By Paul Glader NEW YORK TIMES SYNDICATE
It is a menace from Asia that over the past two decades has ravaged tens of thousands of trees in several states. But after being wiped out in New Jersey, it seemed to be in retreat in New York thanks to a warlike response from federal and state governments. It was gone from Staten Island and Manhattan, and the battle against it was tilting toward eradication in Queens, in Brooklyn and on Long Island.
That was until Charlie Crimi spotted one in his Long Island backyard — an Asian longhorned beetle.
“I didn’t really know what it was,” Crimi said of the large, white polka-dot, shiny black bug with long, wavy antennas that he saw in the summer of 2013. But after some Internet research, Crimi, 54, realized he had seen the notorious insect equivalent of Jesse James. He emailed a photo of the bug to a state forestry worker and received confirmation that what he had seen was, in fact, an Asian longhorned beetle.
“We were very disappointed,” said Joe Morrissey, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets. “It was a setback after many years of gains.”
Indeed, Crimi’s discovery alerted officials that the beetle had migrated to a new part of Long Island and had spread to hundreds of trees. Instead of declaring the bug “eradicated” as planned, they doubled to 50 square miles the amount of land labeled quarantined where trees would have to be inspected.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the state’s Agriculture Department have boosted staffing to 119 people to track, kill and eradicate the beetle from its remaining strongholds in Brooklyn, in Queens and on Long Island.
This fall, workers will start removing 4,500 trees along the Southern State Parkway in western Suffolk County to prevent further spread of the beetle. Removing the trees the beetle likes to attack — including maple, willow and birch — eliminates the insect’s habitat.
Global trade has made it easier for invasive species to cross borders. A decade ago, researchers at Cornell University determined that invasive species such as the longhorned beetle, the lionfish and the Asian carp cost the U.S. more than $137 billion per year, a figure that is undoubtedly higher today.
Scientists believe Asian longhorned beetles arrived in the 1980s as stowaways on ships from China before federal regulations required that solid wood packing material be fumigated and heat-treated. The beetle may have arrived on Long Island in a shipment of sewer pipe equipment.
The adult beetles lay eggs (sometimes dozens) just under the bark of a tree. The larvae grow inside the tree all winter, turning the inside of the tree into a soggy mush and leaving its vascular system to rot as it burrows out, making exit holes that leave the tree looking as if it were machine-gunned.
In the past two decades, the beetles have shown up in parts of Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Ohio. They have killed about 80,000 trees in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and could kill millions if left unchecked. That is bad news for bird habitats, parks, gardeners, sawmills and industries such as maple syrup producers in the Northeast.
Since 1997, the federal government has spent over $236 million to combat the beetle in New York alone. New York state has spent millions as well.
“Our primary focus is preventing the spread of this invasive species to the upstate region,” Morrissey said. “If it spreads to the forested areas in New York, eradication of this beetle would become much more difficult.”
One promising facet of the fight is that adults are not good fliers and tend to stay in a confined area during their yearlong life. And because the larvae take an entire winter to incubate inside a tree trunk, the reproductive progress of the bug can be halted by removing an infested tree.
Joseph Gittleman, 64, leads the New York eradication program from an unmarked office in a strip mall in Amityville, New York, next to an acupuncture clinic. Shades are drawn on the windows and one door features a 4-by-6-inch white sign with the letters “USDA” typed in black. Gittleman works for the department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Inside, he shows visitors past dozens of messy cubicles to a conference room with maps and posters on all sides. He points out lines and dots on maps that reveal how the beetle has spread to new areas of Long Island in the past year. If it was not for the effort by the federal and state governments, he said, the beetle would be “running rampant and out of control,” migrating to every town on Long Island where host trees are present.
Meanwhile, in the quarantine area, Gittleman’s dozens of inspectors and tree-climbing crews canvass neighborhoods, cemeteries and tree-covered areas of Farmingdale, New York, Amityville and other places scouring for the bugs. Specialists at the Amityville office enter each target tree, infected tree and inspected tree into digital maps and databases.
Already, they have found hundreds of infested trees along a lush green space of the Southern State Parkway and in a bucolic cemetery row in Farmingdale. “We’re without question the hardest one hit,” said Randy VanYahres, director of planning and development for Catholic Cemeteries, which oversees St. Charles/Resurrection. He said the cemetery has lost more than 80 trees so far.
Meanwhile, a mile or so away in West Babylon, Crimi keeps a meticulous lawn. He has not seen any more beetles. “My deepest regret was not catching it,” he said. “I was just not prepared. I’m kind of embarrassed about that. If I do find another one, I’ll keep it.”
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