Steve Pardo, Detroit News staff writer
One of the world's most destructive pests — with the potential to wreak havoc on the state's agricultural industry — has been found by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at both the Detroit and Port Huron crossings.
The Khapra beetle is only as big as a nickel is thick, but en masse it could destroy some of Michigan's most important grain crops. It can feed on about any dried plant or animal matter but prefers grains such as wheat, barley, corn and rice.
Two of the beetles were found in a shipment of chickpeas from India this spring at the Fort Street Cargo Facility.
"The Khapra beetle, if not interdicted, could wipe out soybean, wheat and corn crops," said Kenneth Hammond, chief of cargo operations of the Fort Street center.
One invasive insect, the emerald ash borer, proved particularly devastating to American ash trees.
Ash borers have killed or damaged about 35 million ash trees in the Lower Peninsula since their discovery in 2002 in southeast Michigan, according to the state's Department of Agriculture & Rural Development.
Just two weeks ago, two Khapra larvae and a live beetle were found in a suitcase when they were checked at the Blue Water Bridge.
"They typically are very tough insects," said Jim Zablotny, an insect identifier with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The pest, if it gets loose in the U.S., will be a major problem."
Agriculturists and border agents are being extra vigilant over the holiday period. The discovery is considered by the USDA as one of the top interceptions this year, said Ronald Smith, public affairs liaison of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The beetle originated in India and prefers warm, dry conditions. The American Southwest would be at greatest risk, but the beetle is resilient in unfavorable conditions, Zablotny said.
"When things get too cold or too dry, they'll literally just hang out until things get better," he said. "They're small, difficult to detect, and their population can explode in a very short length of time."
First time at Port Huron
The discovery at the bridge was particularly unnerving. The beetles were found in a souvenir feather fan. It was the first time a beetle had been discovered in a handicraft, and the first time a beetle was found at the Port Huron crossing.
In 1953, the finding of Khapra beetles in California led to a massive control and eradication effort that went on for 13 years and cost $15 million. Before the beetles were eliminated, they spread to warehouses, storage bins and mills in Arizona.
In the light of devastation wreaked by the emerald ash borer and other invasive species, agriculture border agents are seen as one of the last lines of defense against the next invasive catastrophe.
"The officers here in Detroit employ several methods to keep it and other pests from entering the country," Hammond said. "From simply fumigating containers to quarantining shipments until treatment, the methods are many."
Each day, an average of 5,500 trucks pass through the Fort Street facility, making it one of the busiest inspection ports in the country. And everything has to be checked.
Agents use a sort of triage system; otherwise, trucks would remain lined up for miles on the Ambassador Bridge. Special attention is paid to new companies, new drivers and cargo coming in from certain countries, such as China and India. Agents inspect shipping containers and take samples of the items.
Searches often involve sweeping through trucks and sifting the dust collected. Often, microscopes are used. Shipments can be confiscated, destroyed or sent back to the country of origin.
More insect trouble
Agents aren't looking for just Khapra beetles. In the past few months at the Fort Street facility, agents have found noxious weeds, invasive plants, potentially destructive snails, wood boring insects and an exotic termite.
"These guys have found other insects that would do the same thing to our pine trees or oak trees," Smith said.
Foreign insects can be trouble because the U.S. environment more than likely lacks the natural predators more common in their county of origin.
Also, native U.S. plants may lack resistance to the invaders. That lack of resistance made the emerald ash borer particularly devastating to ash trees in the U.S.
Figuring out what the next invasive pest will be is tricky. The Khapra beetle is No. 1 on the inspectors' list, but entomologists also are paying attention to the Asian longhorned beetle, which was discovered in southern Ohio this year.
That beetle is destructive to hardwood trees, especially maples. Prevention is important and much cheaper than eradication, said Robin Rosenbaum of the Michigan Department of Agriculture.
That's why it's especially important this year for people not to transport firewood, especially from Ohio, Rosenbaum added, noting that the Asian longhorn burrows deep into wood, making detection difficult.
"We can't stress this enough," Rosenbaum said. "Leave the firewood at home or burn it. Asian longhorn beetles are at our border — much closer than we want."
Howard Russell, an entomologist at Michigan State University, warned of two other pests discovered in Michigan this year — the spotted wing drosophila and the brown marmorated stink bug.
The spotted wing drosophila is a fruit fly with Asian origins with a penchant for soft-flesh fruits such as raspberries and cherries.
The brown marmorated stink bug, originally from China, attacks fruit trees, including apple trees, as well as field crops such as corn and soybeans.
"That bug will have pretty devastating effects," Russell said. "And it's a home invader in the fall — like box elders."
Photo caption: The resilient and destructive Khapra beetle was found at the Fort Street Cargo Facility. (David Coates / The Detroit News)