Bad Beetles

(This column was first published in the October 18, 1999 Buffalo News.)

    "Look at this!"

    It was late August and my wife had buttonholed me as soon as I drove in the driveway. I followed her to our backyard where she now stood angrily pointing to what was left of our viburnums.

    It was not a pleasant sight. Her once lovely shrubs were ravaged. Every leaf was mutilated; half remained of most and a few were completely skeletonized.

    "I can't believe this," Doris said. "Two days ago these bushes were perfect and now look at them."

    It was not difficult to determine what was causing the damage. The half-eaten leaves were covered with an army of tiny, eighth-inch, brown beetles with body-length antennas, each one busily chewing away at the edge of a hole it had made in the leaf. These were the dreaded viburnum leaf beetles -- European insects that were first discovered in the United States near Ithaca only three years ago.

    My wife remains unconvinced by my arguments for Integrated Pest Management and off she went to purchase the strongest insecticide available. Only after several sprayings was she satisfied that all of what she insisted on referring to as "your blasted bugs" were destroyed. Meanwhile, despite Doris's warnings, some of our neighbors didn't respond soon enough and their viburnums were completely denuded. Wild viburnums are also being decimated.

    This recent invader is only one of the four insects that will be discussed by Richard Hoebeke this Sunday at 3:00 p.m. at the Buffalo Museum of Science. His Hayes Lecture is titled, "Attack of the Alien Beetles: America's Urban Landscapes under Siege." Hoebeke is Senior Extension Associate and Assistant Curator in the Cornell University Department of Entomology.

    The other three newcomers pose different problems and one of them so threatens our forests that millions of dollars are being spent to prevent its spread. This is the Asian longhorn beetle, an insect so important that it has its own acronym, ALB. They were first found in Brooklyn in 1996, in 1998 another population was discovered in Chicago and this year a related species turned up in Walworth County, Wisconsin.

    These are big, white-spotted black beetles, their bodies over an inch long, their antennas even longer. They remind me of those pine sawyers of our boreal forests, frightening insects that you can hear crunching the interior of trees. Even more voracious, the ALB digs almost dime-sized holes in trees. Unlike the viburnum leaf beetle, these Asian immigrants attack a wide range of species: maples, horsechestnuts, elms, poplars, mulberries, locusts, willows and even some fruit trees. Just the East Coast population threatens an estimated 8 million trees. This could be a catastrophe even worse than our loss of American chestnuts in the 1920s and American elms in the 1960s.

    These beetles almost certainly stowed away in lumber imported from the Orient. One response to the problem has been a Federal initiative to see that imported solid wood packing material is "heat treated, fumigated, or treated with preservatives prior to departure from China." Meanwhile all the trees in neighborhoods where the beetles have been discovered are being destroyed.

    A lesser but still significant problem -- the common pine shoot beetle -- is even smaller than the viburnum leaf beetle. It first appeared near Cleveland in 1992, has spread to this area and is attacking some conifer plantations and woodlots in the Southern Tier.

    Hoebeke's fourth newcomer is the multicolored Asian lady beetle. Unlike the others, this black-dotted, pumpkin-orange ladybug was imported intentionally. These predators of aphids, scales and psyllids can be purchased from garden supply houses for release in gardens. Unfortunately these beetles enter homes in great numbers to overwinter causing consternation for their unwilling hosts.-- Gerry Rising