Beetle Hunters

After government entomologists discovered the beetles, Mary Knittle got used to the sight of cranes pulling trees out of her neighbors’ yards. Knittle has lived all her life in the Burncoat neighborhood on the north side of Worcester, Massachusetts, where officials have ordered more than 28,000 trees removed since 2008 to combat an infestation of Asian longhorned bettles. Before, maples lined the streets in Burncoat. Now, there are saplings staked along the roads, and a few trees stand above the roofs, but every front porch is clearly visible from the street, and the orderly lawns are bright with sunlight. Burncoat looks like an ordinary neighborhood where kids have been doing trig homework at the kitchen counter and dads have been watching the Red Sox on the couch for as long as anyone can remember. It looks like anywhere in the country, anywhere other than the north side of Worcester that Knittle and her family remember.

“When my brothers and sisters come back to Worcester to visit, their jaws are hanging all the time,” Knittle told me.

The campaign to eradicate the Asian longhorned beetle has transformed Burncoat. Once the beetles have colonized a tree, cutting it down and chipping the wood is the only way to get rid of them. The beetles infest and eventually kill hardwood trees, including elms, birches, willows, and horse chestnuts, but they thrive most in maples. Most of the trees still standing in Burncoat are conifers.

The beetles came from China and the Korean peninsula in packing crates and pallets built from infested wood. The United States Department of Agriculture has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to eradicate the insects wherever they appear. Infestations in Chicago and in Islip, New York on Long Island have already been extirpated. Officials are preparing to declare the eradication campaign in Manhattan a success. They are only a year or two from declaring victory in Union and Middlesex Counties, New Jersey, which adjoin New York City.

But for several years, Worcester (pronounced “WUH-stuh”) has been the focus of the national campaign against the beetles. There were more trees infested in Worcester than in all the other previous North American infestations combined, and the city was uncomfortably close to the vast, unbroken forests extending across New England and eastern Canada.

No one is entirely sure what will happen if the government team fails to prevent Asian longhorned beetles from spreading into that wilderness. Scientists worry the beetle, which tolerates cold temperatures, could spread far north. “Nobody really knows what it’s going to do. The potential is there, certainly, for this to be very serious,” said Talbot Trotter, a United States Forest Service ecologist who has studied how the beetles spread. “I don’t think anyone wants to find out the hard way.”

“In this case, we don’t have a textbook, because we’ve got something that’s totally novel in our ecosystems,” said Lloyd Irland, a forestry policy consultant who formerly worked in insect control for the state of Maine. As a result, he said, officials have to anticipate the worst: that the beetles all but eliminate maples from the region’s forests, as Dutch elm disease wiped out elms over several decades in the twentieth century. The trees that are vulnerable to the Asian longhorned beetle “are species of trees that are very important to us from an industry standpoint,” Irland said. The Asian longhorned beetle’s spread would bear tangible costs for timber and maple syrup producers, as well as for New England’s tourism industry, which brings visitors to see the forests turn color in autumn.

In addition, widespread devastation in these forests would accelerate global warming. Large forests absorb carbon dioxide, a gas that is emitted when fuels such as gasoline, coal, and natural gas are burned. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is causing temperatures around the world to rise, and a warmer planet could have catastrophic consequences for plants, animals, and humans in several decades. “When you look at the carbon sink that we have right here around us, that’s immense. I think we have a lot to lose,” said Clint McFarland, who is in charge of the eradication campaign in Worcester.

The beetles had been multiplying in Worcester for about 12 years before anyone noticed them, according to entomologists who have examined infested trees there. In 2008, after a Worcester woman alerted state authorities to the strange beetles swarming the trees in her backyard, McFarland came to take charge of the new eradication program. He had already spent seven years working for the Department of Agriculture in the eradication battle in New York City and New Jersey, and he brought many of his colleagues from that project with him. He has now been fighting the beetle for more than ten years. “I was always worried about the threat to the northeastern hardwood forests, and what you’ve got going all the way up to the boreal line,” McFarland said.

McFarland wears a park ranger’s uniform and keeps his straight red hair back in a ponytail. He has a square jaw and an honest-looking face, which takes on an even more earnest expression when he talks about his insect nemesis. He fell in love with entomology after taking Emory University’s only class on the subject as a college student there. He earned his graduate degree in invasive insect control at University of Florida. There, he studied the Asian citrus psyllid, a tiny insect that ruins valuable crops by spreading a disease lethal to citrus trees. “They were throwing billions and billions of dollars at it, after the problem couldn’t be solved,” he said of agricultural authorities in Florida. “They were past the point of no return.” The insect is now present in every citrus-growing state. Had government agencies acted more quickly, McFarland feels, the Asian citrus psyllid could have been contained.

He now supervises about 150 people working on the eradication project in central Massachusetts. McFarland said he has a point to prove: that a swift, coordinated governmental response can often remove an invasive species and prevent the damage it would otherwise cause.

“I want to see this problem here be solved,” McFarland told me. “The investment of money is not as great as it will be if you let things pass and are not being responsive.” He added that his annual budget is in the tens of millions of dollars.

Led by the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (McFarland’s immediate employer and the Department of Agriculture agency listed on his business card), the response to the infestation is an impressive effort. Several government agencies and private organizations are involved, and researchers and climbers have come from around the country to monitor the beetles. The government’s campaign has been aggressive, sometimes intrusive. The trees that must be cut down often stand on private property. As a result, an important part of McFarland’s job is talking to members of the public.

“People don’t hear from elected officials. They have a disdain for government because of that. We have to turn that around,” he said. He spends his evenings replying to emails from concerned citizens when old beloved trees are felled or shady streets are denuded. “We have to be extraordinary empathetic about what we’re doing. We have to realize how traumatic this is,” he said.

During a time of doubt about the federal government’s ability to do anything competently, McFarland’s optimism may be surprising. His campaign has had its opponents, too, long-time Worcester residents who feel like they don’t recognize their home anymore. Ginny Kingsbury, a retired teacher and nurse who has lived in Worcester for more than thirty years, is an example. “I not only care deeply about trees, but I care a lot about my city. My city is getting destroyed,” she told me.

Kingsbury became an activist after McFarland’s program and the city agreed to clear Dodge Park, a forested lot of forty acres, over the summer, removing not just the trees that bore clear signs of beetle damage, but all of the hardwoods susceptible to attack. If the program had taken a more conservative approach, surveyors might have missed an infested tree, allowing the beetles to spread.

“The federal government just decided to go whole hog and cut everything in sight, because that was the only way they could be sure of controlling it,” Kingsbury said. In response to the Dodge Park decision, Kingsbury and others began holding meetings and writing letters protesting the Department of Agriculture’s actions. She called the group Save ALL Worcester Trees.

They complained that the department had originally stated it would inoculate the healthy trees in Dodge Park against infection with a pesticide, before suddenly changing its approach. “There wasn’t any notification, there wasn’t any reason, there wasn’t any excuse,” Kingsbury said. She also said she’d lost trust in the campaign. “Anything I hear from the USDA, I don’t believe.”

McFarland explained that the pesticide isn’t always effective, depending on the stage of the infestation, and that his program will still use the chemical in the right situations. “That’s a tough thing when you’re dealing with residents that are losing their trees, and they want to grasp on to anything that gives them a hope of saving them right then,” he said. “I know that’s not what residents always want to hear, but really when to use the chemicals most appropriately needs to be critically analyzed.”

Despite Save ALL Worcester Trees, McFarland has managed to win the support of some people for whom the campaign against the beetle has had real costs, such as Pat Bigelow. Bigelow’s grandfather established Bigelow Nurseries in 1915, and her family now owns 1,300 acres of nursery stock on six farms throughout central Massachusetts. The 110 square miles the Department of Agriculture quarantined in and around Worcester include one of Bigelow’s farms, where she had been growing paper bark birches, dwarf birches, a variety of maple species, and other trees that were potentially hosts for Asian longhorned beetles. The more valuable maples she might have sold for $400 a tree, but because of the quarantine, she couldn’t sell any of the vulnerable trees, even if they were healthy. She had no choice but to put them all through the chipper.

“It was a very large, six-figure dollar volume of trees that we had to destroy,” Bigelow said about a week after the trees had been ground.

Although Bigelow’s trees were collateral casualties in the war against the beetle, she didn’t feel the quarantine program had treated her business unfairly. The quarantine protects the nursery’s five other farms from infestation, and eradication officials have helped reassure Bigelow’s wholesale and retail customers that the stock on her other farms is free of beetles. She isn’t only concerned about her family’s business, though. “Unless you want this pest to rage through the whole northeast and eliminate essentially all of your beautiful hardwoods, you need to let [the federal officials] do their jobs,” she said. “It takes a while. This becomes one of these things that has to happen for the greater good.”

It does take a while. The beetles’ numbers have been drastically reduced since 2008, but total eradication in Worcester is at least ten years away—ten years of painstaking surveys and strict quarantine restrictions. So far, surveyors and tree climbers have checked more than 1.5 million trees in and around Worcester for signs of infestation—seeping sap; the beetle’s sawdust-like excrement, called frass; and the telltale pencil-sized holes where young adult beetles first emerge from the tree. They’re also searching for infested trees in Shrewsbury, a town adjacent to Worcester, since finding signs of the beetle there last fall. The beetles’ presence in Shrewsbury doesn’t necessarily mean they are spreading, but it is a reminder that there may be infested areas McFarland’s staff doesn’t know about.

Last November, I joined a crew of government tree climbers hunting for beetles in a thick patch of natural woods in Worcester. It was a quiet November day. Softball players shouted to one another on a field on the other side of a stagnant creek, and the leafless trees muted the noise of the cars on Cutof Avenue, about a hundred yards away. Unit 88, as the eradication program designates the area including the field and the patch of woods, had already been checked for beetles once before since the surveys began in 2008. Two days earlier, however, climbers had discovered a stand of infested trees there.

I watched Travis Hart, who is based at the Bureau of Land Management station in Boise, methodically prepare to inspect a tree. He began with a throw ball, a ten-ounce weight at the end of a thin rope, which he swung up into the tree with an underhanded lob. His first toss missed—the line caught around a twig, snapped it off, and followed the throw ball back down. Gingerly, Hart untangled the twig from the line and tried again. Eventually, the throw ball flew between the main trunk and a large limb, the line resting securely in the crotch. Hart fed a thicker rope through the crotch, coiled the first line, and put away the throw ball. Then he strapped on his harness and slipped into a pair of gloves. He began to hoist himself up the rope, turning half-somersaults regularly to catch it between his ankles and establish a higher foothold. Just to reach the top of the line in the crotch overhead took a quarter of an hour, all told.

“We have to be thorough,” said Kevin Freeman, the head climber. “We miss an infested tree in here, we’ve wasted months, and lots of resources and money.”

As the wind through the woods bobbed Hart up and down on the tree’s trunk, he looked for anything that might indicate an infestation, circling the trunk and checking the undersides of branches. Standing erect on the trunk at an odd angle, he appeared weightless, like an astronaut on a spacewalk, until a large branch snapped beneath his feet, leaving him dangling by his climbing line from the trunk a few feet overhead.

By the time Hart reached the ground, he’d carefully inspected just about every square inch of bark. “That’s a clean tree,” he said.

Freeman took me to the infested stand, leading me past a marshy fen on one side of a grassy road before stepping over a downed trunk into the woods. We pushed through the underbrush, snapping twigs and crunching newly fallen leaves beneath our boots. Freeman picked his way ahead of me to the infested trees, which the climbers had marked with bold stripes of red crayon. He pointed to one of the younger infested trees, whose trunk, broken in October’s snowstorm, rested just above our heads. There were thirty to forty fresh divots on the tree, probably the work of a single female as she laid her eggs beneath the bark.

Using a pocketknife, Freeman cut a square around one of the egg sites and peeled away the bark. There were a few grains of frass and a miniscule hole where the larva had burrowed into the tree. The fugitive, though, would not escape. It wouldn’t be long before these trees were felled and ground into sawdust.

During the few years they had been in this stand, the beetles had only infested about a half a dozen trees, but given another year or two, Freeman predicted, their population would have exploded. The beetles will stay in one area for about five years before taking flight in search of new trees. “We got this just in time,” Freeman said.

As the afternoon wore on in Unit 88, the climbers continued their meticulous inventory. Hart, a colleague of his from Boise named Frank Goodson, and a few others inspected a thicket of immature trees. Goodson recorded the species of the trees and their diameters in inches as the other climbers measured them.

“Birch, 2. Birch, 2. Birch, 3.”

For trees too small to climb, the climbers often simply reach up and pull down the trunks to take a closer look.

“Birch, 2.”

“Another birch, 2.”

“Rose of Sharon, inch and a half.”

It was around 4 p.m. The sun had already fallen behind the trees and was turning the pale gold of some maple leaves in late autumn. Soon it would be too dark to climb, and the rest of the crew was selecting what might be their last trees for the day. In this area the beetles seemed to prefer boxelder maples, but the trees in the patch between the road and the baseball diamond were mostly cottonwoods and birches. The climbers hadn’t seen any signs of their quarry here.

Somewhere, though, they were out there—the larvae, chewing, writhing, lurking, waiting for the summer, when the pupae would emerge, perhaps to colonize a new stand. Tree by tree, the climbers will search for them, for years if necessary, until no more are to be found.

 Max Ehrenfreund grew up outside Portland, Oregon, pulling English ivy and other invasive plant species in the state park a few blocks from his house. After graduating this month, he will be reporting for The Sacramento Bee. Send him an email at max.ehrenfreund@gmail.com

 

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