A wood-devouring beetle has gained a foothold in New England, and authorities plan to cut down large numbers of infested trees and grind them up to stop the pest from spreading to the region's forests and ravaging the timber, tourism and maple-syrup industries.
The infestation of Asian longhorned beetles in the Worcester area marks the fourth time the pests have been found in trees in the U.S. and the closest they have ever come to the great New England woods that erupt in dazzling colors in the fall.
“This insect scares us to death because if it ever got loose in the forests of New England, it would be just about impossible to contain and it'd change the landscape dramatically,” said Tom McCrum, coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Syrup Association.
Calling it a national emergency, federal authorities have committed themselves to spending tens of millions of dollars to fight the invasion. They have sent in smokejumpers, tree climbers and other experts to identify infested trees.
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The affected area now covers 62 square miles around Worcester and four neighboring towns, and at least 1,800 trees have been tagged for destruction.
The outbreak was detected this summer, after Donna Massie spotted beetles on a tree in her backyard in Worcester. She caught one, searched online to identify it, then called agriculture authorities. Now, her tree is riddled with dime-size holes.
“It looks like someone opened fire with a machine gun,” Massie said of the signature exit holes gnawed away by the bullet-shaped black beetle with white freckles, long antennae and a voracious appetite for hardwood.
The beetles first appeared in the U.S. in 1996 in Brooklyn, probably arriving in the wood of a shipping crate from China, and have since shown up in New York's Central Park and parts of New Jersey and Illinois. Authorities believe that the Massachusetts infestation is unrelated but that the beetles probably arrived the same way.
Eradication efforts in New York, New Jersey and Illinois have cost $268 million over the past 11 years. Thousands of trees have been downed.
The beetles have no natural predators in North America, and regular insecticides are useless once the eggs hatch in hardwoods such as birch, poplar, willow, sycamore, maple and elm.
The beetles lay their eggs in small depressions they chew in tree bark. The larvae and pupae consume the tree from the inside, leaving a trail of tunnels. They eventually chew their way out. as adults. The tunneling slowly kills the tree.
The beetle strikes fear in tourism and maple-syrup officials.
New England accounted for more than half the maple syrup made in the U.S. last year, with Vermont outproducing all other states in the region with a half-million gallons. Industry spokeswoman Catherine Stevens said the beetle could be devastating if it were to spread.