Millions of trees in Clermont County are in danger of dying because of an invasive insect species.
Residents, state officials and the federal government are involved in a project to save the Eastside forest ecosystem from the Asian longhorned beetle, a non-native species that has wreaked havoc on local trees.
The Ohio Department of Agriculture has spearheaded the effort with funds from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ohio has quarantined sections of forests in an effort to halt the spread of the beetle.
If the Asian longhorned does anything similar to what the emerald ash borer did to Ohio’s ash trees, the results would be devastating to the ecosystem.
Jacob Lillenstein, Asian longhorn beetle technician with the Ohio Department of Agriculture, has been working on the project for the past several years and has seen firsthand what the beetle can to local trees.
“The areas affected are a decimated wasteland that’s going to take a long time to recover,” Lillenstein said.
The beetle infects many different types of trees: elm, buckeye, birch, poplar and sycamore. But the trees that seem most affected are maple.
Lillenstein estimated that close to 90 percent of the trees in Clermont County are maple trees. The beetle has already caused a lot of harm in the trees that are infected, and if they go unchecked they could potentially damage or kill much of the forest.
Despite the potential repercussions of losing so many trees, there are those who oppose the project to stop the beetles.
Some residents do not want government officials coming on their property to survey and cut down their trees. Others would prefer the trees to be treated chemically so they are not cut down.
However, chemical approaches would be extremely expensive. It costs around $500 per tree to chemically treat. That’s an expensive but feasible option for a homeowner. But to implement an effort like that on a large scale would cost around $50 million, nearly triple the budget of the current program.
For now, the best option to keep Clermont County’s forests healthy is to isolate and cut the infected trees.
How a beetle from East Asia destroys forests in Ohio
In the 1980s when goods from China, Japan, and Korea became more available in America, the wooden shipping containers used in transporting those good were full of Asian long-horned beetle larvae and eggs.
Asian manufactures didn’t think to treat their wood to kill the insect eggs. There are plenty of natural predators that keep the beetle’s population in check, so they don’t destroy entire forests in Asia.
Once the adult beetles emerged, they found themselves on a continent without any predators and lots of trees in which to make a home.
Since there was no check within the food chain on the beetles, their population exploded, infecting trees across the Eastern North America, including New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Ontario, Illinois and Ohio.
But how exactly do the beetles hurt the trees?
Like all insects, the Asian longhorned beetle have a life cycle with several distinct stages. Shortly after mating, adults lay their eggs in bark of trees. When those eggs hatch into larvae, they eat the green layer of bark called the cambium. That layer is vital to the tree’s health because it is where the tree does its growing. If the larvae chew up the cambium all the way around the tree, anything above that line on the tree is unable to grow and will die.
“It’s a long, slow, ugly death” Lillenstein said.
While the direct impact of losing so many trees is hard to measure, there are some businesses that rely on them.
Ohio maple syrup companies use the trees a source of sap for their product. If the beetle becomes more widespread across the state, it could threaten the industry’s supply.
Trees also clean the air, absorb carbon dioxide, and protect the soil. Without them, residents could experience more air pollution, which has been shown to exacerbate asthma symptoms. Erosion could cause millions of dollars worth of damage to homes, buildings and roads and could cause major issues with soil quality, which would hurt local farms.
But losing the forest ecosystem would prove far more catastrophic.
The trees provide food and shelter for local animals. Losing the forest would also mean losing the animals. Clermont County has some of the state’s best deer hunting grounds. Here the deer still have plenty of food sources, thanks in part to the forest being largely still intact. If the ecosystem collapses, white tail deer populations would almost certainly take a hit.
“You really can’t put a dollar price on saving the trees,” Lillenstein said.
How to help
Unlike the emerald ash borer, the Asian longhorned beetle does not fly well, so infestations are usually contained to trees within a few feet of each other.
In order to distribute their eggs and larvae over a wider range, the beetle needs help. That’s mostly done inadvertently by humans, who pick up firewood to burn at a campfire on a nice summer evening.
In the two documented infestations outside of the state quarantine zone, both cases were caused by property owners bringing a felled tree from another part of the county on their land to burn as firewood. This infected the trees on their property, causing the state to come in and cut them down.
Lillenstein said it is critical that people do not bring firewood, branches or other debris across county lines because it could spread the insect to other forests.
However, the most important thing people can do is become aware of the problem. The Asian longhorned beetle was eradicated in Illinois and parts of New Jersey, thanks largely to citizens understanding the issue.
Non-native species disrupting local ecosystems will continue to be a problem going forward as we live in an increasingly connected world. Understanding how and why to protect our local ecosystems will be critical to saving them.
Chris Anderson is a local science educator, aspiring science communicator, and founder of the blog scienceovereverything.com.