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EAB Out at First

May 16, 2011

Baseball fans know the importance of tagging runners out right off the bat. The opposing team can’t score if they can’t get to first base. Foresters hope to take a page from baseball’s playbook in their fight against the emerald ash borer (EAB).

EAB is an Asian beetle that has killed millions of ash trees in the eastern United States since the 1990s. One of the biggest obstacles to stopping the EAB is detecting new outbreaks before they become too large to eradicate. Foresters at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., might have found the solution to the detection problem in an unlikely place--baseball fields.

The packed, sandy soil of baseball diamonds is ideal nesting habitat for Cerceris fumipennis, a species of wasp that preys on beetles, including the EAB. Cercerid wasp parents find beetles, immobilize them and bring them back to their burrows to serve as food for wasp larvae.

That is grim for beetles, but it’s a great opportunity for foresters. In theory, all they have to do is find a few Cercerid wasp nests in a particular area and stake them out, watching what Cercerid moms bring home for their young to eat. If EAB is on the menu, that means the devastating forest pest is in the area, and foresters can intensify surveillance efforts to pinpoint the infestation.

Morton Arboretum and the USDA Forest Service are exploring the practicality of this surveillance method, hoping it will be a home run for the home team.

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