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Ladies and Gentlemen — Meet the Beetles

• August 05, 2009 • 12:00 PM

A persistent pest from China chomping on American trees spotlights the economic and aesthetic damage that foreign species may cause in new environments.

When John, Paul, George, and Ringo arrived in New York from the U.K. 45 years ago, they were met by wildly enthusiastic crowds. Somehow, they seemed to have an edge over native rockers in the USA. Maybe it was the laid back beat, the accents, the exotic haircuts; perhaps, it was the fact that they could fly (they had chartered a jet to shuttle about during their stay). Whatever it was, the Beatles quickly toured the virgin countryside, and facing few competitors, had their way with crowds everywhere.

A phalanx of their countrymen would follow in their wake — it was dubbed the “British Invasion,” and afterwards, American culture would never be the same.

In 1996, a different kind of beetle made an appearance in New York, but this time with devastating potential. It was met by excited wildlife officials and ecologists, but they were far from enthusiastic. In fact, they want to make sure any subsequent tour gets canceled — before it starts.

The Asian longhorned beetle — let’s call it the ALB — is just one of the thousands of invasive species circulating the world today. Abetted by increased international trade, tourism and travel connections, exotic invaders such as the ALB can overrun and ruin entire ecosystems ill prepared for their onslaught. Phyllis Windle, an invasive species expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls the threat “one of the most important environmental challenges of the 21st century.”

Foreign invaders are attacking the United States from land, sea and air.

Kudzu, a vine first introduced to America’s shores as an ornamental, now chokes wide swaths of forest in the Southeast, blanketing the landscape with a deadening monoculture of alien origin. From the Caspian Sea comes the round goby, a stowaway in the ballast of cargo ships. Resembling a large tadpole, it’s now the bane of the Great Lakes fishermen, stealing bait and habitat from native species. Another beetle, the emerald ash borer, is believed to have been imported to the U.S. by accident, just a few years ago. The beetle emerged from an innocent looking garden shrub to a world devoid of natural predators. Taking wing in its new home, this pest and its larvae attack ash trees with impunity, sapping the life from one of the most common trees in North America’s forests, experts say it could be a game changer on the scale of Dutch elm disease in the 1960s.

And it’s not just critters and weeds; monkeypox and the fungus that causes sudden oak death are also invasives.

The inch-and-a-half-long Asian longhorn beetle first demonstrated its destructive potential in its native habitat of northeastern China, said Suzanne Bond, spokesperson for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. As part of a national “greening program” during the 1960s and 1970s, farmers in the region were encouraged to plant groves of poplar trees as windbreaks for agricultural lands. However, Bond said, the stands of just one kind of plant proved an ideal breeding ground for pests, and the previously benign ALB population levels exploded.

Devouring trees from the inside out, the bugs caused such devastation that they were nicknamed “the forest fire without smoke.” In order to stem the beetles’ advance, foresters in China began cutting down their poplar groves and other susceptible trees by the millions.

With the beetles out of control in China, Bond said it was only a matter of time before the problem spread. Eventually, timber from trees that had harbored the beetles was used to make wooden pallets and wooden bracing for shipping crates. Undetected, stowaway long horned beetle eggs and larvae, that had burrowed deep within the planks, went along for the ride to points across the globe.

Investigators believe that’s how they got to the Greenpoint neighborhood in Brooklyn, which in 1996, reported the first ALB infestation in the United States.

Threatening Forests and Breakfasts
The insects spend most of their short lives as larvae, tunneling within the heartwood and limbs of the tree. At mid-summer they emerge as adult beetles to chew on the leaves for a few days, then disperse across the canopy to adjacent trees, where they mate and deposit a new set of eggs to continue the cycle the coming year.

And they are voracious. Rob Davies, New York State’s chief forester, says in just a few seasons infested trees “can become so compromised they just collapse upon themselves.”

Though Davies says the beetles attack numerous species of hardwoods, they show a special affinity for his state tree, the sugar maple. Not only is the maple central to the furniture industry and tourism in New York, but “it’s the dominant tree in the state.

“If the beetle were to get into the North Country, it would be devastating — no more maple syrup.”

If hotcakes without syrup sounds bad, Christine Markham, the U.S. Forest Service’s ALB national program director, says a nationwide beetle breakout would be disastrous. She said studies performed when the beetle was first detected projected a loss of 35 percent of the nation’s forest canopy and 30 percent of its trees, with an economic impact of $700 billion by 2030, if the insect spread unchecked.

While Davies has made eradicating the beetle his “No.1 priority,” he says it’s slow going. New York City’s timetable for eradication has been pushed back two decades, from 2012 to 2032, and Davies fears this 20-year reprieve will give the beetles too many opportunities to escape.

Adding to the problem, he says, are homeowners with dying trees on their properties that could become unwitting vectors for the insects’ spread. Davies says many homeowners in the city who enjoy camping like to cut up diseased or fallen trees in their backyard to use for firewood while vacationing. Although he says it might appear to save money and trees, the practice risks spreading disease and pests. (Firewood movement also provides a way for the emerald ash borer to hitch through the Midwest.)

Davies hopes a recently expanded quarantine on the movement of firewood from New York City and Long Island will put an end to that tradition. “Knocking on wood,” he hopes that the beetles have not already hitched a ride into the surrounding countryside.

However, Davies acknowledges the challenge the city faces removing infested trees. “The way New York City is set up,” he says, “when you cut down a tree in a resident’s backyard, the only way you can move it out is through their living room,” an expensive and time consuming process.

But, he says culling is not the only tool foresters have at their disposal to deal with the beetle. In New York and New Jersey, APHIS has begun to provide trees with intravascular treatments, using the insecticide imidacloprid, through either a trunk injection, or a soil infusion. Davies says this procedure, while expensive, if done early enough in the infestation, can rescue some of the affected trees.

However, because the damage deep within the tree is mostly invisible until it’s too late, Davies worries that it won’t be until residents start seeing hollowed out stumps being carted out piece-by-piece through their neighbors’ front doors that they’ll start demanding action.

Still, Davies says eradication can work and Chicago’s success has shown the way.

Cutting the Problem Down to Size
Chicago’s 10-year battle with the beetle ended in the spring of 2008 when officials certified that the ALB had been eliminated from the city and its environs at a cost of $70 million in federal, state and local money.

Or, so it seemed. A few months later in August, authorities responded to a report of a large spotted beetle on a homeowner’s carport in Deerfield, 30 miles from the city. Analysis confirmed it was an Asian longhorn. APHIS responded, and Bond says it is still uncertain whether that insect represents a new invasion, an undocumented infestation, or a doomed straggler. She says, however, that several months of surveillance in the area have not turned up any additional specimens, leaving authorities confident that Chicago’s eradication effort was indeed a success.

“The protocol used to fight the beetle amounts to a set of tools in a toolbox,” says Bond. Among these tools she says, technicians must climb and inspect “every inch” of susceptible trees, while looking out for trees whose canopies interweave with infested trees. Both must be cut down and the timbers chipped into chunks of less than one inch. For all their effectiveness, she says she expects eradication techniques to evolve “as we learn more about the beetle.”

In the meantime, international agreement and U.S. trade regulations require shippers to provide extensive documentation certifying all wooden packing materials brought into the country, have been chemically treated to eliminate any danger of stowaway beetles. But, Bond says, regulations are not foolproof, and isolated ALB captures have been reported in warehouses in several cities including a 2005 incident in Sacramento, Calif.

Windle says a long-term solution to the stowaway problem “must also focus on finding alternatives to wooden packing materials.”

The National Environmental Coalition on Invasive Species, which includes 11 environmental nongovernmental organizations ranging from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Environmental Law Institute to the National Audubon Society and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, last December called on the new administration and Congress to take better aim at invasives. Their five recommendations include:

• Screening intentionally imported plants and animals, and strengthening existing federal laws and regulations that can block or quarantine imports.
• Prevent inadvertent introductions, in part by reauthorizing the National Invasive Species Act and passing the Ballast Water Management Act.
• Better funding of early detection and response
• Create and support federal leadership, in particular by “reinvigorating” the National Invasive Species Council.
• Fill other funding gaps: “Economic studies, including detailed analysis by the Brookings Institution, independent economists and the former congressional Office of Technology Assessment, show that government funds spent on invasive species prevention and control efforts are highly likely to provide large net economic returns to the nation.

The USDA’s Bond, meanwhile, is optimistic that one particular invader, the Asian longhorn beetle, can be stopped.

“It’s a showy bug. It leaves definite signs,” she says. In addition to their size and dramatic coloring, they leave distinctive entry and exit wounds on affected trees and piles of sawdust where they’ve bored. To the credit of a vigilant public, she says every ALB infestation report thus far has come from residents and business owners with no special training in etymology. It will take continued vigilance and diligence at home and abroad to see that these destructive pests don’t get another a ticket to ride.

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David Richardson
David Richardson began his journalism career operating a video news service in Washington, D.C., that covered federal agencies and Congress. His film production work has since ranged from postings at the White House to rural villages of Botswana, documenting community-centered HIV prevention programs. He holds a B.A. degree in government from Dartmouth College. He now writes on science, the environment and policy from Baltimore, Md., where he's had some success growing organic produce in a small backyard garden.

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