Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) Awareness week is May 17-23 and my tenure in a nationally syndicated comic strip is coming to an end, so it’s a good time to tell you how a new USDA employee wound up cartoon-ized.
The Mark Trail strip—known for its environmental themes—just finished a six-week long storyline about the invasive EAB. The EAB, a small metallic green wood-boring beetle, destroys ash trees and is now found in 25 U.S. States. The Mark Trail strip features “Agent Abbey Powell from the USDA” and shares information about the EAB. To view the comic—beginning with my debut—visit Mark Trail.
How did this happen? James Allen, the strip’s current author, called the APHIS Public Affairs Office with his interest in developing the storyline. I took Allen’s call and answered his questions—not suspecting at the time that I would end up in the comic! He was curious about the EAB, which likely arrived in the US in the late 1990’s or early 2000s, in solid wood packing material. In response, APHIS now requires that imported wood packing material be treated to kill any invasive pests that may be hitchhiking inside.
I provided an outline of how the USDA would respond if Mark Trail contacted us about the EAB, and developed a scenario to fit into his planned storyline. I told Allen about the sticky purple traps APHIS uses to survey for EAB and the stingless wasps we release as a biological control.
“Abbey got right on the task and sent over a treasure trove of info and pictures. Details of everything... step by step procedures of their approach to identifying the insect, quarantine of the area and biocontrol practices. Abbey was so helpful, I asked her permission to put her in the strip as an agent of the USDA,” said Allen.
“She kindly obliged and sent a picture of herself. I referenced from her photo and made her a "Mark Trail-ized" character,” he added.
While I provided key messages, it was Allen who crafted the story and art for each installment. He took some scientific and other liberties—ranging from my job title (“Agent Powell” instead of public affairs specialist) to technical points concerning the biology and behavior of EAB, and the story’s ending.
Allen and I have both been flattered by the response. He said, “As I continued writing the story, her part began to grow. It seems the public's interest grew as well. Readers at the Comics Kingdom website were posting things like ‘I searched Abbey Powell... there is one that actually works at the USDA!’ ... and ‘I found her LinkedIn profile and she looks like the character in the strip!’”
I’m humbled and honored to be part of this comic strip with national reach to help raise public awareness about EAB and other invasive pests and diseases and what APHIS does to combat these threats.
See you in the funny papers!
For more information about EAB and other invasive pests, visit www.hungrypests.com.