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Tree-Climbers Hunt For Asian Longhorned Beetle04:03
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Bear Scovil scours a tree for a sign of the Asian longhorned beetle. (Sonari Glinton for WBUR)
Bear Scovil scours a tree for a sign of the Asian longhorned beetle. (Sonari Glinton for WBUR)

You don't always realize how important trees are until it gets hot — hot like it's been in Boston this week, where everyone could use a little shade.

But trees are at risk after the recent discovery of Asian longhorned beetles near Faulkner Hospital in Jamaica Plain.

On Thursday, state and federal environmental officials began setting up a regulated zone, near the hospital and Arnold Arboretum, where they'll scour the ground for signs of the tree-killing beetle. They will also fan out to educate businesses and tree professionals about the invasive species.

Clint McFarland is a tree's best friend and an Asian longhorned beetle's worst enemy. He's the chief beetle-chaser for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Massachusetts, and says heat brings the beetles out.

To find the black and silver beetle, searchers from the Department of Agriculture are doing aerial surveys — that's official-speak for "climbing trees."

"This is when we can actually start to see the adult beetles out in the environment out in the field. So the hot weather that we might find un-enjoyable is their time," McFarland says.

McFarland is pretty intense. With a booming voice and a firm handshake, he's all business — well, except for the ponytail.

For almost a decade, McFarland has chased Asian longhorned beetles from New York to Worcester to Jamaica Plain. He thinks, lives and even dreams about trees. "I know it might seem silly, but I have nightmares about trees now," McFarland says.

One of those nightmares came true when he first heard there was even a possibility of an Asian longhorned beetle infestation in Boston.

To find the black and silver beetle, searchers from the Department of Agriculture are doing aerial surveys — that's official-speak for "climbing trees."

Climbers are going tree-by-tree. John Massing eyes one five inches wide. "That's climbable," he says. Maybe I shouldn't have worn penny loafers to this interview.

The intensity of this search reflects the seriousness of the beetles' threat. It's not just that the Asian longhorned beetle can kill your the favorite tree in your backyard where you tie your hammock. This bug kills a dozen of types of trees, including birches, willows, elms and maples.

If the Asian longhorned beetle goes unchecked, its population could wipe out whole industries. Bye bye maple syrup.<em> Hasta la vista</em>, leaf peepers.

If the Asian longhorned beetle goes unchecked, its population could wipe out whole industries. Bye bye maple syrup. Hasta la vista, leaf peepers.

As the climbers inspect the trees in the brutal heat, other environmental officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state Department of Conservation and Recreation are setting up that regulated zone. Those agencies will be monitoring to make sure no one brings in a truckload of untreated wood. If someone does, they can face a civil fine. The officials are relying on neighbors and environmental workers to do the educating and policing.

McFarland explains that, right now, this bug infestation isn't nearly as bad as the one two years ago in Worcester where 30,000 trees were removed.

"Tree after tree after tree, property after property, everything in a almost linear line was infested and very devastating for that community," McFarland says.

McFarland can't yet know how it will turn out in Boston.

"We're hoping here in Boston that this is just a localized satellite. That it was human assisted movement," McFarland says. "We might find others like this, but that we can get them before they do start to spread and that it's minimal on the number of trees we have remove."

McFarland says he has chased the beetle all across the northeast. And he'll continue to until every last one is eradicated.

This program aired on July 8, 2010.

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