Bugging out over the ecosystem


Did you know that there was an old lady who swallowed a fly? No one knows why she swallowed the fly.

But rumor has it that she panicked, gobbling down a spider to catch the fly. Of course, then she had a spider wriggling and jiggling and tickling inside her. So she swallowed a bird to catch the spider, a cat to catch the bird, a dog to catch the cat, and so on.

A silly story, but one that scientists seem to be reliving in regards to the dreaded emerald ash borer.

The insect, which isn’t native to the United States, was inadvertently imported to our country from Asia.

First reported in the state of Michigan, the emerald ash borer targets ash trees with wreckless abandon. The adult females lay their eggs on the bark of the ash tree, and the larva eventually hatch and bore through the bark into the tree. As they eat through the tree’s internal layers, they leave S-shaped gouges and consume enough of the trunk that the ash can no longer absorb enough nutrients and dies.

The emerald ash borer has invaded Pennsylvania en force. Our ash trees are under siege, not just in western counties and eastern regions, but right here in the Susquehanna Valley.

“The emerald ash borer is not going to stop for anything.

We are in damage control mode now — we are not in control mode,” said Sven-Erik Spichiger, an entomologist forthe Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

So how do scientists and environmentalists combat a threat so grave?

By repeating history, of course. By releasing another non-native variety of insect into our already struggling natural environment.

Minature stingless wasps known as parasitoids, to be more specific. They’re the spiders we’re all supposed to swallow to knock out the flies — or emerald ash borers, in this case.

And our neck of the woods is one of the trial areas. Besides two parks in Allegheny County near Pittsburgh, scientsts also recently released these wasps into State Game Lands No. 252 in Union County near Allenwood.

According to reports, several thousand were unleashed.

A parasitoid, by definition, is something that acts like a parasite, except they typically sterilize or kill their host. These wasps have a history of attaching to, and eventually killing, emerald ash borers. Their job is to seek and destroy.

Similar miniature wasps have been used to control pest insect populations in other parts of the world, and have been fairly successful. And, at least at the moment, there have been no major reports of the miniature wasps causing any unexpected negative side effects to people or the environment.

I am no entomologist, but I am pretty experienced in making mistakes and trying to patch things up. It usually doesn’t go well. The problems always seem to snowball. Just ask Mickey Mouse about his “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” experiences.

The concept of introducing a non-native insect into the local environment makes me wonder if we’ll ever learn our lesson, the same taught through the Leave No Trace movement. We need to minimize our impact on the ecosystem, not blast it with a new species.

In fact, this is actually the first time ever that parasitoids have been knowingly released into Pennsylvania’s ecosystem.

And while there are no known side effects of the miniature wasps, who’s to say we won’t feel the effects at a later date.

For example, what happens if the miniature wasps don’t just target the emerald ash borer, but also much more productive and necessary species of beetles and other insects? These wasps are known for extremely rapid reproduction — what if we wind up with massive swarms of them throughout area parks and gamelands? Will this cause an increase in predator species (such as birds), which may bring other issues? What if the miniature wasps affect the fragile balance local farmers have between their land, crops and natural elements?

And how would we deal with this new dilemma? Unleash some new species of bird that loves gobbling up miniature wasps? How long after that until we need to deal with the overpopulation of the new bird species? When does the cycle end?

For the little old lady who swallowed a fly, it didn’t stop until she died.

Let’s hope we don’t repeat her mistakes.

~ by zaktansky on June 15, 2011.

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