The Asian Longhorned Beetle

(This column was first published in the June 19, 2000 Buffalo News.)

    This beetle has been accurately called the Amityville horror and it could end up as much a national arboreal terror as the gypsy moth, the Dutch elm disease and possibly even the chestnut blight.

    I'm describing here the Asian longhorned beetle, an alien insect monster that has the potential of destroying our eastern forests. Its larva drills dime-sized holes in deciduous trees, especially maples, leading to the early demise of their temporary homes.

    There have been two identified outbreaks of this oriental pest, in the Amityville section of Brooklyn and in Chicago, and the activities undertaken to contain them and to prevent others from coming to this country indicate how seriously their threat is being considered. Millions of dollars have already been spent removing and destroying not only infected trees but also those nearby in which the adults may have deposited eggs. For example, in Amityville alone 2500 shade trees were sacrificed. Beautiful mature trees were cut down, chainsawed and chipped. Officials felt that this draconian measure was called for when Brooklyn's 600,000 trees, not to mention the billions of trees outside the city, were threatened.

    Meanwhile the U. S. Department of Agriculture has banned the shipment to the United States of untreated solid wood packing material from China, the kind of wood in which these "illegal immigrants" have hitchhiked. Entomologists have also been dispatched to that country to try to identify insects or diseases that control the beetle there as well as to obtain its pheromones which would then be synthesized to provide lures for traps.

    Anyone should be able to identify the Asian longhorned beetle. It is a huge, scary-looking insect, its body about 1 1/4 inches long and its antennae 2 inches in length. Its glossy torso and head are black with clusters of white spots on its back. (These have given it the benign name in China of starry sky beetle.) Those remarkably long antennae are banded black and white like a pre-Technicolor barber pole.

    The larva, usually not seen as they spend their time deep within trees, grow to be fat white segmented grubs almost as large as your little finger. They are the harmful agents, drilling those big holes through the tree until they finally emerge as adult beetles.

    Everyone should be on the lookout for these insects and, if you find one, you should immediately call the local Agriculture Department's Plant Protection and Quarantine Office at 551-3828. Although the outbreaks have so far been confined to quarantined areas in New York City and Chicago, do not assume that they cannot occur here. They have been collected in warehouses in Rochester and Jamestown.

    We have many native species of longhorned beetles as well and some do significant damage to timber trees and untreated lumber. But the numbers of native species are kept in control by predators and parasites that have evolved with them over time. Thus we do not face the same kind of threat from them that we do from this alien.

    My experience with longhorned beetles has been restricted to a species of pine sawyer that chews into coniferous trees in Algonquin Park and the Minnesota Boundary Waters. It is another big insect, this one jet black. I readily admit to being frightened by these beetles when I see them flying slowly and awkwardly through a campsite usually to land on the bole of a downed pine. Whenever I see them I recall the loud crunching noise their mandibles make deep inside those logs and I don't want them to apply those jaws to any part of me.-- Gerry Rising

    For more information on this dangerous pest, a good site to start from is maintained by the USDA Forest Service.