NORTH ANDOVER — When Matthew Mountzuris went to the China Blossom restaurant for dinner last fall and looked across Route 125, he could tell something was wrong.
He saw a bunch of dead trees, and they were all white ash. Other hardwood species, however, were still alive, he said. He also noticed woodpeckers picking at the bark in their hunt for larvae in the dead ash trees.
Mountzuris, 26, has a passion for science and a longtime interest in trees. An aspiring forester, he can identify a tree’s species from a distance.
Rather than just slough the whole thing off, Mountzuris called the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. The agency investigated and found out some of the trees were infested by the emerald ash borer.
This flying insect poses a serious threat to trees, according to Ken Gooch, director of the forest health program for the Department of Conservation and Recreation. Emerald ash borer larvae can kill a tree within three to five years, he told those who attended a meeting at the Stevens Memorial Library on Tuesday night.
The presence of woodpeckers hunting for those larvae is an indication that the beetle has found yet another victim, he said. The ash borer has killed tens of millions of trees in the United States, according to the SavATree website.
The invasive beetle has destroyed millions of ash trees since it appeared in the U.S. a decade ago. It had previously been found in Massachusetts in western Massacvhusetts.
North Andover selectmen voted last week to give the state permission to cut down white ash trees on town property so they can be checked for infestation. If the tests indicate that large numbers of white ash trees have been infested, the state will impose a quarantine, according to Peter Church, director of forest stewardship for the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
The quarantine would bar white ash wood from being moved out of Essex County, he said.
The emerald ash borer is a beetle that’s metallic green, with purple abdominal segments. It’s native to China, Mongolia, Korea and Japan and came to the United States from those countries in wooden packing materials, Gooch said.
He pointed out that trade between East Asia and the United States has increased dramatically during the last several years. The emerald ash borer made its first known appearance in the United States in 2002, he said, when it was discovered in the Detroit area.
It has since shown up in 23 states and Canada, he said. The beetle was found in Dalton, in the far western part of Massachusetts, in August 2012, Gooch said.
The adult beetle lays its eggs in ash trees, Gooch explained. When the eggs hatch, the larvae then feed on the inner bark – the cambrium – and eventually the tree dies.
Emerald ash borer attacks only ash trees, according to Gooch. Within the United States, it is spread by firewood being moved from place to place, he said. The insect itself generally flies no more than one or two miles, he said.
Both Gooch and Peter Breen, a local landscaping contractor, noted ash trees are not very prominent in this area. Gooch, a certified arborist, estimated ash trees make up about 7 percent of local forests.
Breen said the state should avoid overreacting to the emerald ash borer. Aside from the ash trees across from the China Blossom, the species is “not prevalent” in other parts of the town, he said.
He urged the state to concentrate its search for the insect to the area across from China Blossom.
Gooch said white ash trees can be protected from the emerald ash borer by applying a pesticide. The state is reluctant to use pesticides because of the effect they may have on the environment, he said.
The ash borer larvae leave a distinctive mark on a tree, an S-shaped, serpentine pattern, he said. Within the next few weeks, tests on white ash logs will be conducted at Harold Parker State Forest to see if they have been infested, he said.
Employees of the Department of Conservation and Recreation will peel the bark from the logs to see if they can find the larvae or the distinctive signs they leave, he said. The state will be seeking volunteers to help with this undertaking, he said.
In central Massachusetts, thousands of trees have been cut down in recent years to try to eradicate a different invasive menace, the Asian longhorned beetle.
It’s likely no trees will be cut down to stop the emerald ash borer, because officials are using a strategy of containment, not eradication.
Instead, officials have said they are aiming to slow the beetle’s spread while the USDA works to introduce insects that prey on the bug. A similar strategy worked to contain gypsy moths.
Facts about the emerald ash borer A beetle that attacks white ash trees. Once infested, the tree usually dies within three years. The adult female lays its eggs in crevices in the bark. When the eggs hatch, the larvae feed on the inner bark, eventually destroying the tissue through which nutrients flow. It most likely arrived in the U.S. from China, Korea and Japan through wooden packing materials made from white ash. It does not appear to infest other tree species , according to Ken Gooch, forest health program supervisor for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. It was first discovered in Massachusetts in August 2012 in the town of Dalton. It was first detected in the U.S. in 2002 in the Detroit area. The beetle has killed tens of millions of ash trees in southeastern Michigan alone, with tens of millions more lost in Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Quebec, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, according to www.emeraldashborer.info. Other pests that have attacked trees in Masschusetts: The Asian longhorned beetle, discovered in Worcester in 2008; and the gypsy moth, brought to Boston in the latter 19th century by Etienne Leopold Trouvelot, a French artist and scientist who envisioned starting a silkworm industry.