Some of New York's most beloved trees and parks are under assault from the Asian long-horned beetle. The insect, which is native to China, infests, chews and ultimately destroys trees. Efforts are underway to eradicate the pest before it spreads out of control on a national and international level.
A climber sets his ladder on the trunk and scales a Norway Maple in New York's Prospect Park.
Nearby, a giant crane lifts another inspector to a tree's hard-to reach branches.
They are scouring vulnerable trees, looking for signs of the Asian long-horned beetle on bark, branches and trunks. Although research is ongoing, the only known way to stop the spread of the beetle is to destroy infested trees.
Joseph Gittleman of the U.S. Department of Agriculture heads the program to eliminate the three-centimeter long, black and white bug from New York. He says that nearly 7,000 trees have been cut down since the beetle was first discovered in New York City six years ago. But the effect could be catastrophic. "Given our worst case scenario we can be looking at a pest that would totally change the landscape of North America if allowed to go to its possible potential in spread," he says. "It would totally change your fall foliage up in the mountains here. It would drastically affect the maple sugar industry in upstate New York, in Vermont, in southern Canada. It would have an economic impact on foreign trade. "
Exactly when and how the Asian long-horned beetle entered the United States is unknown. Experts believe it arrived here in shipments of solid wood packing material from Hong Kong and mainland China. It has been described as a problem of biblical proportions in China. Millions of square meters of wood have been lost, causing severe economic and environmental damage.
The beetle, which is drawn to a large range of trees, including maples, elms, willows and poplars, has also been detected in Northern Germany and Austria. Mr. Gittleman says that since its discovery in the United States, restrictions on wood shipments have been imposed. And the international community is cooperating to eliminate the problem. "As a result of the problems here, there has been a heightened state of awareness throughout the world. I dealt with researchers and scientists here on this project that have come to the United States to see what is going on from as far away as New Zealand," he says.
The Asian long-horned beetle kills trees by completing its lifecycle inside the tree trunk, laying eggs, nibbling tunnels and chewing exit holes. So far, infestations of the Asian long-horned beetle have only been detected outdoors in the United States in New York and Chicago. But it has been found in packing material in warehouses in 14 states.
Cornell University entomologist Richard Hoebeke, who identified the beetle in New York, says its absence from natural woods and forests is a mystery. "Whether or not we will find it outside of say the urban areas of New York and Chicago in native settings is anybody's guess," he says. "My feeling is that it has already escaped into native areas. If it is colonizing, establishing and spreading, we will not know about it until it is essentially too late. There will be little we can do about it."
Joseph Gittleman is determined to stop the Asian long-horned beetle from destroying New York City trees. A biologist by training, Mr. Gittleman is passionate about the insect. He carries a tiny glass jar with a sample of the beetle in its deadly worm-like larvae stage as he supervises his team of inspectors.
Gittleman: "Who's doing the recording on tree diameters and species?"
Inspector: "That would be the survey team that's right up ahead. There are a couple of units ahead."
So far, no Asian long-horned beetles have been found in Prospect Park. But earlier this year, the surveyors discovered two infested trees in New York's largest open area, Central Park. The trees were cut down. Mr. Gittleman says that the apparent failure of the beetle to spread beyond those two trees in Central Park is an anomaly.
In a few weeks, the inspectors will begin a process of injecting healthy trees with a pesticide to keep away the beetle.
The inspectors have easy access to trees that line sidewalks and parks. However, Mr. Gittleman says that attached row houses and tightly sealed gardens pose a challenge, which is unique to New York City. "You have to get permission to enter somebody's backyard," he says. "We can't airdrop our inspectors in over the roof by helicopter, although we would like to and just march through like an army operation. We just can not do that here."
Meanwhile, New York City schools have started a campaign to educate children about the Asian long-horned beetle. Included in that campaign is a lesson about the importance of parks and trees, which are often taken for granted.