Features - Cover Story

Invasive pests are a huge threat to the economy — and keeping them out of the U.S. is no easy task. Here’s what you can do to help.

December 30, 2015




Invasive species are serious trouble, causing an estimated $120 billion in damage each year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Keeping alien insects, animals, plants, seeds and pathogens from entering through the country’s 300-plus ports is the job of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Every day, more than 2,300 specialists inspect shipping containers, bulk produce, wood packing material and passenger baggage delivered by airplanes, ships, trains, trucks and international mail.

Last year, CBP officers conducted 22,638,509 passenger inspections and 705,510 cargo inspections. They intercepted 155,247 pests — 66,857 of these were reportable or of high concern.

A CONSTANT BATTLE. CBP officers do an impossible job, said Bob Vander Meer, research leader at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Gainesville, Fla. “It’s amazing we don’t have more invasive pest species in the U.S. already,” he said. The “downward pressure” is incredible given the high level of international trade and travel, said University of Georgia Entomologist Dan Suiter. Nearly 25 million shipping containers arrive at U.S. maritime ports and land borders each year, reports CBP.

High on the agency’s most-wanted list are forest pests like the Asian gypsy moth, emerald ash borer and Asian long-horned beetle, as well as the spotted lantern fly and Khapra beetle, a grain pest. The Khapra beetle is “impervious to fumigation and pesticides” and can remain dormant for a long time, said CBP Public Affairs Officer Stephen Sapp. If it were to “gain some sort of a foothold here in the U.S., you’re talking about a massive economic impact,” as it essentially would shut down U.S. grain exports, he explained.

Officers of CBP’s Atlanta Field Office, which covers Georgia, the Carolinas and parts of Virginia, have intercepted Khapra beetles 106 times in the past three years, said Raina Dodson, agriculture operations manager. “Most of those were in passenger baggage,” but they’re also found in bulk cargo, she said.

From January 2012 to 2015, the Atlanta Field Office intercepted 30,633 pests and diseases, Dodson said. These included Africanized bees, subterranean and drywood termites, 95 cases involving ants of “highest concern,” and other animals, noxious weed seeds, plants and fungi/diseases, said Dodson.

THE SCIENCE OF INSPECTION. Knowing what to inspect is “a science in and of itself” and is based on “a risk assessment of what’s coming in,” said Dodson. The “data-driven” analysis considers CBP’s history of interceptions, shippers’ logbooks and manifests, time of year, pest biology and high-risk commodities, she explained. CBP tracks national holidays so it knows when to expect spikes in passengers trying to bring in food products. It also monitors outbreaks in other countries, which can “literally force overnight changes in what can come in (to the U.S.) and what cannot,” said Dodson.

CBP officers can’t inspect everything, but “they are smart about it; they know who the troublemakers are in the world,” said Suiter. The agency knows, for instance, where the Khapra beetle is most common, and who puts fraudulent stamps on wood pallets, which must be treated for wood borers, he explained. CBP canines help inspect handbags and backpacks of low-risk passengers at airports.

When pests of concern are found by CBP officers and confirmed by USDA entomologists as requiring action, cargo is isolated and quarantined, fumigated or shipped back. Ships found to have Asian gypsy moths or egg clusters are sent miles offshore to be cleaned and then are re-inspected.

CBP works with shipping companies and airlines to develop best practices and trains partners to ensure compliance. “At the end of the day, it has got to be a collaborative effort between all of us,” said Dodson. People ordering shipments should demand a clean supply chain; if shippers cleaned up containers many problems would be eliminated, she said. Her officers once vacuumed 34 pounds of seeds adhered to the outside of a shipping container. Khapra beetles are found in dirt on the floor of containers because shippers don’t bother to sweep them out in their home country, she said.

YOUR ROLE. Every port has a pest risk committee of state, federal, university and business stakeholders. Dodson encouraged pest management professionals to take part in these meetings. “We’re all better if we leverage our skills and our abilities and our resources,” she said.

Because PMPs are “on the front lines,” it’s “extremely important” to keep your eyes open to pests that act or look differently, said Vander Meer. PMPs “see things before we would even know about them. That’s part of the major way in which we make discoveries about new ant species,” he said.

The first reports of kudzu bugs came from three pest control companies in northeast Atlanta, Suiter said. “If you see something that’s out of the ordinary, let your state entomology department know about it,” he said.

Mike Rust, entomologist at the University of California-Riverside, suggested PMPs carry a vial of alcohol, forceps and a paintbrush to collect samples for identification. Do this the first time instinct tells you a pest is different, not the sixth. Proper identification will help you control a pest faster; it also could prevent an invasive species from taking hold.