoat Street is a wide, suburban avenue above the industrial center of Worcester, Mass. Lined with single-family clapboard and brick houses, churches, an elementary and a high school, Burncoat Street is a typical New England neighborhood. Or was a typical New England neighborhood. Lately, something is missing.
18,095 somethings are missing. The trees.
In 2008, a Worcester resident found an unfamiliar insect in her yard. Curious about the shimmery, speckled, long-antennaed bug, she spent hours poring over Web sites until she found a picture of Anoplophora glabripennis: the Asian long-horned beetle (ALB). The Web site urged her to call the USDA immediately. Fortunately, she did. Within days, Worcester entered an entomological War of the Worlds that has also impacted New York, Chicago, New Jersey, and Toronto.
The government swooped in and quarantined most of Worcester County. The previously unsuspecting residents of this leafy region quickly learned that the ALB is relentless and lethal, chewing its way into, and eventually killing, numerous hardwood host species including maple, elm, willow, birch, and ash. They’ve been removing trees ever since. Shady neighborhoods now look like tract housing. "All of a sudden we could see the sunset," said Betsy Wertheimer, a Worcester resident for 35 years. "People complained about getting lost because there are houses now that you just didn’t see for 50 years."
Granville Road, Worcester, Mass., before [top] and after [bottom] the Asian long-horned beetle was identified. (Photos by Kenneth R. Law, USDA APHIS PPQ)
Indigenous to Asia, the ALB arrived in wooden packing material and has hitchhiked up the east coast, chomping its way into backyards, campsites, and suburban canopies. It was first discovered in Brooklyn, NY, in 1996. A resident called the authorities because he thought his maples – riddled with holes large enough to hold a pencil - were being vandalized. "One tree had over 700 holes in it," said Rhonda Santos of the USDA’s APHIS (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service). "It looked like someone had shot it with a shotgun. It was like Swiss cheese." Chicago identified the ALB in 1998, New Jersey in 2002. Toronto in 2003. Last summer it was detected in six maples at a Boston hospital across the street from Harvard University’s Arnold arboretum. The USDA determined that the Boston bugs shared DNA with those in Worcester.
Today, APHIS’s Worcester office has a staff of 94 people, anticipation for what will replace the 2010 $54.5 million budget, and a sole mandate to eradicate ALB from the area. A total of 29,084 trees have been removed from Worcester County. 861,371 have been surveyed. A 94-square-mile area is quarantined. In the US, where it has no known predators, it’s a very, very, bad bug.
According to Santos, "The ALB attacks so many different kinds of trees we’re looking at not only the loss of trees changing the northeast forest range, but a massive amount of industry would be impacted, too." If the ALB were left unchecked, and continued to spread through New England, the USDA estimates that annual losses to regional industries such as lumber, nursery stock, paper, maple syrup, and tourism, would cost billions. "Eradication might not be possible in the Green Mountains of Vermont," she added.
The ALB has been nicknamed "the lazy bug" because it tends to stay in one tree for as long as the host is viable, and rarely flies if it doesn’t have to. But that doesn’t prevent it from wreaking havoc. In summer, adult beetles use their giant mandibles to chew an oval-shaped pit in the bark of a tree, where females lay a single egg. Each female can chew 35 to 90 individual pits. Hatched larvae tunnel into the center of the tree, where they spend the winter "growing fat and happy" according to Santos. The larvae emerge as adult beetles the following summer, chewing their way to the surface of the tree. A single beetle won’t kill a tree, but dozens can bore in and out, destroying the trunk and its structure. The tree is eaten alive. And once it’s dead, they move on to a neighboring host.
Although research is underway on other eradication methods - including fungal bands, dog detection, pheromones, and sound detection - the only option today is to cut it down and grind everything, including the stump. Non-infested host trees in quarantine areas are treated with imidacloprid (an insecticide found in many garden and pet products but which has alarmed bee keepers). Worcester residents have become inured to the sounds of chainsaws and wood chippers. Incinerators have also been busy.
While the ALB might be lazy, humans have certainly aided and abetted its movements. Regulations are in place in Maine and New York to prevent the transport of firewood across state lines. The US government has passed regulations mandating that China and other countries treat their wood packaging material to prevent further infestation. But an uninformed camper, or a kid bringing logs to build a fort at his grandparents’ house, could start a new infestation.
After tremendous effort, the ALB quarantine has been lifted in Chicago, and in parts of New Jersey. Thousands of non-host saplings have been planted in Worcester, but it will take years for the landscape to rebound. Trees are still being removed. "We have one maple left in our front yard and I predict that that won’t last very long," said Betsy Wertheimer. APHIS will be in Worcester for years.
While the USDA collaborates with states and towns to wipe out the ALB, the bugs have been intercepted in warehouses and ports from New Jersey to Los Angeles. And they’re just one of the 6,000+ invasive species in this country. When (and if) the ALB is eradicated, the next pest will be mobilized. Or, based on efforts underway to remove the emerald ash borer, it already is.
For more information on the Asian long-horned beetle: www.na.fs.fed.us/fhp/alb/ or www.beetlebusters.info.
About the Author: Beth Jones is a journalist, author, blogger, and educator who has contributed to the Boston Globe, New York Times, Huffington Post, public radio stations in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and numerous magazines and academic journals. She is a co-author of the book THREE WISHES (Little, Brown & Co., Inc., April, 2010). Her nonscientific Web site is: www.Beth-Jones.com
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.