Opinion » Range Rover

Beetle Mania I: Ticket to Ride



Sitting at Mile One Eating House in Pemberton a couple weeks back, a large black beetle had landed on a buddy while he was busy stuffing a burger into his face. Although he somehow failed to notice the three-centimetre monstrosity, glimpsing its white-speckled back and long, curving, striped antennae sent a genuine stab of fear through me: was this not the dreaded Asian long-horned beetle (ALHB) everyone in Eastern Canada was on the lookout for? The same forest-devouring scourge also once found in the Port of Vancouver? I bottled the specimen.

Clare Greenberg at the Sea to Sky Invasive Species Council helped circulate a photo of my beetle to experts who, despite pictures of it turning up in a Google search for ALHB (and this is why you need experts), declared that it wasn't that species. Rather, it was a local lookalike that went by various names along the lines of Oregon/white-spotted fir/spruce sawyer. The ALHB — of similar size and pattern but shinier — was on my radar because I'd spent a lot of time over the previous year talking insect invaders with scientists across Canada and one particular conversation had stood out.

Troy Kimoto is a survey biologist with the Plant Health Risk Assessment Unit of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) in Vancouver, and everything you need to know about the risks to North American forests from alien insects can be found in his personal online photo gallery: the telltale, meticulously spaced drill holes of the ALHB; close-ups of the under-bark vermiculations of emerald ash borers; and the one-two depredations of the deadly Raffaela fungus and its insect delivery vehicle, the oak ambrosia beetle. You might call them Postcards from a Disaster.

Kimoto's prevention work with non-native forest pests focuses primarily on sap feeders and defoliators. With dozens of these established in North America and more knocking on doors around the continent, Kimoto's seems an unfathomably expansive job — but one that's key to areas like the Sea to Sky corridor where our forests are everything.

"I tried to break it into manageable pieces. We started out trapping to locate non-native insects, then implemented rearing programs in main entry points like Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. I usually start by looking at interception data for each target pest to try and prioritize research into developing the right traps and detection methods. A lot of what I do basically involves coming up with new mousetraps," noted Kimoto. "But I also try to identify gaps. For instance, we understand more about what attacks softwoods than what attacks hardwoods. Historically we've dealt mostly with coniferous bark beetles in North America, so we have a good understanding of the tree volatiles (aromatic chemicals) that attract them, but we don't have the same expertise with wood-boring jewel beetles like the emerald ash-borer."

How could you? With some 15,000 species, the jewel beetle family is one of the largest in all of beetledom, suggesting that Kimoto's worries over small critters are, in a word, huge.

Domestically, the CFIA tracks already established non-native insects to see which areas these might be moving into; a second survey type aims to detect new international arrivals. In both cases, Kimoto deploys paper- and plastic-based traps baited with insect pheromones (sexual attractants) or host-plant volatiles (e.g., the pine "scent" familiar to humans actually represents dozens or hundreds of different chemical odors to an insect).

To this end, Kimoto spends plenty of time searching forests close to port areas, as well as the industrial zones of ports themselves. "We can't confiscate any material," he said of the areas where high-risk wood packaging is stored or uncrated, "but if a company has packaging from which insects are emerging, they'll usually call us."

Oceanic shipping and air freight is the major pathway of insect introductions worldwide, and wooden frames, crates, and palettes used to protect everything from glass windows to electronics are the number one vector for non-native forest pests. The wood is supposed to be pre-treated (typically fumigated) to international standards, but often isn't, so Kimoto still sees plenty of foreign wood-associated insects applying for Canadian citizenship.

At major risk from pest insects entering the country via this route, of course, is the forestry industry. For example, throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, alert warehouse staff in various states and provinces intercepted larvae and emergent adults of ALHB on packages arriving from Asia, but the species nevertheless managed to establish in numerous places in North America. In the northeastern U.S., infestations have seen tens of thousands of mostly urban trees cut in an attempt to stop the beetle's spread with little success and much economic, environmental and aesthetic cost. Canada managed to contain its own smaller outbreaks and declared itself ALHB-free in 2007. That's something of a joke amongst the cognoscenti but it shouldn't be, because the environmental and economic costs of both non-native and native (witness the pine-beetle disaster) insect outbreaks is no laughing manner.

Next time: Beetle Mania II: Help

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.