Bedbugs? Other Strange Invaders Threaten Much Wider Damage

By Peter Applebome
Acra, NY (September 5, 2010)- You have perhaps heard about the bugs. In fact, it’s hard to turn on the television or read a newspaper without hearing more about bedbugs. In your mattress, at the office, the theater, the Brooklyn district attorney’s office, the Empire State Building – from New York to Portland, it’s the summer’s It bug.


But at the Cornell University Agroforestry Resource Center in the Catskills, they are more concerned with a less celebrated bug, the emerald ash borer. Native to China, it was first detected in the United States in Michigan in 2002 – perhaps arriving in packing material with shipments to auto plants. Since then it has spread across the upper Midwest and into Canada, killing tens of millions of ash trees. It was first reported in New York in June 2009 in Cattaraugus County in southwestern New York.
This June it was discovered in Ulster and Greene Counties in the Catskills, including in the Catskill Forest Preserve. The larvae of the ash borer, a beetle with metallic green wing covers, burrow into tree bark, killing the tree in one to three years. There is no known systemic way to stop its spread or to save infested trees. Entomologists say the bug, smaller than a penny, has the potential to kill off the 900 million ash trees in New York and the 7 billion ash trees in North America, driving the ash to extinction in a way that would surpass the damage that all but killed off the American chestnut and the elm.
“I’ve been a forest entomologist for 30 years, and I had no idea anything as bad as this could ever happen,” Mark C. Whitmore, an expert on the ash borer at Cornell, said. “The only worse thing would be the spread of the Asian longhorn beetle.” As metaphor, the tale of two bugs, bedbug and ash borer, is perhaps too pat but is still true: Under our nose or in our bed, any pest is a huge pest, even one that causes serious annoyance but doesn’t carry disease. For those far away, out of sight, we’ll wait until disaster stares us in the face before we pay attention.
Ash trees make up 7 percent of the trees in New York State and about 10 percent of the hardwoods. Losing the ash trees, which are strong and elastic, and are used for, among other things, bows, tool handles and baseball bats, would have enormous economic costs. Beyond industrial and forestry losses, one of the biggest costs would be to individuals and municipalities that would have to cut down brittle, dead trees by the millions to avoid the danger of falling, damaged limbs. Beyond that, the cost to the health and diversity of the forests and ecosystems that depend on them can only be guessed at.
“Nobody knows how it’s going to impact the overall function and composition of the forest,” said Marilyn Wyman of Cornell Cooperative Extension, who is working to educate people in the Catskills about the emerald ash borer. “You can’t continue to take pieces out of the system and not have something happen.” For now, she and others are desperately trying to spread the word that the best way to slow the infestation’s spread is to not move firewood. The bugs fly, but it is believed that their rapid spread from the far western part of New York to the Catskills came in untreated wood used at campsites. Since 2008, it has been illegal to bring into the state or transport for more than 50 miles untreated wood that has not been kiln-dried to meet state standards.
The ash borer is only one among dozens of types of invasive plants, animals, insects and pathogens in New York alone that reflect the way human activity, usually unwitting, is altering the environment. Most recently, an invasive Asian clam, Corbicula fluminea, blamed for algal blooms that clouded Lake Tahoe, has been found in Lake George.
And the disruptions to the environment go well beyond invasive creatures, like the dire reports this summer of drastic declines, probably because of higher temperatures, in the ocean phytoplankton that support much of the life on earth. Weather is not climate, but in this hottest summer ever recorded in New York, in the earth’s hottest decade ever measured, one historically torrid year after another, it gets increasingly difficult to credibly refute the notion that human behavior is affecting the earth’s climate, just as it is affecting those forests, lakes and trees.
Still, on a lovely final weekend of summer, with Hurricane Earl blundering out to sea and with no shortage of ways to amuse, distract and entertain ourselves, it is easy to worry about what’s in our bed and ignore what’s in our future.

Related Resource:

New York Times- Bedbugs? Other Strange Invaders Threaten Much Wider Damage