Millions of ash trees in North America are dying due to the infestation of the invasive emerald ash borer beetle. As its name suggests, the beetle bores through the bark of the ash tree, leaving a tell-tale D shaped hole, and consumes the tree from the inside out. It is about three quarters of an inch long, emerald green colored, and the adults can be found eating the leaves of the tree. The females then lay between 70-300 eggs each in the nutrient conducting, inner layers of the tree, and the hatched larvae eat away at the tree. An ash tree will usually die within two years of infestation.
Ash trees are important to the economy, providing resilient but elastic wood used in carving products like bows, electric guitars, furniture, and for veneers that panel plywood doors and other surfaces. Ash is also a hardwood, giving it a higher density than softwood and making it a long-lasting firewood as well.
The spread of the emerald ash borer, which came to North America stowed away in wooden cargo crates from Asian and Russian ships, is alarmingly fast. The first report of the beetle in on this continent has been pinpointed to Detroit, Michigan, in 2002, though it may have been transported undetected as early as the 1990s. Since then, it has spread as far north in Canada as Quebec, and to Pennsylvania, Illinois, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Prince Georges and Fayette Counties in the US. Both countries are exercising extreme caution, and have implemented quarantine procedures. It is estimated that tens of millions of dollars have already been lost in the containment process, and in loss of potential earnings from the ash wood that was destroyed.
Once an ash has been infected by the emerald ash borer, there is no known cure or remedy, and a standard containment practice is to burn all neighboring trees within a half-mile radius. One can imagine the devastating ecosystem effects this can incur, as hundreds of square miles of productive, species rich, carbon sequestering forests are burned overnight.
The death of ash trees themselves is a great loss to any forest, as these trees produce small, dry fruits eaten by wildlife. They also contribute to the total biodiversity of hardwood species, which are largely dominated by maple trees in temperate North America. They have cultural value to any who appreciate their cheerful pinnate leaves, and to some native groups, who have been using ash wood and bark to fashion baskets, bows and arrows for centuries.
Only vigorous protection of the remaining uninfected ashes, and new research into a viable extermination of the emerald ash borer in Canada and the US, will prevent the complete disappearance of ash trees on the continent.