Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search

Among America's 'most wanted': hungry beetle

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 2005


Based in McCall, Idaho, Christy Behm has parachuted from airplanes and rappelled out of helicopters to fight forest fires in the western United States. But her toughest foe may lie here, 30 feet above New York's Central Park.

Skip to next paragraph

Straddling a slender tree branch, she pauses for a safety tug on her climbing harness and backup rope. Then she swings upside down, clinging like a possum to the underside of the modest limb while city traffic whizzes by below. Her quarry: a biological terrorist that's so rarely seen, its pursuers have to scrutinize each square foot of bark for telltale holes and faint spots where eggs the size of a rice grain may have been deposited. The threat: the potential loss of every maple plus nine other tree species across the United States.

When the Asian longhorned beetle - or ALB, for short - was first detected in the US nine years ago, it quickly moved onto the nation's list of most wanted bugs. But spotting the roughly 1-inch-long beetles with their gaudy black-and-white striped antennae is so difficult that normal means of detection and eradication don't work. So the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has employed nearly 200 people in an intensive "bug hunt."

But even that hasn't been enough. So the USDA has called for backup from the equivalent of an insect SWAT team, whose members last month detected the beetle in Central Park on two American elms - the second such sighting in the park.

That's where Ms. Behm and her seven burly tree-climbing experts - smoke jumpers from the western US - come in. Usually these self-professed "thrill seekers" parachute into forest fires in parched western forests. But since 1999, some smoke-jumper volunteers have been enlisting in their off season to battle the ALB interloper.

"They've been a critical factor in turning the tide in our favor," says Joseph Gittleman, the USDA's top general in the New York area for the Asian Longhorned Beetle Cooperative Eradication Program.

It turns out that only the smoke jumpers can thoroughly inspect a tree's upper reaches where these beetles usually first attack. The ALB is far easier to detect after emerging in the spring thanks to the large dime-size exit holes they drill. But by the time those "bullet holes" show up, a tree is already infested.

"This needs to be seen as a national problem because it could be in other cities already," says E. Richard Hoebeke, assistant curator of the insect collection at Cornell University, who in 1996 first conclusively identified the invading beetle, which has since infested thousands of trees in urban areas including New York City, Jersey City, Chicago, and Toronto. "The danger is that by the time it's a visible problem and attention is paid, it's become a major problem."

Investigators quickly discovered the invader was arriving inside green-wood pallets carrying goods from China, one of the unexpected fruits of globalization. Such pallets are now banned.

But getting the word out to the public is key, beetle-fighters agree, since firewood carried from quarantine areas to campgrounds upstate could spread the menace. One of the inspectors' toughest jobs is getting access to Manhattan apartments with trees growing on their rooftop gardens.

"In my opinion this beetle, if it's not eradicated, is going to turn out be the biggest economic and environmental disaster to hit American shores," says Ralph Snodsmith, host of "The Garden Hotline," a nationally syndicated radio show. Mr. Snodsmith says he has been banging the drum about the beetle on every show since it was first found. When Congress moved to cut funding for the fight against the ALB, Snodsmith says he marshalled his listeners to lobby Congress. Funding was restored.

One reason Central Park officials are alarmed is because the beetle is an added threat to the park's beloved American elm trees. Intensive individual care of the thousands of elms has kept at bay the Dutch elm disease that has decimated elms nationwide.

"Central Park is one of the last great bastions of the American elm," says Bram Gunther, deputy director of forestry and horticulture for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, which oversees nearly 29,000 acres of parkland citywide including Central Park. "We've found the beetle in other parks, but none with the reputation of Central Park. We can't let them get a toehold here."

Even so, elms are considered secondary targets for the beetle. Maple trees - Norway, silver, red, and sugar - top the list of the beetle's favorite dishes, with birches, poplars, horse chestnut, willow, alders, and birches also among the known host species.