If a shinny, black and spotted beetle that arrived here from China is left unchecked, it could spell the demise of the maple industry in North America, according to a Massachusetts maple sugar maker.
"It's a huge issue and could forever change the way we've done sugaring in this country for centuries," said Winton Pitcoff, a New England maple bush operator and Massachusetts' representative on the North American Maple Syrup Council (NAMSC).
Speaking at the annual meeting of the NAMSC, held in Stratford, Pitcoff said his home state has suffered the heaviest infestations of the Asian Longhorn Beetle in North America.
An invasive species, the beetle attacks a variety of native hardwood species, including maple, birch, elm, poplar, horse chestnut and willow.
However, Pitcoff noted that the beetle's preference is maple wood and that has the maple sugar industry deeply concerned.
The beetle lays its eggs just beneath the bark and upon hatching, its larvae tunnels through the heartwood of a host tree.
When fully grown it burrows its way out of the trunk as an adult beetle.
The process weakens the wood, often causing limbs to fall off and, eventually, kills the tree, said Pitcoff.
The insect was first detected in New York and then in New Jersey and Illinois.
In 2006 it was discovered in an urban area north of Toronto.
Pitcoff said, thankfully, its presence has been restricted to urban areas; it hasn't yet been detected in rural bush lots or maple bushes.
The beetle is thought to have arrived in North American in wooden crates and pallets from China, where the infestation has been wide-spread. The pest has killed nearly all the maple trees in China.
"It tends to show up in port cities because it makes its way here via the packaging of imported goods," Pitcoff said.
Pitcoff, who heads up a research committee on the issue, said an eradication program in the Worcester area of Massachusetts continues, where last year government officials removed about 27,000 trees.
A similar eradication program is underway in Canada as well.
Quarantine zones have been established around infected trees and an exhaustive search is done in the surrounding areas for other infestations.
That has also been followed up by a chemical treatment process, he noted, adding that program has not been without controversy.
"Trees that have not been infected yet but are close to trees where the beetle has been identified are being injected with a pesticide called imidacloprid," he said.
"The injected trees will not be friendly hosts to these beetles and consequently will not take up residency in them."
However, he said use of imidacloprid has been implicated in the death of millions of honeybees in the U.S. in recent years.
Many beekeepers, environmentalists, and scientists (although not all) claim the pesticide is the root cause of a condition known as colony collapse, a mysterious disease that has been wiping out millions of bee hives across the U.S.
The product is made by Bayer and its researchers insist there is no connection with their product and colony collapse.
However, Pitcoff said while the eradication program appears to be effective, beetles are still being found on the periphery of quarantine areas, which has caused them to expand the quarantine areas from 75 square miles to 92 square miles.
He added that a smaller outbreak was recently identified in a suburb of Boston.
"The trees were taken down immediately and a survey of the surrounding area found no more infestations.
Pitcoff noted that the USDA has asked the maple syrup industry to hold discussions on setting tolerance levels for the use of imidacloprid and define a tolerance level the industry would find acceptable in terms of taping trees that have been injected with the pesticide.
"Our answer has always been zero; we will not tap a tree that we know has been injected with imidacloprid," he said.
He noted that trees being injected with the product are being tagged with metal plates to identify them as having been treated with the product.
Pitcoff said he has heard numbers such as one year for commercial trees and three years for an organic operation before the trees can be considered free of the insecticide.
"However, I haven't seen any science I necessarily trust to back those numbers up," he said.
Pitcoff said the maple syrup industry in his state was recently approached by their commissioner of agriculture who told them Washington officials have been very surprised by the lack of communication they have received from the maple industry on the issue.
"I think we do need to express our concern about this and reiterate what it could mean for our industry," he said.
"We need to ask for a number of things, one being a contingency plan. We really don't know what is going to happen if this bug gets into our forested areas."
Pitcoff said he doesn't consider the use of imidacloprid or the removal of trees a viable options for the continued success of the maple syrup industry in North America.
"A big part of the problem is that the government is relying on non professional spotters to identify these bugs and report them," Pitcoff said.
"Many people with a sugar bush are not going to report it because they have all their trees cut down and lose their livelihood . . . they really need to know what they are going to do if they spot these beetles in our sugar bushes."
Pitcoff said producers should have some idea of what the government will offer in terms of a disaster relief program if the unthinkable occurs and sugar bush trees are required to be cut down or otherwise rendered untapable.
He urged the council to draft a letter of concern and send it to both state and federal officials.
"I would hope that Canada would do the same because these bugs will not be stopped at the border by customs officials," he said.
Pitcoff said people he talks to tell him it's just a matter of when these beetles will infest sugar bushes, rather than if.
He added that the beetle has no natural predator either here or in China.
"If there is a bright spot in all of this its that there is not a maple tree left in China larger than a sapling," he said.
"That at least keeps the Chinese from unfairly competing against us in the production of maple syrup as they do in other industries."