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  • Photo courtesy N.H. Division of Forests and Lands

    Asian Longhorn Beetles are shown caught in a swimming pool filer in Worcester, Mass., where an infestation of the beetles has caused 25,000 trees to be chopped down and run through chippers.
  • Longhorn Beetle isolated on white (1)
  • Male Reddish-brown Stag Beetle (Lucanus capreolus) isolated on white background
  • My column mug is a good six years old. Is this OK for a replacement?
  • My column mug is a good six years old. Is this OK for a replacement?
Monday, July 11, 2011

This invasion may be happening in your pool

David Brooks

It usually takes finely tuned scientific instruments to keep an eye on Mother Nature and deflect nefarious invaders from entering our realm, but sometimes it only takes your backyard pool.

And I do mean yours, so pay attention!

The state is hoping that pool owners everywhere will join a unique online program designed to keep New Hampshire from repeating the mistakes of Worcester, Mass.

Asian longhorn beetles, an incredibly destructive forest pest that snuck here from China 15 years ago and is causing panic throughout the Northeast U.S., were living in Worcester for perhaps a decade before anybody noticed. By then, the beetles had spread so far that ongoing containment efforts have already cost millions of dollars and led to at least 25,000 trees being cut down and run through chippers.

"After they discovered (Asian longhorn beetles) in Worcester . . . people were saying, well, I've been collecting those bugs for years in my swimming pool," Karen Bennett at UNH Cooperative Extension said. "They were just creepy-crawly things they threw out with the debris from the filter."

This gave Kyle Lombard at the state's Forest Health Office an idea: Why not use pool skimmers to keep an eye out for Asian longhorn beetles moving north across the border? It would be a sort of invasive species Distant Early Warning line, to resurrect an old Cold War term.

This would work for any bug which likes to fall into pools and drown, but is particularly valuable for Asian longhorn beetles because there isn't any reliable trap, using pheromones or other methods, to lure the species. Without pools, it's hard to know when they've entered an area, as Worcester found out to its dismay.

Last year, the state tried beetle-collecting at 34 public pools. Attendants collected all the insects that fell in the waters and were caught in the filters for six weeks in July and August, when the beetles' flight period is at its peak, and gave them to the Division of Forests and Land. Jars fulls of bugs were taken to the forest health lab at Fox State Forest in Hillsborough, and sorted by species.

In the end, 5,811 insects in 18 different orders were found. About 40 percent were the order Coleoptera - i.e., beetles - but none were Asian longhorn beetles (hooray!).

The program did, however, find two other surprise invasive insects: the brown marmorated stink bug, a huge agricultural pest, and European fire ants in Merrimack County.

The result was so successful that this year the program is taking the "citizen science" route, using online forms to open the process to everyone, rather than just public pools.

Just go to and sign up.

You'll find instructions on how to analyze your pool's invertebrate floaters - they've got a nifty silhouette chart, vaguely reminiscent of the ones given during World War II to the home guard trying to identify enemy airplanes flying overhead - and how to take pictures of suspected Asian longhorn beetles.

There's even a lab component of your volunteer assignment: "Freeze the insects in a Tupperware-like container until you hear from us (about a week). We will either tell you to throw the insect out or give you instructions about mailing it, delivering it or arranging for pick-up."

Cleverly, they've got a sort of social media component: "We will post interesting pictures and sightings to this website and send a weekly email reminder and report."

I can see bragging rights coming out of this. People won't try to have the most Facebook friends, they'll try to have the most mentions on the Beetle Swimming Pool Survey.

The obvious next step is to create a smartphone app, so you can take a picture of the bug and email it without going inside to the computer.

"That's in the works," Bennet said. But not this year.

I think this whole program is brilliant, not only because it expands the bug surveillance network umpteen-fold but also because it should make a lot more people aware of this incredibly destructive forest pest. The Asian longhorn beetle, which has the ability to devastate several different species of hardwoods, was first found in Brooklyn in 1996 and now exists in a half-dozen states. It's a slow traveler, but can ride along in transported wood (that's why New Hampshire is banning out of-state firewood, and why hunters often inspect places where out-of-town goods are unloaded, because of concern about untreated pallets).

It's hardly alone, alas. Global travel and commerce has spread invasive pests throughout the world and will continue to do so. Any method we can think of to keep an eye on them is praise-worthy.

Especially if you can do it while sitting by the backyard pool. Now that is cutting-edge science.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or