Sunday, November 6, 2011

Critters in Containers

Scientific name: Tremex columba and other species
(Hymenoptera: Siricidae)
Facts: Horntails are an unusal because their biology that is not typical of most Hymenoptera. The larvae feed in dead logs much like wood-boring beetle larvae. The adults resemble wasps but they have a wide waist and therefore a cylindrical body. Adults are often found ovipositing on logs. 

Photo credit: Bastiaan (Bart) Drees, Extension Entomology, Texas A&M University
A toad hitchhiked from China to Oregon in a container of granite in 2008. Three dozen wood wasps did the same thing recently in a container of machine parts.The first incident was followed by a nightmare of regulatory fumbling; the second was handled like a dream.

The Asian toad incident started when a sharp-eyed inspector in Portland opened a container and saw a “frog” hop out and then back in. The container was resealed. Federal and state agencies debated what to do and who should do it for nearly four weeks. The container was eventually fumigated, and when it was reopened, the “frog” (actually a toad) had croaked. Lots of people, including myself, were embarrassed at the clumsy official response. A multi-agency postmortem was held to figure out what went wrong. The incident report includes a three-page summary of a uncoordinated regulatory process involving a dozen different agencies and companies. A comedian could have turned it into a funny (but very embarrassing) comedy routine. Fortunately, the agencies involved took it seriously and learned from the experience.

The wood wasp incident of 2011 was handled much better. This time it was staff at the receiving warehouse that heard a rustling sound and noticed large insects in a container they had just opened. Recognizing there could be a problem, they closed the container door and notified the broker, who notified Customs.Customs called the USDepartment of Agriculture (USDA). It was Friday afternoon, of course, but USDA sent someone to the warehouse right away. The USDA inspectors found live wood wasps emerging from the wood packing material, resealed the container, and recommended a fumigation treatment. The Oregon Department of Agriculture identified the wasp as an exotic Tremex sp. (wood boring larvae, no native species in Oregon). Both agencies were there when the container was reopened to ensure that the fumigation had killed all the insects, including any larvae still hidden in the wood. The incident ended when the wood was incinerated, and the machine parts resumed their transport – this time without insect cargo.

The difference between the two incidents boils down to better communication and cooperation. No one took charge in the Asian toad incident. One agency after another passed the buck and said they didn’t have authority to do anything, or it wasn’t their problem. I was one of the people that fumbled.

When the 2011 wood wasp incident occurred, USDA took charge and called in ODA for support. Together we identified the problem, determined the level of risk, figured out what needed to be done, and saw it through. Nice job, team.Your quick action saved our trees from exposure to a new pest. Communication and cooperation were the keys to success.

The real heroes, though, were the staff that work for ESCO Corporation and their broker. A big THANK YOU to the folks that noticed a potential problem and reported it: Cedar Whitemen, Mike Plamondon, Shannon Parton, Tracy Ann Whalen, and Robert Boswell. This container had already cleared Customs, and they could have ignored the bugs and sent it on its way. Thankfully, they didn’t. For their good work, they are going to be nominated for an Oregon Invasive Species Council (OISC) award. I hope they win; they deserve recognition.

This is a perfect example of how everyone, not just government inspectors, needs to play a role in the battle against invasive species. Recognizing a potential problem and reporting it to authorities is often the first and most important step. Kudos to the ESCO crew for doing it right.

Individually, we don’t stand a chance at excluding invasive species, but working together, Oregon has a pretty good team! Thanks for being a player. And remember, we’ve made reporting easy with our toll-free invasive species hotline: 1-866-INVADER or Keep your eyes open—the next odd-ball invader could end up in your court!

Dan Hilburn

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