MIDDLEBURY — Harris “Bud” Neal is leading a fight he can’t win.
On Sept. 11, he led a squad of pickup trucks and all-wheel-drive cars across town looking for a menace. Then, on Judd Hill Road, he found it.
Hundreds of holes peppered the side of an ash tree, resembling something like a shotgun blast. Neal squinted and reached toward the tree, scrapping with his thumb at a hole.
“Holy cow,” one man said.
The good news? It wasn’t D-shaped. The bad? Many other holes were.
“Yep, that’s EAB,” Neal said.
More specifically, emerald ash borer. The bug, an invasive species native to Asia, grows only to about a half-inch long, but can have devastating consequences for trees across the state.
And for Neal, trees are business and part of a larger social responsibility. Neal is an arborist, owner of Neal Tree Service, and he said it’s up to arborists on the front lines to look for and report what they find while out in the field.
“We have to put aside our competition mentality and work together on this,” Neal said. “We have a responsibility as arborists to educate people on this.”
So he organized a daylong seminar for arborists, scientists, and state and federal officials from across New England to teach and learn techniques for spotting the critter. Together, they may be able to slow the spread of the beetle, but he has no doubts — he’s fighting a losing battle.
“We’re not going to stop it, but we want to slow it down and record where it is,” Neal said. “We can treat selected trees and maybe stop them from succumbing to the insect. It’s hard to explain to the client what’s going on without getting in there.”
Estimates state that ash trees comprise between 4 to 15 percent of the state’s forests. The insect has destroyed millions of trees across 20 states since it was first discovered 10 years ago.
The state imposed a quarantine on New Haven County to stop the spread of the ash borer. The quarantine prevents ash or firewood from leaving the county without treatment, which sometimes includes removing the bark.
The insect was recently found in Watertown and Southington, but has also been located in Beacon Falls, Bethany, Cheshire, Hamden, Middlebury, Naugatuck, North Branford, Oxford, Prospect, Southbury and Waterbury.
In some cases, arborists can recommend a chemical to be injected into trees. This can kill the bugs as they burrow and eat into the bark. Finding what to look for is a bit Where’s Waldo and part Magic Eye. One tree may look simply overwhelmed with holes, but that could be from any number of native bugs or woodpeckers looking for a meal.
That diagnosis can save a tree, Pat Flynn, an arborist with Bartlett Tree Experts, said.
“If you can treat it for the insect, perhaps you can kill the insect,” Flynn said. “The treatment varies depending on what you find.”
Below the surface though, lies the true story.
Claire Rutledge, an entomologist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, used a drawing knife, a specially curved blade used to shave off bark, to show arborists what to look for. As she peeled back the layers of one fallen tree, a serpentine line pattern appeared against the grain.
If you find that, there’s a good chance you’ll find the pest too, she told them.
“The more people know what’s going on here and what they’re doing, the more we’re going to slow this spread down,” Rutledge said.