ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The battlefields of Dick Bean’s war are sometimes muddy and require tall rubber boots to navigate. But neither the muck nor the considerable damage inflicted by the enemy over a theater of operations measuring 60 square miles gets him down.
We’ve lost some skirmishes, he said, but we’ll win the campaign.
The “we” are employees of the Maryland Department of Agriculture and the war involves a pesky pest known as the half-inch long emerald ash borer.
Bean is point man in the conflict and has been fighting the good fight for about seven years, changing tactics to ensure the insect doesn’t spread. For now, it’s confined to Prince George’s County and a very limited area of Charles County, and that’s where he wants the beetle to stay — and die.
“You’ve got to be optimistic about this stuff,” said Bean, a 56-year-old Galesville resident who has offices in Cheltenham and Annapolis. “A lot of people just throw up their hands. (But) if you don’t try, you’ll never know.”
To show the kind of damage the emerald ash borer (or EAB) can inflict, Bean took a small saw from the backpack that holds his agricultural combat gear and cut a small piece of bark from an ash tree in a marshy area. The tree, which didn’t look all that healthy to begin with, appeared much worse inside.
Just below the bark in a layer of wood called the cambium were a series of zigzag tracks — telltale signs that borer larvae have been feeding for a couple of years. This tree won’t make it. The cambium, which is the tree’s transport system for nutrients, is too far gone, Bean explained.
The thin man with the ready smile is more hopeful for other ash trees. Aside from their beauty, they’re too important to local ecosystems to lose, which is why he’s so determined to beat the borer.
“When he gets involved in something, it takes over,” said his wife of 25 years, Shelley Hicks, who runs the agriculture department’s greenhouse. “It’s important for him to do a job the best (he can). It’s a passion.”
The first strategy to fight the ash borer amounted to hand-to-hand combat. Workers cut down many trees in hopes of taking the insects with them. The tactic appeared promising at first, but didn’t work.
The new battle plan by Bean’s forces involves a multi-pronged attack, mainly involving bio-control, outreach and a quarantine that restricts movement of ash material from infested areas to spots not impacted, said Bean. The bio-control takes the form of tiny wasps deadly to the ash borer, but harmless to the trees. A
much smaller component of the fight is the use of specialized pesticides.
It’s still too soon to know if the combined effort will eradicate the beetle, but early signs are promising. “Even though we may not have won the war, we’ve slowed them down ,” said Carol Holko, Bean’s supervisor and an entomologist herself.
She referred to her colleague as the “Energizer Bunny” and praised his attitude and determination. “He’s a very positive person and a true believer,” Holko said. “He’s not one to back down from a challenge.”
Catching the bug
Bean was originally going to be a doctor and was on that course in college until he took entomology.
He’d always been fascinated by insects anyway, seeing more than his fair share growing up on the water in southern Maryland, and the class was all he needed to change his professional direction. (He also admits he wasn’t doing all that well in pre-med).
“It’s a very interesting subject,” said Bean. “If things are going to feed on me or bite me, I want to know more about them.”
After he got his degree, he worked on insects for more than 10 years for professors at the University of Maryland before coming to the agriculture department in 1987.
Bean battled plenty of other pests before turning his focus to the ash borer, which is originally from Asia. D-Day for him was Aug. 28, 2003 — when an inspector found the beetle in ash at a Prince George’s County nursery that was shipped from Michigan, where they were first spotted in this country.
“It was more like Pearl Harbor,” said Bean.
He admits he’s been kept awake at night worrying about the fight, and still finds himself examining ash trees for evidence of infestation in his free time.
“He’s certainly the glue that keeps us all going,” said Kim Rice, an entomologist who works for Bean. “Even on the worst days, he keeps us focused.”
Bean’s job entails a lot of paperwork and logistics, so he doesn’t get out to the field every day, but he tries very hard to take a hands-on approach. He supervises two full-time employees and 55 seasonal/contractual workers.
Among Bean’s current concerns is what he calls the “western front” of the battle, areas in Virginia that are infested. The concern is that adult EABs will fly over the border and into areas of this state previously clear of the pests.
“You don’t know,” he shrugged, “you can’t check their passport on the turnpike.”
His sense of humor is appreciated by those who work for him, as is his willingness to consider new ideas. Christine Thurber, an agricultural inspector, said she once left Bean information about using dogs to sniff out the pests as a joke, and he even took that seriously. “It’s fun to have someone open to trying everything,”
Bean said he’s still learning about the ash borer, so while the war is frustrating, the job is still engaging. “There’s no silver bullet right now. Who’s going to win? Who knows? Right now, it
looks like EAB 10, scientists 1.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)