CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — It's a small, metallic green bug with a voracious appetite for the wood of the ash tree. And after killing tens of millions of trees in nearly two dozen states, the emerald ash borer has been discovered for the first time in North Carolina.
State agriculture officials have issued an emergency quarantine for three counties, saying the invasive species threatens North Carolina's ash trees. They're encouraging people to be on the lookout for the bugs, which are up to a half-inch in size and bore into ash trees.
"It's not something we didn't expect but we're still disappointed that we have to deal with it," said Phil Wilson, plant pest administrator for the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
For years, North Carolina agriculture officials set traps for the emerald ash borer, knowing it was just a matter of time before they appeared in the state.
A species native to Asia, the emerald ash borer was first discovered in southeastern Michigan in 2002 — likely introduced by wooden crates carrying foreign imports.
In the last decade, the beetles have spread to 20 states.
In early June, the insects were found in ash trees in Granville, Person and Vance counties, which border Virginia where the bug is prevalent. North Carolina quickly quarantined the area, prohibiting the movement of any ash tree products — including firewood.
"The goal of the quarantine is to slow the spread. With current technology, we are not going to eradicate it from North Carolina," said Paul McKenzie, horticulture agent with the Vance County cooperative extension service.
Adult emerald ash borers lay eggs on the bark of ash trees. When the eggs hatch, the larvae bore into the bark and feed on the transportation tissues of the tree. This disrupts the movement of nutrients and water within the tree, girdling it and causing death.
All ash tree species are susceptible, Wilson said. The four species of ash native to North Carolina include white ash, green ash, Carolina ash, and pumpkin ash.
"This is a pest that is only a nuisance to the ash tree," Wilson said. "Over time, once the tree becomes infected with the ash borer, you're looking at a death to occur within a two- to four-year period."
In North Carolina, the areas that could be most affected are the Piedmont and the western part of state, which are heavily populated with ash trees.
Ash wood is valued for its strength and elasticity and is often used for baseball bats, bows, tool handles, and other products that require durability and resilience. Green ash is planted widely as a landscape tree in urban areas and is a valuable native component of wetland areas. Ash foliage and seeds are fed upon by numerous animals as well as butterfly and moth caterpillars.
Infected ash trees may develop thinning at the top and splitting bark.
Currently, little can be done to protect or save ash trees in the forest. The best option for most ash trees is to cut down dead and dying ones and chip, burn, or bury the wood on the site. That reduces the chance of other trees being attacked.
"We found that as it moves through these other states, there's not a way to eradicate it," Wilson said. "By using a quarantine — controlling the movement of ash products — we're trying to slow it down."
Wendi Hartup, a Forsyth County extension agent, said the beetles can travel on average about 5 miles per year.
She agreed the best strategy is to try to slow the spread of the bug, which has no natural predators.
"We're concerned, and just have to keep monitoring the situation," she said.