Dangerous beetle lands at Port of Oakland

April 7, 2010 6:48:40 PM PDT
U.S. Customs agents have found a potentially devastating insect that came through the Port of Oakland. The pests were in wood pallets coming in on container ships from international ports.

This member of the beetle family does its damage in the larvae stage, boring through wood like a drill bit. Our forests, eucalyptus trees, maples, elms, and willows are among the vulnerable trees.

U.S. Customs Agriculture specialist John Machado is looking for an invader from a foreign country. His only tools are a flashlight, a hammer and chisel.

Tiny holes in wood pallets are his only clues that one of the larvae might be inside. He found two live ones and one dead over the last week. It turns out they are from the Cerambycidae family, also known as a long-horned beetle, potentially devastating to forests and agriculture.

"If I find something, I safeguard the shipment, I take the pest and submit it to our government identifiers and then they get back to me and say this is an actionable pest," says Machado.

That means the shipment is quarantined and will be turned away from the port, sent back where it came from. These pests were international hitch-hikers, coming in on pallets with shipments of foil from Spain for wine bottles, travertine from Turkey, and tile from Italy. All of the pallets had stamps indicating the wood was treated to kill these kinds of bugs.

"The HT means heat treated, the MB means ethyl bromide, and there's some irradiation type of stamps, and those are international standard," says Machado.

Customs can only inspect a fraction of the containers. It's a reality that sends shivers down the spine of Christian Cobbs, a landscape designer and horticulturalist at Berkeley's Magic Nursery.

"They're just going to have to be more stringent about these things coming over because the last thing Northern California needs is right now is another pest to worry about. We already have sudden oak death and the light brown apple moth that we're dealing with," says Cobb.

The American Academy of Sciences says there are 20,000 different species of longhorn beetle from all over the world, so there's no way to target shipments from certain countries. It's just up to customs to select certain containers to inspect based on a variety of factors, including if the shipper has had past infestations.


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