March 13, 2010

Steps taken to keep tree-killing beetles from Maine

RODRIQUE NGOWI

— By

click image to enlarge

Donna Massie holds the preserved remains of an Asian Longhorned Beetle, Wednesday, Oct. 8, 2008, that she and her husband found this past summer in their Worcester, Mass., backyard. The same invasive insects that years ago threatened Central Park in New York have now been found in more than 1,500 trees in central Massachusetts -- only the fourth time these beetles native to Asia have been found in the United States. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

AP

Ray Kidd
click image to enlarge

Ray Kidd

AP

The Associated Press

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 U.S. and the closest they have ever come to the great New England woods that erupt in dazzling, tourist-pleasing colors in the fall.

The discovery puts the beetles within easy reach of Maine, especially given the chance that a weekend visitor from Massachusetts could ferry the pest here in a load of campfire wood, said Dave Struble of the Maine Forest Service.

''This is a threat we are taking very seriously,'' Struble said. ''We have a lot of people who come to Maine from down that way who have camps.''

The beetles kill maple trees and other hardwoods, which make up more than half of Maine's 17.7 million acres of forest and feed a timber industry that contributes $6.5 billion to the state's economy.

They are also feared by the region's vast maple syrup industry.

''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 McCrum, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Syrup 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 smokejumpers, tree climbers and other experts to identify infested trees.

The affected area now 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, after Donna Massie spotted beetles on a tree in her back yard in Worcester. She caught one, searched online to identify it, 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 with white freckles, long antennae and a voracious appetite for hardwood.

The beetles first appeared in the U.S. 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 believe 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 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 with efforts here. ''We can move the beetle a lot faster moving firewood than the beetle moving on its own.''

Earlier this month, Rhode Island officials found a larva in firewood taken from Worcester to Cranston.

The possible arrival of an Asian longhorned beetle in a load of firewood was considered a serious threat to Maine's hardwood forests even before the pest was found in Worcester, just 90 minutes from Maine's border.

Along with the emerald ash borer, it is one of the reasons the Maine Forest Service has stepped up appeals to camp associations and summer visitors to avoid bringing firewood from home to use in cottages and campgrounds here. It's an old tradition that could carry huge risks, said Struble.

Staff Writer John Richardson contributed to this article

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