Officials at the Port of Philadelphia have stepped up inspections for invasive insects that hitchhike to the United States in international cargo. Responding to an increased number of reports of wood-boring insects arriving in ports nationwide recently, Customs and Border Protection officials are now searching every shipping container that arrives at the Port of Philadelphia from China.
Searching for a needle in a haystack
Looking for a wood-eating beetle in a shipping container is a bit like a high-stakes search for a needle in a haystack.
“They range in sizes, so you can find some really tiny ones and some really huge ones,” said Nurian Badillo, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection agriculture specialist. On a recent morning, Badillo crouched next to some two-by-fours, using a flashlight to scan methodically for evidence of wood-boring beetles.
“We’re just sort of looking at all the wood, the crevices, anything that would lead us to thinking that something has been burrowing in the wood and hanging around there,” Badillo said.
She and three other officers were in a warehouse at the Gloucester Marine Terminal near Camden. They combed over wood packing material that was just unloaded from a shipping container of powdered magnesium from China.
Badillo’s colleague, Gabor Magyar, took a hammer and chisel to a damaged piece of wood. He spotted some signs of bugs and checked to see if it was evidence of a live infestation, or just previous damage.
“You have to be very careful,” Magyar said. “If there were insects in there you can easily mash them with a chisel, and the thing is they have to be found alive in order to take any kind of action.”
‘They don’t buy tickets’
The most well-known species the team is looking for is the Asian Longhorn Beetle. It has led to the destruction of tens of thousands of hardwood trees in five states since it was discovered in Brooklyn in 1996.
“It is a big problem,” said Elisandra Sánchez, with the Asian Longhorn Beetle Eradication Program in Rahway, N.J.
“I can tell you in New Jersey, we have 729 infested trees that we removed, and as a preventative measure, we removed more than 21,000 high-risk trees,” Sanchez said.
Sánchez said the last infestation in New Jersey was back in 2006, but a new infestation was found in Ohio just a few weeks ago.
“These longhorn beetles don’t fly here, they don’t buy tickets. They burrow here, they hitchhike, and we’re here to stop it,” said Customs and Border Protection Chief Agricultural Specialist Hal Fingerman. For the past few months, Fingerman’s team has been closely examining every shipping crate coming from China, instead of just doing spot-checks as it did previously.
This month they identified a species new to the U.S., the Mulberry borer.
At the Gloucester terminal warehouse, two 2,000 pound bags of magnesium are being hoisted up to shoulder-height so officials can check the underside of a wooden pallet. Fingerman pointed to a black beetle less than an inch long. It was alive, which meant the whole shipment is out of compliance with regulations.
“What we’re going to do now is close everything up, and re-export it,” Fingerman said.
The entire 10-container, 200-ton shipment will either be sent straight back to China, or the cargo will sit in quarantine for weeks after the wooden pallets have been shipped back.
In the past two months, half of the shipments searched in the Port of Philadelphia, around 50 shipping containers, have been rejected.
Pennsylvania, bordered by infestation states of New Jersey and Ohio, is considered at high risk for an infestation of its own. According to officials, the best way for individuals to prevent the spread of invasive insects is to avoid transporting firewood from place to place. During summer campfire season, they advise to burn where you buy.