Friday, October 24, 2014

Beetle Busters & author interview

Beetle Busters: A Rogue Insect and the People who Track It (Scientists in the Field)
by Loree Griffin Burns; photos by Ellen Harasimonwicz
64 pages; ages 10 - 14
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014

This is a book about one gorgeous beetle (look at the beautiful antennae), the damage it does to forests, and the scientists and citizens who are trying to save their trees. The Asian Longhorn Beetle, also known as the ALB, came from China tucked into wood used to ship products to the US. Now it's infesting trees from Massachusetts to New York and into Canada, and foresters are in a race to control its spread. But is cutting thousands of trees the answer?

In this book Loree Burns takes a close look at the beetle - its life cycle inside and outside the trees - and the scientists tracking the insect. She talks trees: bark, tree rings, leaves and buds. She takes us into the woods with the beetle busting team for some surveying and a bit of tree climbing (don't worry; we're roped in), then into the lab. Beetle busting is hard work, and the scientists need help. That means we - yes, just ordinary citizens - need to help track and report beetle break-outs. Even if it means losing a tree we love.

Burns includes diagrams, sidebars, author's notes and resources for curious beetle naturalists. Ellen  Harasimonwicz's photographs are integral to this book. She traipsed from field to lab and her photos of beetles, trees, and scientists in action help us understand the complexity of the problem.

Loree has been traveling this fall, but she took a few minutes to answer some questions about her new book. You can find out more at her website.

Archimedes: Did this book evolve from an experience with a tree?

Loree: It began with several trees, actually. At the time, my family and I lived on a single acre and were the proud stewards of many trees, including several mature shagbark hickories that I particularly loved. And we were surrounded on two sides by 20 acres of forested conservation land. When I first began to read and hear about an invasive beetle and a program to eradicate it that involved cutting trees, I became very, very defensive. My first instinct was “No! Not our trees!”

So I went to an information session that was being held at the town library. The meeting was run by Clint McFarland, who was directing the eradication program in Worcester, and I learned a lot about the beetle, its strange life cycle, the damage it causes trees, the process involved in eradicating it, and the breadth of what was at stake. I could see the dilemma: cutting trees here NOW would save trees in lots of other places later, but cutting trees here NOW might also mean losing most of the trees that surrounded us.

I attended several more community meetings and, eventually, approached Clint with some tough questions. His patient and honest answers—he understood my stance but was firm in his own—convinced me that this complicated issue was worth exploring more deeply. And the beetle provided an incredible story in which to explore it. It finally occurred to me that this could be an interesting book.

Archimedes: Tell me about your research process for this book.

Loree: I had to do a lot of background reading to learn about beetles in general and ALB in particular, the history of ALB in North America, the history of ALB in its native home, and so on.

I also had to go out into the field and see how Clint, Mike Bohne, Kevin Dodds, and their colleagues work. This story was unusual because there are so very many different players: tree surveyors who work on the ground, tree surveyors who work in the canopy, foresters who study beetles in the wild and scientists who raise and study them in the lab, and so on. Over the course of two years, I conducted more than thirty-five individual interviews, many of them in the field. It was thrilling.

Archimedes: Did you ever go along on an ALB survey?
(photo by E. Harasimonwicz)
Loree:  Yes, I went on several (see photo). A few were with Clint’s team, and in those cases I carried a notebook and a camera (and in some cases Ellen was there with her camera) and recorded everything I saw.  A few others, though, were with local land trust organizations that were working to educate the public about the beetle and get them involved in finding them. In these cases I brought binoculars and was taught how to identify the twelve species of trees that the beetle prefers and how to scan those trees, methodically, for signs of ALB. 

The first thing I can tell you is that identifying trees to species can be difficult. The trees have unique shapes and bark patterns and leaf/needle shape, and these are super-helpful identification clues. But these characteristics are different on a sapling than on a teenaged tree than on the mature, adult tree. It’s a tricky thing. I actually spent months practicing to ID trees (with help from an ALB project member, Amy Stauffer) and I’m still not super good at it. 

The next thing that stood out was how hard it is to spend hours looking up. Within the first hour of my first field survey, my neck was aching. Really aching. You have to build up a stamina for this work.

Once you’ve learned trees and built up the stamina to study them closely through binoculars—on top of all that—its VERY hard to notice dime-sized holes in tree canopy. Especially at certain times of day. What I learned, beyond the technical procedures of surveying, was how very hard this work is. The people who do it are incredibly talented and dedicated.

Archimedes: It sounds like kids can get involved in participating in ALB surveys. But what else can kids do to help save the trees in their neck of the woods?

Loree: I think the best thing they can do is pay attention to them. Notice the way they naturally change over the course of a year, and take note when something unusual happens. Study the critters that live in and around your trees and, again, pay attention to anything unusual.

I think it’s important for kids to realize, too, that there are many other invasive beetles to be on the lookout for. Here’s a list fromthe US Forest Service; you can click on the beetle’s name to see its photo and learn more about where it is from and where it has invaded.

If you see any of these insects, or think you do, take photographs. Make notes. Contact someone through the website above, or at a local nature organization, to let them know what you’ve found.

And if you happen to live somewhere that an eradication program is underway, a great way to help is to care for replanted trees. Where I live, tens of thousands of trees have been cut, and thousands have been replanted. These newly planted trees need people to monitor water, prune, and protect them as they become established in their new location.

Archimedes: These beetles spend so much time inside the trees - are there any natural enemies?

Loree: There are in Asia, where ALB is native, but we don’t know much yet about what its natural enemies might be here. Surely there are parasitic wasps that will, eventually, take advantage of this new host species. And surely there are birds and other animals that will eat the beetle. It is just going to take some time for equilibrium to establish and for these enemies to keep the population in check.

Archimedes: Is there anything you’d like to add?

 Loree: I’d just like to mention that photographer Ellen Harasimowicz was a crucial part of telling this story. She attended many of the field events and caught a lot of the crucial details on film.  This makes the storytelling easier for me, and makes reading Beetle Busters a visual delight.

Thank you, Loree. Today we're joining STEM Friday - head over to that blog to see what other people are reviewing. On Monday we'll join the roundup over at the Nonfiction Monday blog where you'll find even more book reviews. Review copy provided by publisher


  1. This sounds absolutely fascinating. I will definitely be checking this book out. Thanks for telling me about it and for the interesting interview.

  2. I adored this book. Thanks for sharing the author interview.