April may be Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month, but I live it year-round. I spend my days with a team of fellow tree climbers, looking for signs of Asian Longhorned Beetle (ALB) damage in the treetops of Bethel, Ohio. This is where ALB damage is most evident – oftentimes not visible from the ground level. ALB damages and kills maple and other hardwood trees. In Ohio, it threatens more than $2.5 billion in standing maple timber and almost a quarter of a million jobs in the state’s nursery industry. But we’re winning the battle. Since we first identified ALB in the U.S. in 1996, we’ve successfully eradicated it from New Jersey and Illinois. And earlier this month, we announced that we eradicated it from Batavia and Stonelick here in Ohio. These successes encourage us to continue the fight in other parts of Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts.
I first learned about the world of invasive insects in 2004 when I took a summer job monitoring contractor applications of ALB pesticide treatments in New York City trees. I enjoyed the work and came back the following summer as a data recorder. During that summer, I met my now-wife on the job and started looking for a good, stable position after college. My older brother is a tree climber and taught me the basics. I gave it my all and learned I was pretty good at it. I ended up working for a contractor on the ALB program for a year, then I was hired by the USDA in 2008. When my position brought me to Ohio, my wife joined the Ohio Department of Agriculture staff for five years before deciding to stay home with our two kids.
However, the ALB program introduced to me more than my wife. I started volunteering my time outside of the program to teach others in the community basic tree climbing skills so they could find good, steady jobs as well. I find it rewarding to teach others. Over the years, more than 15 of the people I worked with have gone on to find work as tree climbers, either with New York City Parks, private tree care companies or with the ALB program alongside me. I consider my fellow tree-climbers part of my family. After all, we are responsible for each other. Safety is a very big part of our job. USDA holds monthly rescue drills where each member of the team rescues another member, ensuring we are prepared to deal with emergencies should they happen.
Every tree and every climb is different. It’s an adventure in itself. These are one-of-a-kind experiences, like climbing an 80-foot poplar under the Brooklyn Bridge and viewing the Statue of Liberty from the treetops in Battery Park. This is more than just a job to me. I use my climbing skills to help stop the spread of invasive pests and protect our trees. I found a unique career and I consider myself lucky to be doing this work.
During Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Awareness Month, I hope all Americans learn how destructive invasive species like the Asian longhorned beetle can spread. More importantly, I hope they take some simple actions to prevent that spread. When it comes to this tree killer, which hides in firewood, it’s as easy as buying firewood where you burn it. If you must move firewood (even just a short distance), make sure it has been heat treated to kill any pests that might have been in or on it. Inspect your trees for dime-sized exit holes. Think you’ve seen signs or symptoms of ALB? Report ALB on the APHIS Report It page.
You can learn more about ALB signs and symptoms at www.aphis.usda.gov/aphis/resources/pests-diseases/asian-longhorned-beetle.