One of Kentucky’s most familiar trees may be in for the fight of its life with a recently discovered pest.
These half-inch long, dark metallic green beetles are responsible for the loss of countless trees across the 17 states they have inhabited since their discovery in Michigan in 2002. It is thought that the emerald ash borers (EABs) were brought to the U.S. in wood shipping crates by cargo ships from Asia, which is the native continent for the beetles.
The beetles were discovered in Kentucky in 2009 in the northern Franklin and Shelby County area and within three years researchers with the University of Kentucky have found them in most counties in northern Kentucky.
Jody Thompson, an environmental scientist with the Kentucky Division of Forestry, said the 21 counties the EAB has been reported to have been found in may not be the only counties in the state to house the pest.
“This sucker has spread throughout lots of states in the U.S. and most of the movement has been due to people accidentally moving it, so the likelihood of it popping up anywhere is just as good as anywhere else,” Thompson explained.
Thompson said while Perry County may not be showing signs that EABs are in the area, it is pretty much just a matter of time before they are found here. The beetle has turned up in Pike County in extreme Eastern Kentucky.
“The females lay eggs on the bark of the tree, those eggs very shortly thereafter hatch and they chew their way into the tree. So, most of the life of any individual borer is spent inside of the tree, so then people move ash wood for all different kinds of reasons,” Thompson said.
He said by moving the wood, people are essentially spreading the pests to other areas because the beetles could come out of the wood in a new area. The main way this happens is through firewood.
“Any time any of that’s moved around and the emerald ash are in it, it could, depending on the time of year, emerge anywhere along that route. Finished wood is really no danger,” Thompson said.
There are no real ways to stop the spread of the EABs, Thompson said, only slow their progression. Counties where the pest has been identified are listed as quarantined, meaning no EABs, ash firewood or lumber, nursery stock, or anything else that may present the artificial spread of EABs may leave the county unless moved by the U.S. or Kentucky departments of agriculture.
Some pesticides, both that can be found at hardware stores and that are of professional grade, have been used on some trees to help with infestations, though the likelihood of them being used on large scales is slim due to costs and constant maintenance, Thompson said.
“Fayette County has been chemically treating some of their large blue ash trees,” he said. “To be effective, chemical treatment has to be continuous.”
Thompson said the possibility of the ash tree becoming extinct is not very likely with the many conservation efforts going on for trees in the state and country, nevertheless, he said, that does not mean the population of ash trees wouldn’t take a hit from these infestations.
“Ash comes up really easily and quickly,” he said. “However, there is a possibility of the ash tree, in our future, being wiped out of our forests, and we have seen that before (with other species).”
Thompson said it is important for people to be aware and on the lookout for these pests, but they are easily confused with other green insects that are common in the area.
“We get a lot of those calls, and we want those calls because we want to know if someone actually does see one of those borers,” he said.