Posted by Sheila Connolly

In the wake of Al Gore's Nobel Prize, this is a great time to talk about environmental issues as part of Blog Action Day. I want to say something about one small aspect of our environment–one about which I have some direct and personal knowledge.

My husband is an entomologist who works for the federal agency in charge of monitoring and combatting invasive insect species. (Disclaimer: the opinions expressed herein are mine, not his.) Most of us don't think about invasive species on a day to day basis–but we should. Insects make their way into this country through any number of unexpected ways. For example, while Asian countries such as China may claim they have inspected their goods (which one could question, given recent news reports), they don't necessarily inspect the wooden packing crates they use to transport their goods on container ships. Say hello to the Asian Longhorn Beetle, which has cropped up across the country around port areas.

Or you're traveling back from a wonderful vacation in some glamorous foreign country–Europe, Mexico, Thailand. And you just happen to slip a last piece of fruit into your suitcase as a souvenir. Bad! You ignore the signs posted in the airport when you come back. Your luggage might be inspected, or it might not. The fruit makes it home and sits on your kitchen counter for a few days–and releases a whole bunch of flying something-or-others that go forth and conquer.

Or you go camping in the north woods somewhere. Oh, look–lots of dead branches, just what you need for kindling for the fireplace back home. You throw some in the back of your SUV and drive home, where you stack the kindling in the back yard for winter. Bad again. That's how the Emerald Ash Borer travels from state to state.

Why is this a problem, you say? It's just a couple of bugs. The birds will get them, or they'll freeze come winter, right? Wrong. Imported species have no natural enemies here. The critters that have lived here a long time have their own niche in the local environment, wherever that may be. They have a place in a specific food chain. The newcomers don't, so they have carte blanche to eat their way through whatever they come across, while the local predators look at them and say, what're they? I don't eat them. Unfortunately, without natural predators, the invaders can multiply and spread very, very quickly, and do a real number on your local crops. Or trees.

Case in point. In Australia, there was once an infestation caused by a small wood wasp, that could do large damage to pine trees. (Apologies to my scientist spouse–I'm oversimplifying things here.) How can a tiny wasp kill a full-grown tree? Very fast. By the time you notice that the tree is infested (its needles turn red), it's only a year or two away from death. No spraying or pruning can save it. Gone. The Australians thought they had it under control and relaxed their treatment, back a few decades ago. The next time they flew over some of their forested areas, it looked like a New England autumn scene, with at least half the trees dead or dying. Pines are not supposed to be red. Ever since they have been a lot more careful in monitoring and treating their trees.

But in Australia, pines are a cultivated crop, grown for pulp and construction purposes in managed plantations. That can't happen here, right? So the insect arrives in the U.S. (which it has, in multiple places)–so what if we lose a few pine trees here and there? We've got lots, right? Again, wrong. What happens when that insect makes its way to areas in the southern U.S. where most of our construction lumber comes from? We're going to start building new homes out of plastic (okay, we do a lot of that already, but it would only get worse).

There is a political problem. As noted, our government has agencies and mechanisms for dealing with invasive species, as they should. But, as often happens with federal agencies, both the staffing and the funding are inadequate to deal with the full scope of the problem (or perhaps I should say, the many little problems). Government agencies depend on federal budget funding, which must be approved by Congress. Say your elected representative has an infestation of Insect X in his or her district; s/he will lobby hard for funding to deal with that. That is good. But say, after a couple of years, some other member of Congress finds a new and different pest in his or her backyard, and starts lobbying for funds. The government likes to spread its money around, so the funding shifts. But is the first pest eradicated or controlled? Not necessarily, and absent funding, it will just resume business as usual.

Well, why can't the individual states handle the problem? They try. (We won't get into the problems of coordinating efforts between different governmental agencies.) But, guess what? Insects don't respect state borders. One state can mount an aggressive and successful campaign to deal with a pest, but a few miles away in another state, the little buggers are just laughing, waiting to sneak back. And consider the very long Canadian border, with all those trees on the other side. Insects can fly, you know.

Just because insects are small does not mean they cannot do major damage. And as the climate warms, the insects' range increases, moving further north. They're not going to go away. Just because they're small does not mean we can ignore them. What can you do? Encourage your elected officials to sustain research and eradication efforts, and to see them through. Or decide now which crops and trees you can live without.

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