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USDA begins eradication of invasive beetle in Charleston County

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HOLLYWOOD — An invasive beetle has gotten out of hand and the federal government is going to do some tree-cutting in hopes of getting rid of it. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture began work this week targeting the Asian longhorned beetle, a destructive pest native to China and Korea that was found across a wide swath of trees in southern Charleston County earlier this year.

Once infested, trees do not recover and eventually die.

The department and Clemson University have identified about 3,300 infested trees in a 58-mile area that includes parts of Hollywood, Johns Island and the Charleston city limits.

The trees will be removed and chipped over several years. 

It's a big process for a tiny critter that doesn't belong anywhere near South Carolina.

"By taking down the tree, we're trying to destroy the eggs that could be laid on the exterior of the tree right now, as well as any living larva that is currently inside of the tree," Steven Long, S.C. state plant regulatory official, said Tuesday.

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This Asian longhorned beetle was found in Stono Ferry on June 15, 2020. The invasive bug burrows into hardwood trees, including maples. Dave Coyle/Provided

Since 1996, Asian longhorned beetles have been detected in only a few areas of the United States, including New Jersey, Illinois, New York and Massachusetts. It is believed the insects travel to new locations in shipping crates and wood packing materials. The Port of Charleston was a possible point of entry here.

Dr. R. Talbot Trotter III,  research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service in Connecticut, said the Asian longhorned beetle is a "funky bug." They burrow around inside the wood in a tree, and once they are large enough, the insects chew a tunnel out. 

"So, when the adults come out, they'll leave this — about a half-inch wide — perfectly round exit hole," Trotter said.

"It's kind of a weird-looking hole because it really, honestly does look like somebody took a drill and just drilled into the tree," he said.

Trotter said the risk for people is when the the trees begin to break and fall apart. The inside of an infested tree can resemble Swiss cheese.

"And it's just holes cut all through the wood everywhere and that really weakens the wood," Trotter said. "And so you can have big branches falling out. You can have trees coming down. Definitely, when you get wind, storms and stuff, you can expect to get a lot more damage."

Tree removals began Tuesday in the Stono Ferry neighborhood of Hollywood, about 20 miles south of Charleston.

The government action comes with some heartbreak for locals. Several maple trees in front of Mike Wiljamaa's home were to be removed. He planted them about 15 years ago and didn't realize the trees were infested until recently. 

"Seven, eight guys came in and went up and took out limbs and then brought them down, split the trees open and showed that the beetles were inside," Wiljamaa said.

"That's when I knew it was no argument," he said.

Wiljamaa said he told the feds he would pay anything to save the trees. But that wasn't an option.

"I dug the hole and planted these things 15 years ago," Wiljamaa said. "And I'm just really sentimentally attached. I'm an Ohio boy. I love my maples. So I've put a bunch of them in, and now they're taking them out."

The insects affect 15 different plant families, but primarily maples, elms and willow trees. 

The Department of Agriculture said $1.97 million in federal funding will be given to Clemson for the eradication efforts. 

Even the tree stumps will have to go.

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