WORCESTER, Mass. – 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 celebrated 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, tourist-pleasing 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.
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, 53, 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 cut down.
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 movement of firewood is probably, in my mind, the biggest threat in this area because so many people burn wood, so many people move wood without thinking, `Oh, I could be transporting a pest,'" said Tom Denholm, who has set up a federal program to fight the insects in New Jersey and was sent to Massachusetts to help with efforts here. "We can move the beetle a lot faster moving firewood than the beetle moving on its own."
Earlier this month, Rhode Island officials found a larva in firewood taken from Worcester to Cranston.
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 out-producing all other states in the region with a half-million gallons. Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association spokeswoman Catherine Stevens said the beetle could be devastating to the industry if it were to spread.
Leaf peeping, likewise, is big business in New England as thousands of visitors arrive in the fall to see forests riotous with reds, oranges and yellows. The beetle's favorite food happens to be the red and sugar maples that produce the most vivid colors.
Also vulnerable would be Maine's timber industry, which directly contributes $6.5 billion to the state's economy. Of the 17.7 million acres of forest in Maine, more than half is hardwood that could be susceptible to the beetle.
"This is a threat we are taking very seriously," said Dave Struble of the Maine Forest Service.
Experts in Massachusetts say they cannot cut down the trees until the frost kills the adult beetles. The trees will be ground up, a process that generates enough heat to kill any eggs or larvae. The wood chips can then be used as mulch or burned for energy.
Federal officials plan to replace the cut-down trees with a variety of species not susceptible to the beetle.
That is little consolation to Worcester residents who fear they will see property values plummet in neighborhoods cherished for their tree-lined streets and lush backyards, City Manager Michael O'Brien said.
"It's going to take 30 to 40 years to get all those same characteristics back," he said.