Standing in Boston’s Public Garden, I’m struck by its impressive roster of trees. Reading small signs throughout the park, I know that willows line the small pond, offering shade to Swan Boat riders. European elms ring the garden’s outer boundary. In between, I find horse chestnuts, red maples, birches and more, some upwards of 200 years old.
I’m here because of a beetle. Or rather, I’m here because the beetle’s not. And I want to keep it that way.
Just a few miles away, six maple trees were found infested with Asian longhorned beetles, a non-native, inch-long, black and white bug with antennae twice the length of its body.
With the City of Worcester still reeling from losing nearly 30,000 trees because of the beetle, the discovery of the bug in Boston set off alarms, as well as a wave of resignation that “it’s here.”
But Andy Finton, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy in Massachusetts, is more hopeful. And he wants the rest of us to remember that we – not just entomologists or the government – have a huge role to play.
“We actually have a good track record when the beetle is found early,” says Finton. “Chicago had Asian longhorned beetle, and they got rid of it. New Jersey? Gone. Toronto? Gone.”
And in every case, says Finton, the beetle was found by residents, not experts. Someone – like Worcester’s Donna Massie or Chicago’s Barry Albach – spotted something unusual and took action.
“My first thought was ‘What a pretty bug, but what is it?’” recalls Massie during an interview for the documentary Lurking in the Trees. When she found photos of the bug online, she noticed an instruction to call the government.
“So now I’ve got everyone laughing at me, like, ‘You’re going to call the government and tell them you found a bug?’ And I said, ‘You know what? I am. And if they say it’s no big deal, then so be it.’”
But it was a big deal. And Massie’s action may have saved the rest of the region.
Want to protect your favorite forest, city park, or neighborhood street? Here’s how:
Know where to look
The Asian longhorned beetle is a big threat to North America’s trees, but not every kind. The trees that are on their preferred menu are maples, birch, horse chestnut, poplar, willow, elm, and ash.
If you (like me) don’t know a partridge from a pear tree, the Arbor Day Foundation has a useful online tree guide.
Know what to look for
At about an inch long with up to two-inch antennae, the Asian longhorned beetle is striking. It’s shiny and black with blotchy white spots, and right now the adults are looking to mate. You may see them crawling along the trunks of the trees they like to inhabit.
Look also for large, dime-sized holes drilled into the trees; some may even have sawdust around the edges.
Know what (and what not) to do
If you think you’ve seen the beetle, try to capture it in a glass jar (the bug doesn’t harm people) and put it in the freezer. Then, call the toll-free ALB hotline at 866-702-9938.
Also, as you head off to hike, camp and swim this summer, leave your firewood at home. In Chicago, Barry Albach first spotted the beetle crawling out from a load of wood in his truck.
“What happens is, people pack up firewood not knowing it has eggs or larvae in it,” says Finton. “They drive it to a campsite, and out pop the bugs. The bugs crawl up a tree, and now we’ve got a new infestation.”
“This beetle can only travel 1.5 miles in its lifetime. If it came to Boston from Worcester, we transported it; it hasn’t had enough time to get here on its own,” he continues. “If everyone does their part, we can get rid of it.”
The Asian longhorned beetle is not the only non-native insect threatening the trees of North America. Visit Don’t Move Firewood’s gallery of pests to learn about and see pictures of the emerald ash borer, brown spruce longhorned beetle, and Sirex woodwasp.
—Text by Kerry Crisley, senior media relations manager – and NOT a bug expert – based in Boston, Cool Green Science Blog