It’s a problem that officials in New York thought they had under control but now, for the first time in five years, a new infestation of Asian longhorned beetles (ALB) has emerged on Long Island.
Thousands of trees are now at risk as crews attempt to assess the extent of the latest outbreak. Already, 500 trees are known to be riddled with the hungry pests and state officials estimate another 4,500 trees in central Long Island will have to be taken down to create a buffer zone to stop the spread. Time is of the essence as just a few short weeks remain before the tree-tunneling beetles will bore their way out and take flight, potentially increasing the infestation area by a substantial amount.
While the tree culling is necessary to keep the outbreak from spreading further, it is a devastating blow to an area that very recently lost thousands of trees to Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene.
Asian longhorned beetles are over an inch long, with blue legs, a spotted back and long, black and white striped antenna that curve down their bodies like catfish whiskers. They were first discovered in the New York area back in 1996 in Brooklyn and Amityville, Long Island — most likely unwelcome stowaways in timber from China. Since then, almost 20,000 trees have been sacrificed in the area in an attempt to keep the beetle at bay. The pest chews through the wood of infected trees. It kills a wide variety of species including maple, ash, birch, elm, horse chestnut, willow, poplar and other hardwoods.
Just last summer, officials announced that the beetle had officially been eradicated from Manhattan and Staten Island, as well as the entire state of New Jersey where no beetles had been seen since 2006. Queens and Brooklyn are also believed to be free of active infestations. The tide seemed to be turning, but now experts wonder if they just haven’t been looking closely enough.
“My feeling is, they never went away. We just missed them,” Cornell University’s Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann told a CBS Local reporter. “It’s definitely disappointing and we just need strong efforts to eradicate this.”
There is now a 51 square mile quarantine area on Long Island — meaning wood can’t leave the area.
Joe Morrissey, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, told Newsday that the discovery of the beetle is “a setback after many years of gains against this pest in New York City and Long Island.”
Fewer trees on Long Island will mean less natural filtering of air pollution and less shade to battle summer heatwaves. Urban forests are also increasingly being recognized for the important role they play in mitigating climate change. NYC is in the midst of an ambitious project to plant one million new trees throughout the metro area by 2017. That’s a 20 percent increase in trees in NYC. The city’s existing urban forest already store about 1.35 million tons of carbon valued at $24.9 million and absorb an additional 42,000 tons of carbon every year.
There are also fears that the beetles will spread to upstate New York and cripple the maple syrup industry. New York state is the second largest producer of maple syrup in the country and many areas depend on the product as well as the tourism generated by fall colors.
“Can you imagine driving upstate in the fall and not seeing the fall color because there are no maple trees?” Joseph Gittleman, NY ALB Project Manager asked a CBS New York reporter.
The Asian longhorned beetle is just one of the many invasive species destroying the vital carbon sinks of forests in the U.S. Many of these species, such as the emerald ash borer which is devastating ash trees from Minnesota to New York and the pine bark beetle which has killed millions of trees in the West, are spreading thanks to milder winters and other changes in the climate that are opening up previously inhospitable habitat for the pests.