State teams protect trees from ash borers

Technicians set traps for invasive beetle

(AP photo )
May 23, 2010|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

Armed with a map and a big box of traps, Mickey Kopansky and Charles Pickett are on the hunt for the Green Menace.

Emerald ash borers have already killed tens of millions of ash trees across the United States. The invasive species of beetle from Asia was introduced through wood packing material in 2002 in Michigan and through nursery trees a year later in Maryland.

If they're not stopped, the carnage will continue around the country and perhaps even in metropolitan Baltimore, where ash trees are the most common tree, frequently used for landscaping and fire wood, as well as tool handles, flooring and baseball bats.

"If these trees were all wiped out, it would be a huge problem ecologically," said Kopansky, a field technician with the Maryland Department of Agriculture who is working on eradication with other state workers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Kopansky and Pickett are two of about 21 state agriculture workers who have spent the past three weeks blanketing the state with glue-slathered purple traps made from two-foot long corrugated plastic, folded in a triangle and baited with Manuka oil from New Zealand. They drive around the region, stopping every few miles to hang a trap 20 feet to 60 feet up a tree.

The half-inch, bright green beetles will be hatching in about two weeks, and Kopansky will check the traps all summer for them.

So far, ash borers have only been spotted in Prince George's and Charles counties, where there are quarantines in place to keep potentially infected trees and other ash items from spreading pests. But vigilance is required.

Michael J. Raupp, a University of Maryland professor of entomology and an extension specialist who studies the ash borer, said the traps slow the spread to just under a mile a year. With no control, they would spread more like eight miles.

He predicts ash borers will make it into Washington next year. Baltimore could see decades at the mile-a-year rate, though Raupp said someone is likely to unwittingly transport infested wood before then.

The adults don't do much more than nibble on leaves, but the larvae burrow under the bark and wreak havoc. Infested trees become unable to transport nutrients and begin to wither from the top down.

The state has spent about $8.1 million since 2003 on prevention and containment, according to state agriculture department records. But the costs of an all-out infestation would be staggering, he said.

Raupp estimates that the Baltimore metro area has between 5 million and 6 million ash trees (and there are an estimated 80 billion in North America). Removing and replacing each would cost about $1,000.

"That's a total of $6 billion," he said. "It could be a huge problem and devastating in cities where the trees are so common. It would be far better to find a way to slow this down."

He said scientists are searching for ways to more cheaply and effectively eradicate the beetles. Typically, when scientists are faced with a pest, they travel to its native land to find the pest's natural predators. In this case, that would be parasitic wasps.

The state began to use them in limited quantities last year. In theory, the wasps lay eggs on the ash borer larvae and the resulting wasp larvae eat their counterparts. It's too soon to know how well it worked, but wasps could be less expensive and more tolerable than a lot of potent chemicals that need to be reapplied every year at a cost of hundreds of dollars, Raupp said.

He called the prevention and containment program in Maryland aggressive but said it's still a daunting task, and many residents and property owners who have ash trees still might not know about the threat. However, once ash borers infest a big East Coast city, "people will take notice when every tree on the street is gone," he said.

That makes Kopansky and Pickett's work "heroic," he said.

The pair worked fast at each stop. Kopansky, who is in his first year on the job, tosses a rope weighted with a bean bag over a tall branch. Sometimes it takes more than one try, though his aim appeared to be improving.

He hoists up a trap configured by Pickett, a three-year veteran of the ash borer program. Kopansky staples a note about the traps' origins on the tree trunk. Then they drive off to the next street, picked during winter months and marked on the map.

They average 240 traps a day, and this day they were all in Baltimore County.

Pickett said sometimes they get the glue from the traps on themselves. Sometimes it rains and is cold. Then there are mosquitoes, chiggers and dogs to deal with. When they trek onto private property, most, but not all, homeowners are cordial and don't mind the traps. Pickett has contracted Lyme disease — twice.

This summer, if ash borers are discovered, they'll inspect every ash tree they can spot within a half mile by checking for larvae trails under the bark and looking for holes from woodpeckers, who find the pests tasty.

"This is a year-round job," said Pickett, who previously worked in the bird department at the National Zoo. "This is important."

Meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

Emerald ash borers

•The bright green beetles are a half inch long and native to Asia, though they have been identified in Prince George's and Charles counties.

•State and national officials are placing triangular purple traps around the state that pose no threat to humans or pets. If ash borers are found this summer, they will treat infested trees.

•Ash trees are the most common type in Baltimore. To identify the tree, go to mda.state.md.us/plants-pests/eab.

•Ash borer larvae create s-shaped galleries under the bark. If you suspect ash borers, call the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center at 800-342-2507 or the Maryland Department of Agriculture at 410-841-5920.

•For more information, go to purpleeabsurvey.info or call 866-322-451.

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