World War Tree

A tree grows in Brooklyn, New York, and federal inspectors were swarming all over it looking for the Asian longhorned beetle—a sort of vampire cockroach that punctures the arteries of hardwood trees.

The beetle reportedly arrived in Brooklyn from China in 1996 aboard a wooden shipping palette and was transferred to a showroom in Amityville, Long Island. Two years later, it reached the Chicago suburbs in a load of wood.

The deadly calling card of the Asian longhorned beetle is a deep, round exit hole.
USDA Forest Service

After breaking through quarantine in Brooklyn and Queens last fall, the beetles have been sucking the life-blood out of maple, horse chestnut, poplar, willow, elm, ash and black locust with virtual impunity on their long march to the hardwood forests of New York, Vermont and New Hampshire. They’ve prompted tighter U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) restrictions on imported wood packing materials from China and Hong Kong. USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service and its state counterparts have already spent more than $30 million on beetle eradication.

The beetles leave a deep, round exit hole slightly larger than a pencil. Yellowing or drooping leaves are another sign they’ve come to call. The beetles kill trees by disrupting their water- and nutrient-carrying tissues. As for the Brooklyn tree, if the inspectors found a beetle, it would have to be cut down. Nerve compounds injected into vulnerable trees kill only 30 to 60 percent of the longhorns. "After we cut a tree down," says a crew member, "we usually find the beetle in nearby trees the following year."

Tests in China have found that the beetles can fly more than a mile. In February, either by hitchhiking in a truck or catching a stiff tailwind, the beetle made it to New York’s Central Park. U.S. Forest Service entomologist Robert Haack installed acoustic sensors in trees to listen for the sound of young beetles chewing.

Known in China as the Starry Sky Beetle for the speckled white spots on its black body, it has already caused the removal and destruction of 6,900 trees in Brooklyn and threatens the $41 billion lumber, camping and fall foliage industry in the Northeast. Ultimately one third of the $670 billion U.S. urban forest canopy is at stake and may require introducing bacteria, parasites or woodpeckers.