Meet the Asian Longhorned Beetle, the Government’s Tree Terrorist

Uncle Sam is facing a new menace, but he has a slogan to fight back: “Find it. Report it. Save trees.”

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James E. Appleby / University of Illinois / AP

An Asian Longhorned Beetle

Uncle Sam is facing a new menace, but he has a slogan to fight back: “Find it. Report it. Save trees.”

That was the call to action issued Monday by the Agriculture Department and national environmental groups, who met to discuss the attack of a dangerous foreign invader: the Asian Longhorned Beetle, known in the tree-saving business as “ALB.”

It’s “a big, showy insect” whose exotic appearance is likely to intrigue homeowners and may even inspire them to report sighting, said Dr. Robert Rabaglia, of the U.S. Forest Service. The beetle is usually between an inch and an inch and a half long, and its shiny, black body is covered with white spots. ALBs have six bluish legs, and all members of the species possess long, black and white banded antenna that resemble the whiskers of a catfish.

It is also a tree killer that has already ravaged tree populations in Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Clermont County, Ohio.

So the government is responding with a social media-driven public awareness campaign and the declaration of August 2013 as “Tree Check Month” in the hopes that citizens will inspect their own trees and report the discovery of suspicious holes and other tell-tale marks. Monday’s news conference at the National Press Club delivered a sentimental plea to tree owners everywhere: our forests are under attack, America, and the feds need your help. “It’s perfect for the public to look for and find,” said Rabaglia.

Though the beetle produces only a single generation of offspring every season, the development and activity of larval ALBs wreaks havoc on the hard and soft tissues of infested arbors. After they have mated, female ALBs chew oblong “oviposition pits” in the bark of an ash, birch, willow, maple, mimosa, poplar or another of the species’ favorite trees. Their chewing injures the phloem of the plant (the tubular cells that allow for the longitudinal flow of nutrients and amino acids, for those who have forgotten biology), but it is the ravenous teenage ALBs that do real damage.

Once hatched, larvae eat their way to the heart of the tree in which they were born, then eat their way back out. Their consumption of the innermost parts of the tree produces “weeping, canker-like symptoms on the bark,” and their emergence as grown adults creates No. 2 pencil-sized “exit holes” in the sides of infested trees. Eventually, the structural insecurity caused by larval ALB feeding prevents the tree from sustaining itself, causing death.

The Asian Longhorned Beetle has not always been most wanted on the government’s list of tree terrorists. It is native to a small area of China, Korea and Japan, where it lived exclusively until the Chinese government’s tree planting spree of the 60s and 70s. A decade later, the ALB population skyrocketed just as Chinese foreign trade began to increase. The nation’s expanding economic ties caused the export of ALB-infested wood by ship to North America.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, between 1980 and the year 2000, the United States went from importing 8 million sea containers to more than 30 million. Goods transported across the Pacific were packed in wooden crates carrying ALB larvae, which burrowed out of their cozy timber tunnels to find places like Brooklyn, New York, where the species was spotted in 1996. After being found in Brooklyn, the ALB was spotted in Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island, and Hudson and Union counties in New Jersey. The initial New York episode demonstrated all of the characteristics of an ALB outbreak, which usually consists of a few separate but geographically close infestations.

“Previously, it was thought that it was a port of entry type pest that would have come in at these ports where we’ve got commodities coming,” said Rhonda Santos, a spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. “But lo and behold, it escaped from packing material, started infesting trees, and now we’ve got an infestation.” The USDA has been able to halt all ALB infestations except three—Massachusetts, New York and Ohio—but Santos says all 50 states are at risk. “We couldn’t have predicted Ohio,” she said. The outbreak in Clermont County was detected early and accurately by local homeowners, which allowed the USDA to send in the troops for easy extermination. The ALB could be lurking anywhere else in the United States, however, and it is up to local homeowners to identify populations before it’s too late.

In order to contain the species, Federal and State agencies have established quarantine zones around infestations. The beetles themselves, larvae, eggs, firewood, or green lumber cannot be removed from such areas. Businesses that handle “regulated materials” within the zones are being required to undergo trainings or sign compliance agreements, and APHIS has reached out to the Department of Homeland Security to control the inspection of all wood packing material at ports of entry to the United States.

But the primary mechanism for the USDA’s encouragement of citizen reporting is their ALB campaign website, Financed by the USDA’s $44 million budget for managing “Tree & Wood Pests,” the website includes badges and animated web banners that fans can post on their social media profiles, infographics about the ALB, assessments carried out in various counties across the country, and a page where concerned citizens can report the bug or signs of damage. “Suspicious sightings” submitted online or via phone are investigated by local APHIS offices, which can call on federal level investigators if a threat is confirmed.

According to Santos, APHIS is also putting inserts in newspapers and broadcast advertisements in endangered areas. Monday’s news conference will be followed by a press conference with the state of Massachusetts, which is conducting its own eradication efforts. “The value of trees within our communities is immeasurable and the risk of devastation by the Asian Longhorn Beetle is profound,” said Woodrow Nelson of the Arbor Day Foundation in an APHIS press release. “Yet we’ve learned that the threat can be thwarted. We’ve learned that this pest can and has been eliminated in many areas. The success will be because of caring people helping where they live.”