Beetles Pose Serious Threat to East Coast Landscape, UMass Amherst Scientist Says

AMHERST, Mass. - The Asian longhorned beetle (ALB) is a serious threat to leafy neighborhoods from Montreal to Miami, according to Terry Tattar, a microbiologist and director of the Shade Tree Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts. The insect has damaged millions of trees in northern China, Japan, and South Korea, and has entered this country in wood-packing material, nursery stock, and other wood coming through air and marine ports, according to Tattar.

The ALB already has led to the destruction of thousands of American trees, and Tattar says it has the potential to ruin millions. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), female beetles chew holes in tree bark to lay their eggs. When the eggs hatch, the young bore deeper into tree trunks and branches, then chew their way out, leaving behind half-inch exit holes and debris. Because the insects have disrupted the tree''s circulatory system, the tree will slowly wither and die.

"As far as we know, there are no successful predatory insects or birds to exert biological control over this insect in China, where it is native," says Tattar, "which is one reason why ALB has done so much damage over there."

In 1999, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman declared an ALB emergency. As a result, Tattar is working with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to develop a prevention protocol that will head off an even bigger ALB emergency, one which some say could surpass the destruction caused by the gypsy-moth invasion of the 1980s.

The bugs have been found at dozens of sites around the country but not in Massachusetts, leading Tattar to warn: "If we''re not careful, the ALB could destroy whole stands of maple in New England, ruining a landscape that took Nature centuries to construct. It could also wreak havoc with our region''s nursery industry." According to the USDA, the bug prefers maples, but also eats ash, horse chestnut, birch, Rose of Sharon, poplar, willow, elm, locust, mulberry, chinaberry, apple, cherry, pear, and citrus trees. If it can''t find living trees, it is content to live in, eat, and produce larvae in recently cut logs, green lumber, firewood, stumps, roots, branches, or tree debris, says the USDA.

Tattar says the current protocol used to stop the pest is the "scorched earth" method. Infested trees are cut, chipped, and burned, then the surrounding area is put into quarantine. No one may remove trees, or tree parts, from the designated infested areas.

To date, two states - New York and Illinois - contain quarantined regions. Since 1996, more than 4,000 trees were cut and burned in sections of New York''s Queens, Brooklyn, and Long Island, which still are under ALB quarantine, according to APHIS. The Ravenswood section of Chicago was quarantined in 1998 when a city parks employee found a live beetle in his truck. More beetles subsequently were found in surrounding counties. APHIS has destroyed more than 1,000 infested trees in the Chicago area.

Tattar and his team have found that a systemic insecticide known as imicide (which has been used successfully to protect trees against other insects) can be injected into a tree to prevent and possibly control ALB. Tattar''s research has shown that trunk injection against ALB has minimal impact on the environment, will provide protection and might rescue a living tree, depending on the extent of the damage. The Environmental Protection Agency has given the USDA permission to contract arborists to apply the insecticide, but there is nothing currently available for homeowners who want to protect backyard trees. If homeowners find ALB on their property, they should alert the nearest USDA or APHIS office, which will arrange for removal of any infested wood.

"We have a real problem on Long Island, where ALB has attacked a 250-year old Heritage Tree where George Washington stood to thank the people of Amityville for aiding his troops in the American Revolution. Right now the law states that any ALB-infested tree must be cut down, including this valuable landmark," Tattar says.

Since the USDA emergency ruling makes it impossible for Tattar to test the insecticide under field conditions by exposing trees to living beetles, Baode Wang, a recent UMass post-doctoral research associate, will conduct those field tests in China this summer for APHIS. "Until we have a way to stop this pest, people should be looking for ALB. I''m talking about not only homeowners, but arborists, nurserymen, and even shopkeepers who import items from Asia that arrive on wooden pallets and in wooden boxes," explains Tattar. "They should look for the telltale, perfectly round holes the beetle drills in the wood, and sawdust around the base of trees or the crooks of branches.

"This bug is big, and hard to miss. We have to rely on an alert public to call APHIS if they see it anywhere. That''s the only way we can keep this problem under control until we have a treatment widely available." The USDA Forest Service describes adult ALBs as being ? to 1½ inches long, with jet-black bodies and mottled white spots on their backs. They also have long black-and-white antennae, and some blue on their feet.

Terry Tattar can be reached at 413/545-2402, or tattar@microbio.umass.edu.