MIDDLEBURY, Conn. -- Piles of ash bark cushioned the feet of state workers inside a state garage on Middlebury Road on a recent day. The men and women used draw knives to slowly peel back bark on bolts of ash trees, looking for signs of a tiny green beetle.
Their work began at the beginning of February, and will continue for at least one more session this month. They want to determine just how long and far the emerald ash borer has infested Connecticut’s woodlands.
The answers will help federal and state agencies, plus municipalities, work together to reduce the spread of this bug.
With each strip of bark, the workers uncovered a pale canvas that can potentially show a history of the highly mobile critter. They are peering for a tell-tale sign -- serpentine tunnels left by the larvae as they eat.
Last summer, the bug was first found in the Nutmeg state in Prospect. Since then, it has been confirmed in Beacon Falls, Bethany, Naugatuck and Waterbury. The critter is an invasive species native to Asia that measures a half-inch long.
The infestation threatens Connecticut’s valuable stands of ash trees, and experts say could present a threat to public safety.
The detection effort is a collaborative project involving the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, the forestry division of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Protection and Quarantine and the U.S. Forest Service.
So far, the group has found about a half-dozen larvae of the beetle, said Rich Schenk, incident commander of the effort with the DEEP’s forestry division. The bolts of ash are provided by private landowners or municipalities.
The larvae found ranged from full size to first or second instar stages. Claire Rutledge, assistant agricultural scientist II at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, grabbed a bolt and showed the tunnels left behind by the larvae.
Chris Martin, director of forestry with DEEP, said it’s too early to tell if the bug has hopped across the New Haven County line. In August, the state imposed a quarantine on that county to reduce the spread of the bug. Under the quarantine, no ash or hard firewood can leave without being treated first, such as removing the bark. He said the larvae found are from towns inside the quarantine zone.
Martin also said the recent quarantine imposed on Berkshire County will not change detection strategies here. They are focusing on areas north and east of Waterbury in Litchfield and Hartford counties, and some in the south.
Once this is done, the next step will be to share the information with the towns that have the beetle and make sure they have access to information on how to deal with the bug, he said.
"This very, very small insect has some fairly big consequences," Martin said.
One of the greatest concerns is dying ash trees near roads, playgrounds or schools, he said. He said these trees are big and heavy, and can pose a public safety hazard.
At state fire headquarters, Schenk pointed to a map showing confirmed spots of the emerald ash borer. From those spots, a 5-mile radius has been drawn, and then cardinal directions to help with sampling. This is to help them find out how far the critter has spread and how long they’ve been here, he said.
While the men and women work inside, four crews of two people collect bolts of ash. The state identifies parcels and tries to contact property owners to obtain permission to cut down the ash to be peeled, he said.
On average, it takes an hour to peel the bark off a bolt, but it depends on the bolt, Rutledge said.