Throughout the month of August, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has been searching for evidence of the dreaded Asian Longhorned Beetle. A species so destructive it could defoliate much of New England.
Rhode Island Public Radio’s John Bender went out in search of the beetle with the D.E.M. team.
After getting thoroughly lost in the windy single lane back roads of Cumberland I wind up at the Otis Farm preserve. It looks like suburbia. The road is well paved. Single family houses line the street, but wilderness surrounds us.
When I arrive three youngish looking people, two guys and one woman in bright orange t-shirts are all standing around a dark green van.
They are the Rhode Island Asian long-horned beetle task force, or rather, she is. The two guys are with the D.E.M.’s nursery program, but they’re here helping out today.
“They go to take today to come help this out, ‘cause I’m the only one does this.”
That’s Cindy Kwolek, she works the Rhode Island branch of the Northeast Forest Pest Outreach and Survey Project. Though calling the Asian Longhorned beetle a pest is a bit of an understatement. The insect has the power to wipe out forests of trees.
Kwolcek said this happened once not too long ago in Worcester Massachusetts.
“They had the infestation a good six to eight years before the beetle was reported, and they discovered an infestation, so Worcester lost over thirty-thousand trees.”
That put New England on high alert, which is why Kwolek is out in the field for the second time this month surveying trees for the invasive insect.
Which, by the way, has not been found in Rhode Island.
Though if the beetle were to make its way into the Ocean state, Kwolek said, it might not be too hard to spot.
“It’s very big. It’s a quarter, like an inch and a quarter long. It’s dark black with bright white spots, so it’s pretty distinctive looking, and its also got very long antennae which are black and white striped. Is that where the horns come from? The long horns? Yeah.”
The beetle first came to this country almost two decades ago in wooden shipping crates from China and North Korea. Then it promptly made itself at home in New York and New Jersey, where it wreaked havoc on the trees.
In its pupal stage, that’s when it’s immature, still long and grub-like, it bores deep into the center of a tree feeding on its nutrients. Kwolek takes it from there.
“And then they will, over winter, go through their pupal stage inside the tree. Then the next year they’ll emerge as adults. So they go in as boring larvae, and come out as adult beetles.”
She shows me her clipboard, onto which is attached a spreadsheet. She explains it’s used to help catalogue all the trees the volunteers look at.
“It’s an ALB scorecard,” said Kwolek.
A.L.B., that’s Asian Longhorned beetle.
“The site number is where we are, the address is where we’re starting from, and then we have a tree count and that’s how many trees we look at. So we’ll look at every host tree.”
Host trees, Kwolek said, are hardwoods such as maple, which the Asian Longhorned Beetle prefers. This poses a problem since Rhode Island is about thirty percent maple.
The good news is that the insect has not been found in the Ocean State. But the bad news is the ALB is not really a discerning creature.
“They’ll also go white birch, regular birch trees. They’ll go after horse chestnut, they’ll go after willow. I’ve even heard they’ll go after rose of Sharon shrubs which a lot of people plant decoratively in their yard,” said Kwolek.
“So can we go look for the beetle?’ Sure.”
We walk down the hill past woody yards and neighborhood houses, and stop at a tall tree on the edge of a long front yard.
“This is a maple,” said Kwolek.
We proceed to inspect up and down the bark. Kwolcek motions towards the bottom of the tree.
“Just look along the bark and the base of the tree for any chew marks, which would be the egg laying sites. It would look like a scratch into the tree, like a round scratch. The other thing we would be looking for are exit hole, and those are about the size of dimes, they’re very large. So we would see those scattered up into the top branches.”
Thankfully we don’t find any ALB’s on our hunt, but I ask Kwolek what would happen if we did.
“If we found a beetle the USDA would come in and they would find the tree where the initial infestation was. Then they would make a mile-and a half radius around the tree. Then start an eradication program and remove the trees and any high risk trees that may be infested. Then they have to mulch those trees, so whether it’s the beetles or the USDA that tree is basically doomed,” said Kwolek.
But for now the Ocean State remains safe from the Asian Longhorned beetle, and the devastation it could cause, though the threat is still there.
And until then Kwolek, and her team will be out in the forests of Rhode Island, looking for the enemy.
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