Kansas City deliberately damages trees to track the emerald ash borer

07/25/2013 6:45 AM

07/25/2013 6:45 AM

Deliberately damaging trees in order to protect them might seem like a contradiction, but that’s exactly what Kansas City is doing.

The parks department this spring began cutting chunks of bark off the sides of about 700 ash trees so it can better track the movement of the emerald ash borer, a beetle that devastates ash trees.

That weakens the trees, all of them on public land and destined for removal anyway, making them more attractive to the opportunistic borer. This fall, the city plans to check those trees for larvae so it can track whether neighborhoods have been hit by the insect.

That won’t save the weakened trees, but it may help save others by helping the city know where to focus its efforts.

“If there are any beetles in the area, hopefully they’ll feed on those trees,” Kansas City forester Kevin Lapointe said Wednesday. “That will help us monitor how fast it’s spreading in the city.”

In Kansas City, ash trees are ubiquitous. The city has some 400,000, many of them lining streets and backyards west of Troost Avenue and along Ward Parkway, while the metropolitan area may have more than 4 million.

The emerald ash borer, first reported in Michigan in 2002, has now spread to 22 states, including Missouri and Kansas, according to Johnson County horticulture agent Dennis Patton. Just two weeks ago, Johnson County found its first adult beetle in a trap. The county is now under a quarantine, as are Wyandotte, Clay and Platte counties, meaning people are banned from bringing out of the county any firewood or anything else that might transport the borer.

So far, no borers have been reported south of the river in Kansas City. But now that the beetle has arrived in the area, there isn’t any stopping its spread.

At best, the city can slow it down so the loss of ash trees comes as more of a transition and less of a devastation, Lapointe said.

“It’s going to have a huge environmental and economic impact on Kansas City, even if you don’t have an ash tree in your backyard,” he said. “It’s spreading faster than anyone hoped it would.”

The city has “stressed” about 700 ash trees that already were weak by stripping away some of their bark. That’s to track the beetles’ progress, but there’s also some chance that such weakened trees might draw the beetles away from other, healthy trees, Lapointe said.

In Kansas, a much smaller number of trees have been stressed in order to keep tabs on the beetle’s infiltration.

Back in April, several Kansas agencies stressed seven trees in Leavenworth, Wyandotte and Johnson counties. A sticky substance smeared above the damaged area of the tree catches any bug that touches it.

Patton doesn’t think the bait trees will draw borers away from healthy trees in the area, but they should help track the beetles’ movements.

After seeing which trees are infected this summer, the agencies will decide whether they want to stress any more trees in Kansas.

For people with ash trees at their homes, there is time to decide whether you want to treat them with chemical injections when the borer finally gets to your neighborhood. There are different treatments available and prices vary, depending on the size of the tree, but they can cost from $100 to several hundred dollars a year.

Patton emphasized that people have time to think through what they would like to do with their trees.

“As of today, there’s no reason to panic,” he said. “This is a slow-moving insect. You have time to talk to your tree service. You’ve got time to make an informed, wise decision.”

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