Dr. Nathan Lord has woken up in the jungles of Bolivia to the sound of giant beetles – as big as clenched fists with 8-inch wingspans – buzzing through the trees like helicopters.
In Vietnam, he ate water-bug soup and pasta with stir-fried wasp pupae. He’s pulled the wings off huge cicadas in the Amazon, cooked the muscle and used it on pizza like sausage.
“I was one of those quintessential kids that liked insects since when I was three and never grew out of it,” said Lord, who’s collected bugs from Madagascar to New Zealand, Rwanda to Brazil.
Now the enthusiastic, first-year Georgia College assistant professor faces a beast of a bug. It’s not big. In fact, it’s tiny – less than half an inch long. But it has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in the United States in the past 15 years.
And it’s heading this way.
“They’re very pretty beetles and super-economically important, because they’re destroying all our ash trees,” said Lord, one of few who studies this beetle.
“The problem can show up overnight,” he said. “By the time you see the damage, it’s too late. It’s severely impacting a couple ash species to the point we may not have any more left in the U.S.”
The emerald ash borer is a shiny jewel-colored beetle that bores through tree trunks to lay eggs. Its young feed on inner bark, disrupting the tree’s flow of water and nutrients.
Experts believe infestation started with a single male and female, arriving in a lumber or furniture shipment from Asia. The emerald ash borer has no natural predator in the U.S. The bug is so aggressive, trees die within two or three years. All 16 ash species in the U.S. are at risk. Their hard wood is used to make baseball bats, hockey sticks, oars, furniture and tool handles – so the plague is costing millions.
First detected near Detroit in 2002, the beetle has appeared in 30 states. By 2013, it had spread to northern Georgia. In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) quarantined 44 more Georgian counties – including forests as far south as Lamar and Jasper. Firewood, wood chips, compost, sawdust and other materials cannot be transported in or out of these areas.
Now the destructive beetle is only a few miles away from Central Georgia woods in Monroe, Putnam, Hancock, Bibb, Jones and Baldwin counties.
“The emerald ash borer is a terrible, invasive species for the North American continent,” said junior biology major Stephanie Forsman of Lawrenceville, who works in Lord’s entomology lab.
“I go on vacation all the time with my family, camping in the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee. If you look on the mountainside,” she said, “you’ll see all these dead hemlock trees, and it’s because of another invasive species called the woolly adelgid. It’s something I care strongly about.”
Working with Xavier University in Ohio, Lord and students are creating a DNA database of beetle species. The repository will be housed at the USDA website, where educational institutions and government agencies can go for information.
The emerald ash borer is one 15,000 known species of jewel beetle. As an expert on this beetle family, Lord is responsible for collecting their DNA – putting Georgia College in the leading role for finding a solution to the ash problem. He hopes to have a working database of information by May.
“We know how they mate, but we don’t know how they find one another,” Lord said. “Although they seem to have visual behaviors, when I looked at the molecular aspect, the genes you have in your eye to recognize color? Beetles don’t have them. They can’t see blue.”
How does a beetle that shimmers in shades of greenish blue find each other, if it can’t see blue? They may see blue by changing their visual genes in some way, Lord said. Answers could lead to changing DNA patterns, so beetles can't see host trees or find mates - thus slowing reproduction and their path of destruction.
The emerald ash borer mates in the spring. Its young eat wood underneath bark for two to three weeks, before emerging as adults. Each female lays up to 90 eggs in its three-week lifespan. Eggs hatch in 7 to 10 days. Infestation spreads quickly.
To get beetles to study, Georgia College students are forming a wasp watchers group – the only one in the south outside Louisiana State University. This spring, they’ll go to old baseball fields, seeking the dusky-winged beetle bandit – a wasp that feeds jewel beetles to its young. The wasp tunnels under baseball diamonds, where sand is well-packed. Kaolin mines around Milledgeville might also attract this wasp, Lord said.
“Identifying the beetles without the wasp would be near impossible, because they’re so super small, microscopic almost,” Forsman said.
Students are learning how to collect beetles, extract muscle for DNA sequencing and enter data into the repository. Along with Forsman, two other biology majors are involved: juniors Dorianna Dobson of Rome and Payton Burriss of Washington, Georgia.
But pressure is on for an answer that can’t come quick enough for millions of dying trees. We’re outnumbered: Compared to 5,500 species of mammals – there are half a million species of beetles.
One in five living organisms on Earth is a beetle.
“Invertebrates, things without a backbone, comprise about 80 percent of the diversity of life on earth. But relatively speaking,” Lord said, “they’re fairly understudied because they’re creepy and crawly.
“They’ve been here a long time, millions of years. Insects were around when the dinosaurs were here,” he said, “and they’ll be around long after humans are gone.”