Invasion of the Longhorn Beetles

In Worcester, Massachusetts, authorities are battling an invasive insect that is poised to devastate the forests of New England

Researchers search for Asian longhorned beetles among Worcester's hardwoods. (Max Aguilera-Hellweg)
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In August 1996, Ingram Carner, a landlord in Brooklyn, New York, noticed that the Norway maples on his property were full of strange perforations, each slightly thicker than a pencil and so perfectly spherical they looked as if they'd been drilled. When the culprit was identified, and the USDA realized the nature of the threat—a beetle with the capacity to destroy numerous native hardwoods—the agency began cutting down thousands of infested trees and chipping them. That's the best way to ensure the beetle's demise; insecticides don't reach it once it has burrowed past the cambium, although they might protect unafflicted trees. In addition, the USDA established a quarantine around much of New York City, prohibiting anyone from transporting wood that could host the beetle. The restriction is still in place. In the 13 years since the initial outbreak, authorities have documented the ALB in Queens, Staten Island, northern New Jersey and on Long Island. The work of eradicating the beetle from the New York City area continues.

Infestations have also been discovered in Chicago and Toronto. The beetles have been intercepted in dozens of ports and warehouses across the country, from Mobile, Alabama, to Bellingham, Washington. But the discovery of an ALB outbreak in Worcester marked an ominous turn. While previous infestations were confined to urban areas with relatively thin tree cover, Worcester—a city of 175,000 people 40 miles west of Boston—is full of trees, most of them hardwoods. More troubling, the city sits at the southern edge of the great Northern hardwood forest, millions of contiguous acres stretching to Canada and the Great Lakes. If the beetle escaped into such a forest, it could prove the most devastating arboreal pest we've ever known, occasioning more damage than Dutch elm disease, gypsy moths and chestnut blight combined. It could change the face of the New England woods.

In the bowels of the Massachusetts National Guard Armory in Worcester, in a cramped conference room that serves as a makeshift headquarters, Clint McFarland is staring at a four-foot-wide city map tacked to the wall. The words "Regulated Area" are printed on it. McFarland traces the map with his fingers and reads the names of streets into a cellphone, which is never far from his hands and beeps and barks at him all day long. The room is covered with maps, each articulating a different set of beetle data. Along with the phones that are ringing constantly and the stream of uniformed personnel in and out of the room, the maps lend the impression of a command post hastily assembled on a battlefield.

McFarland, 34, wears his hair in a ponytail, giving him a look that seems slightly at odds with the gold badge emblazoned on his jacket identifying him as an agricultural enforcement officer for the federal government. He has worked for the Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS), the USDA division that deals with agricultural pests, for eight years, all of that time on the Asian longhorned beetle. In October 2008, his supervisors handed him the Worcester assignment. When I first met with him, he had been on the job a little over a month and even then showed signs of exhaustion, with red-rimmed eyes and a rasp in his voice. Stopping the beetle in Worcester was proving more difficult than he or anyone else had first imagined.

Within days of Donna Massie's telephone call, authorities from APHIS arrived in Worcester to orchestrate a containment plan with state and local officials. A state order was issued forbidding the transportation of all wood from host tree species and all firewood out of a 17-square-mile area in the heart of the city. APHIS assembled several ground survey teams to seek evidence of the beetle: exit holes, egg deposits, sawdust, and sap leaking from wounded trees. The service wanted to understand how wide the infestation was, and how serious. What they found alarmed them.

The life cycle of the ALB is roughly a year, nine months of which is spent buried in wood. While adult beetles are serviceable fliers, they tend not to move very fast. Beetles will often inhabit one tree for many generations until it is nearly dead. A quick way to gauge the length of an infestation is to look at the trees themselves: the more holes they have, the longer the beetles have been around. On street after street in Worcester, survey teams found trees riddled with holes, as if they'd been fired upon with a shotgun. In some cases, the trees were so weakened they'd begun to lose their limbs—victims of a long and sustained attack. It soon became clear that the beetle had found its way to the city a decade ago or longer.

On the day I caught up with him, McFarland was organizing the deployment of more than 20 U.S. Forest Service smoke jumpers, forest firefighters from Western states, who had been brought in to climb through Worcester's trees to search for signs of infestation. Because the beetle first attacks a tree's crown, spotters on the ground may have difficulty detecting the insect; even the smoke jumpers, swinging from ropes and clambering over limbs, manage to identify only about 70 percent of infected trees. Complicating matters for McFarland, the quarantine had been expanded to 62 square miles, and this area encompassed more than 600,000 ALB-susceptible trees, each of which had to be inspected. Ten thousand trees had so far been examined, and more than a third showed evidence of beetles and would have to be destroyed before the summer, when the larvae would transform into voracious flying insects. Worcester was the worst ALB infestation the country had seen.

After McFarland dispatched the smoke jumpers, he drove me to the site of the oldest infestation, located in a stretch of industrial land bordered by a highway on the west and a residential neighborhood on the east. We were accompanied by Ken Gooch of the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. It was a bitterly cold day, one of the coldest on record in November in that part of the state, and the men tramped through the underbrush with their shoulders raised against the wind and their hands thrust in their jacket pockets. McFarland took occasional furious puffs on a cigarette. We walked 50 yards and then Gooch stopped suddenly and pointed at a tree stump. The exposed wood was raw, a pinkish yellow.

"When did that come down?" asked McFarland, raising his voice above the rush of passing highway traffic.

Gooch shook his head. "I don't know."


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