Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Tracing the Tree Assassin: Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People Who Track It by Loree Griffin Burns

The Asian longhorned beetle (ALB for short) is a stunner. Its 1.5-inch body is a deep black speckled with white, and its head bears a set of shockingly long striped antennae. These antennae and the beetle's six feet are tinted blue, and its mouthparts, if you get close enough to see them, resemble a miniature lobster claw.

If an Asian longhorned beetle landed next to you right now, you would probably never forget it.

And it's a good thing that the ALB is such a memorable bug. In 1996 a man in Brooklyn noticed some small round holes in some maple trees. He blamed teen vandals and mounted a one-man surveillance program on his own. What he spotted was a large, black beetle with long, striped antennae and blue legs, caught in the act of emerging, well fed and ready to mate, from the trunk of one of his favorite trees.

It didn't take long for local officers to ID the perp. The ALB had a long rap sheet with the tree police. It had been discovered chomping up newly planted American poplar trees in China in the early 1980s. The Chinese discovered the pests and leveled the infected trees, but instead of chipping or burning the wood, they thriftily used it to build thousands of shipping pallets, which were loaded with manufactured goods and shipped to the East Coast of the U.S. The alien stowaways hatched and matured and emerged at the ports of New York and Boston, and got busy doing what tree beetles do. They found a lavish beetle buffet on the American ash, sycamore, horse chestnut, willow, elm. hackberry, mimosa, ash, and maple entrees in their new home.

When the Brooklyn tree watcher collared the suspect, the tree scientists of New York went into action. An urban forest has fewer trees, usually not in close quarters, so tree surgeons figured that they would locate all the diseased trees, cut them down, chip them up finely to kill the larvae inside, and that would be that. But before long, infestations showed up in Boston, and the tree men went on red alert, playing whack-a-mole as each infestation was found and eliminated. The ALBs are inept fliers, so they attack trees that are close by, so the hope was that each area could be cleared easily enough once it was located.

But then the pest was discovered in the leafy suburbs of Worcester, Massachusetts. Suburban forests are denser, spread over many independently owned plots of land, and even worse, located near real woodlands, part of the great North American forest that stretches from eastern Canada to the Great Lakes area and southward through the Appalachians into the deep South. If the beetles infected that great expanse of trees, millions and millions of our most beautiful trees might be lost, with serious consequences for human and wild animal habitat across almost half of the country.

Teams of tree scientists descended on Worcester, trudging through briers and undergrowth, suffering though ice and snow in winter and ticks and mosquitoes in summer, and climbing into the canopies to identify affected trees for removal. Homeowners and park visitors grieved over the loss of majestic maples and elms. Entomologists studied the beetles' two-year life cycles, and botanists and foresters studied cross-section "cookies" of tree trunks to determine how infestation affected growth. Zoologists observed how the loss of these trees affected all the creatures who depend on forest trees. Chemists created ALB pheromones to attract mating adults to traps, and sniffer dogs were trained to detect the characteristic smell of chemicals released by the beetles to speed up surveying.

Many pesky suspects were arrested, but the Asian longhorned beetle's crime wave has not been stopped, They are now being fought all over the world, in Austria, France, Italy, England, Japan, and Switzerland. Resolute scientists never give up, but so far, the fight depends more on amateur observations of new infestations than on miracle pesticides, exotic new predators, or evolving resistance among the affected trees.

Loree Griffin Burns' Beetle Busters (Scientists in the Field Series) (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) details the struggle with one of the pests that threaten our forests in an easy middle-reader text stacked with information. These are truly "scientists in the field" (actual fields) revealing how teams of experts with varying specialties cooperate in the their assignment. Many color photographs by Ellen Harasimowicz document the work of these insect CSI experts. In fact, any reader of this book is well prepared to identify this insect pest if it is encountered. In the tradition of Houghton Mifflin's estimable Scientists in the Field series, a glossary with terms such as dendrochronology and vascular cambium, a bibliography, and an index is appended

The fight against the ALB is not a skirmish, but a real war. America loves its leafy towns and cities, its glorious shady glades, and its forested state and national parks. What do we have to lose? The shade of towering elms, the autumn glory of red maples, and the inimitable taste of sugar maple syrup, the songs of birds, and the beauty of our woodlands.

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