Inspecting invasive insects in Fairfield County

Recent Ridgefield High School graduate Jacob Corsilia sets up a Lindgren funnel to monitor for the invasive forest insect, the southern pine beetle, in Fairfield County.

Recent Ridgefield High School graduate Jacob Corsilia sets up a Lindgren funnel to monitor for the invasive forest insect, the southern pine beetle, in Fairfield County.

Contributed photo

Have you driven on Fairfield County highways recently? You might have noticed conspicuous dead trees among the living ones. It is likely that most of these dead trees are the same species: ash.

Ash trees are being selectively killed by a beetle known as the emerald ash borer, which lays eggs on the bark, allowing the larvae to burrow into the wood, and causing the tree to die. Emerald ash borers are among an array of invasive insects that are beginning to invade the northeast. These insects have become a dire problem in some areas and pose a threat to more than just a few trees.

Each year, state and federal organizations, including the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES), conduct surveillance throughout the state to monitor for presence of new and emerging invasive insects. These monitoring programs help determine which invasive insects are present in Connecticut, their relative abundance and if they have established populations.

Such insects include the southern pine beetle, which infects and damages several pine species, including the rare pitch pine, and the spotted lanternfly, which poses a threat to many plants, including grapes and fruit trees.

CAES monitors these insects by setting up traps and identifying the captures. Traps are distributed around the state, but coverage in Fairfield County is of particular interest since it is the southernmost entry point into the state — the location from which many invasive insects first enter Connecticut.

I have been able to explore my interest in entomology by working with Dr. Rayda Krell, an entomologist at Western Connecticut State University, and CAES to detect local invasive species. I have helped set up monitoring traps and collect and identify their contents. Of course we hope we won’t find invasive insects, but if they are here, we want to be aware so management can be considered.

We have already seen what can happen to our ash trees with just one beetle species, but there are several other invasive insects of concern. New invasive insects could pose a major threat to biodiversity in our region by out-competing native species and killing plants on which they depend. An overall loss of biodiversity will, in turn, make our local ecosystems more vulnerable to environmental disruptions.

Invasive insects also pose economic threats. For example, the spotted lanternfly is estimated to have caused more than $50 million in losses in Pennsylvania per year from the plants it has killed. Southern pine beetles threaten the logging industry by killing trees before they are felled and depleting the quality of the wood.

Because of our research, there is hope to stop invasive insects before they become a problem. However, the dead ash trees lining Connecticut’s highways are a reminder of what happens without vigilance. Additional invasive insects could repeat this scenario, each one invading the state and bringing their own unique burden on our ecosystem and economy with them.

It’s amazing how these small animals have the potential to massively influence our lives, and we need to be aware of these types of ecological threats while we still have the chance to stop them.

Written by Jacob Corsilia, Ridgefield High School graduate.