Checking trees for beetles in N.Y. is no easy task

Access is restricted on private property throughout city

October 17, 2002|By Barbara Stewart | Barbara Stewart,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - More than half of the estimated 5 million trees in New York City grow behind walls, guarded by doormen or locked doors. It is the job of Kittzie Gonzalez and Laura Osanitch, inspectors for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to check each one for signs of the Asian longhorned beetle, one of the most destructive arboreal pests to reach North America.

Every workday, they walk the streets and try to talk their way into building after building. Usually, Gonzalez said, they fail - at least at first.

At best, a doorman may let them examine trees in common areas, like courtyards. But they are rarely allowed to see trees on private terraces and in the yards of town houses.

`Weeks go by'

"You ask the doorman," Gonzalez said. "He calls the super. The super calls the manager. The manager says to call the management company. The management company says, `Fax a request.' You do, and they ignore it. Weeks go by."

If the Asian longhorned beetle is not stopped, it could devastate wooded areas throughout the city, the state and beyond, said Joseph P. Gittleman, director of the Agriculture Department's program for eradicating the beetle in New York. But the battle is an uphill struggle, at best.

If the inspectors cannot examine trees on private property, the chances of success are close to nil, entomologists say.

In North America, the beetle was first sighted in 1996 in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It is native to China, where it has turned billions of trees into skeletons, said E. Richard Hoebeke, assistant curator of the Cornell University insect collection.

The beetles bore into trees, creating holes that almost appear drilled. Inside, they lay their eggs. The larvae and adults alike eat the wood, usually killing a tree's upper crown first.

Infestation spreads

Since its discovery in Greenpoint, the beetle has been found in Manhattan, Queens, other neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and in Amityville, Islip and Massapequa on Long Island. It has also turned up in Chicago, and more recently it was found in Jersey City. The federal government, New York state and Illinois have spent $2.4 billion to fight it.

The efforts have included cutting and burning 8,124 trees that were infested or near infestations and inspecting most of the trees in a combined area of about 120 square miles in New York City and about 30 square miles in the Chicago area. Trees within half a mile of an infestation are inspected at least twice a year, Gittleman said. People have been hired to climb into their upper reaches to examine them, and 128,655 trees in threatened areas have been injected with insecticide and treatments using beetle sex hormones. Acoustic devices to detect the beetle are also being tested.

The effectiveness of the inspectors is limited in part by their numbers. Manhattan has only five. But even their work serves no purpose if doormen, building superintendents and residents prevent them from checking trees, Hoebeke said.

"We have to get every tree that's infested," he said. "If we can't, what's being done is meaningless."

According to the New York Parks and Recreation Department, the city has 5.2 million trees, half of them on private property - in back yards and courtyards or on terraces, balconies and roofs. The inspection of these private trees is the weakest link of the eradication effort, said Christine Markham, a regional director the Agriculture Department's program.

"We don't even know how many trees there are," Markham said. "We don't know what's in Manhattan courtyards. Those rows of brownstones in Brooklyn, we don't know what's behind them. People aren't home when we call. And they don't trust us. They won't let us in."

Beetles will infest a Japanese maple on a terrace or in a walled-in garden as readily as one in a park, she said. Over the past year, infested trees have been found on a 19th-story terrace downtown and in an enclosed courtyard on the Upper East Side.

`No boundaries'

Hoebeke said: "The beetle knows no boundaries. Obviously."

If it is not checked in New York and New Jersey, the beetle is likely to destroy half the trees in the city and in both states within 10 years, some experts say. The beetle especially loves maples and could destroy New England's maple syrup industry and severely damage its tourism business.

In New York and Chicago, two people who happen to care about trees were alert enough to make the initial sightings of the beetle, which is large, shiny and black, with white spots and long, striped antennae. In a Brooklyn sighting, a resident saw the beetle on a dying tree. In Chicago, an amateur entomologist spotted it on his firewood.

Recently, in Jersey City, some movers who had seen photographs of the beetle on television recognized it on nearby trees.

In the earlier cases, the beetle had been transported from China in wood packing crates that had not been treated to prevent infestation. Since then, legislation was passed forbidding the importation of untreated solid-wood packing. But Hoebeke said that many untreated crates had already been imported from China to ports around the country and that the beetle could easily have escaped, unseen, into the surrounding countryside.

He added that even the closest visual inspections of trees are only about 40 percent effective in determining if the beetle is present.

"If we can contain it in New York and Chicago, there's a slim chance that we can prevent it from escaping into the environment," he said. "But if we can't get to private trees, it negates all we're doing."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.