Asian Longhorned Beetle Trackers Hunt for Hitchhikers

Originally published in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, Dec. 22, 2014. UXBRIDGE — In a wooded residential area off Route 122, a team of foresters and entomologists took turns looking through a scope at a small hole in the bark of a maple, maybe 55 feet up. Everyone agreed the damage came from a bird, probably a woodpecker, and not the Asian longhorned beetle.

A very good thing, since the invasive insect is not supposed to be this far beyond the infestation in Worcester.

But after six years of surveying 5 million potential host trees and removing about 34,000, the team fighting the beetle is taking a closer look at outlying areas that could be at risk of satellite infestations.

If one compares Worcester's infestation to a fire, the team is hunting for sparks that might have gone astray without anyone knowing.

During the past six weeks, they've had some backup, thanks to a first-of-its-kind collaboration among Northeastern states and Canadian provinces.

The surveyors in Uxbridge that day were visiting from New Hampshire and Maine, part of a new international compact to exchange forestry staff between states and provinces to better protect the entire region's forest health.

"We know political boundaries, but the insects don't," said Tawny Virgilio, ground survey supervisor with the ALB Eradication Program, an operation led by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The intent of the new compact, which is funded with an initial three-year, $75,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service, is for states to lend some of their staff to help neighbors in need, while picking up hands-on training to bring back home.

The first mission under the grant was the recent program focusing on Asian longhorned beetles in Massachusetts, specifically, surveying pockets in outlying areas that are at higher risk of stray beetles because of businesses that work with wood.

While the compact can work on any issue related to forest health, the Asian longhorned beetle is a prime target.

The beetles first made it to North America most likely in wood packing material in overseas shipping, and were first discovered in 1996 in New York. The large black-and-white beetle's larvae chew through an unusually wide range of host trees, posing a serious threat to the timber, tourism and maple syrup industries, not just in this state but the entire region's forests. Infestations have popped up in five states, with the Worcester infestation the largest.

The local eradication effort hit a milestone this year when it announced it had "delimited" the Worcester infestation, meaning beetle trackers have surveyed from the core of the infestation outward until they stopped finding beetles. In other words, they've drawn a line around the infestation.

And yet, the thing that keeps some people up at night is the possibility that the beetle may have hitchhiked elsewhere, in firewood for example, and no one knows about it. After all, the USDA estimates Asian longhorned beetles were in Worcester for 12 years before they were discovered.

A fire metaphor is a common one for invasive threats, so it's fitting that the new partnership builds off a strategy that states commonly use for fighting wildfires.

Nationwide, states form what are called fire compacts — the Northeast Forest Fire Protection Compact covers the region from New York to Canada — agreements by which they are able to rapidly share staff and other resources when one state needs a surge of help.

An association of regional state forestry staff came up with the idea to extend the forest fire compact with a forest health component, and use that model to fight invasive species, said Ken Gooch, forest health program supervisor with DCR.

The country's first such extension of a fire compact for forest health was born in late 2013, and Gooch expects others will replicate it.

The partnership provides a budget for travel and lodging, and it also allows speed. Mr. Gooch said getting approval to send staff from one state to another can take a month. With the compact, they can now deploy in a day.

There are a couple of main benefits to the arrangement, as seen in the ALB program in Massachusetts. For one, Worcester gets additional eyes to help with surveying.

While the Worcester team continues to survey trees in the 110-square-mile regulated area, staff have also identified more than 1,000 outlying locations in the state and beyond for what are called "Level 3" surveys. It's important to note that they have no reason to believe the Asian longhorned beetle is actually at these sites, but if a business working with wood has had people traveling to Worcester since before ALB was reported, for example, it will make the list.

This year the operation began doing more extensive surveys of these outlying sites, a higher priority now that they've drawn a boundary around the infestation, according to USDA staff.

"We could get a jump on it rather than having it sit for 12 years like it did here in Worcester. And if it is there, we have a program established and we can respond quickly," said Ryan Vazquez, acting ALB eradication program project manager.

It's a subtle but important shift, because while the USDA does a lot of public education, ALB eradication efforts are normally responsive, like emergency operations responding to calls.

Since November, a total of 18 visiting staff from Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and Nova Scotia have cycled through Worcester, completing ALB training and then going beetle hunting in some of these sites.

In the case of the team in Uxbridge, that meant hitting a soggy field of maples, scanning up and down the trees with binoculars for perfectly round exit holes or places the beetles might have laid eggs. If they do see something suspect, they get out a more powerful scope. If it could be ALB, they call in the tree climbers.

Some of the staff in Worcester have been doing this since the first New York infestation in the '90s, so they have it down.

That's the second big benefit — field training for visiting staff.

Staff like Regina Smith, entomology technician visiting from Maine, are experts in their fields, but most have not had up-close experience with ALB. They get the experience of working with an infestation and eradication team in person.

"You can learn as much as you want in books and presentations and slide shows," Ms. Smith said.

"I had never seen any Asian longhorned beetle damage prior to coming to Worcester. So it really puts in perspective what's going on here, and just the scale of how big this project is, and also the damage that it can do."