Insects 'Wreak Havoc' on Forest Products Industry

October 23, 2007
| By Pete Daly |
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WALKER — Bernie Kamps is well aware of the battle with the emerald ash borer. Starting in August and continuing through October, the U.S. Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has been releasing thousands of tiny Chinese wasps in Michigan that will feed on the emerald ash borer (EAB).

“I have high hopes for that little wasp,” said Kamps, founder and owner of Kamps Pallets, a $60 million company doing business in three states with 500 employees.

The EAB “is wreaking havoc in our industry. A lot of time, energy and money are being expended” to deal with it, he said, including investments in heat-treatment equipment to comply with expanding regulations from the state and federal governments, and even the United Nations.

Kamps Pallets manufactures and renovates wooden pallets, a combined total of about 6 million a year, making it one of the largest-volume pallet companies in Michigan.

Industry around the world uses wooden pallets for shipping an endless variety of products and materials, sometimes only a few miles, sometimes an ocean away. Most pallets are made of wood because wood is cheaper than plastic or metal. Pallets are made from the lowest grades of lumber, wood which is not acceptable for construction, furniture, flooring and other high-end uses. Kamps said pallets made in Michigan come from a wide variety of tree species, especially hardwoods — like ash.

“There was always a certain amount of ash in there,” said Kamps. “Now people are trying not to use it. For a lot of our customers, we have to make sure we don’t send them ash. Or we have to make sure it’s heat-treated.

“I see the day when anything wood that is going to be moved globally will have to be heat-treated. We’re almost there now.”

The emerald ash borer is a tiny Asian beetle discovered in Southeast Michigan in 2002. EAB “probably arrived in the United States on solid wood packing material carried in cargo ships or airplanes originating in its native Asia,” according to, a Web site created jointly by the USDA Forest Service, Michigan Department of Agriculture, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), plus Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State universities.

EAB larvae feed on the inner bark of ash trees; in large concentrations, they eventually kill the tree. Since its discovery, EAB has killed more than 20 million ash trees in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. Most of the devastation is in Southeast Michigan, according to the Web site. State regulatory agencies and the USDA are now enforcing quarantines in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania to prevent movement of potentially infested ash trees or ash logs, lumber and firewood.

Leah Bauer, a USDA research entomologist at Michigan State, is involved with the release of the parasitic wasps. She said APHIS has predicted the EAB will cause the loss of up to 30 million to 90 million ash trees throughout urban America, equivalent to 2 percent of the total leaf area and valued at $20 billion to $60 billion. The Forest Service has estimated the cost of tree removal and replacement by local governments and homeowners over the next 25 years at $7 billion.

Michigan’s landscape nursery industry was particularly hard hit. Ash is an ideal shade tree, and many that were in stock had to be destroyed. The state of Michigan has declared that “the sale and/or movement of ash nursery stock is prohibited from moving into, within or out of the entire state of Michigan.”

“All the nurseries are having a terrible time with what to replace the ash with,” said Bauer.

Bauer said it will take time to evaluate the efficacy and establishment of the thousands of wasps being released near East Lansing and Holly, in the southeast part of Michigan. But don’t expect the wasps to totally eliminate the EAB — “We are never going to get rid of it,” said Bauer.

Rather, the goal is to reduce the density of the EAB population, which grew to unnatural proportions here due to lack of natural predators or diseases.

“The question is, can we get (EAB density) down to a level where the trees don’t die?” said Bauer, adding that “trees can tolerate a lot of damage. We just have to knock back the emerald ash borer density to a tolerance threshold.”

Right now, she said, “the big issue is getting enough of these (parasitic wasps) to see a quick knockdown of the ash borer” density.

The Chinese wasps that are being released — there are actually three different species — were not literally brought here en masse from China; two of the species were raised in Bauer’s lab, and the third was raised in an APHIS lab in Massachusetts. All three species, which are the EAB’s natural enemies back in China, are very tiny and pose no threat to humans whatsoever — they’re too small. Two of the species are each just less than a millimeter in length. Twenty-seven of them laid end-to-end would almost make an inch. The third species is a little bigger: It would take at least eight of them laid end-to-end to make almost an inch.

People who are desperate to save their beautiful, old ash trees have asked Bauer for some of the wasps, but she cannot help them. “There are not enough to spare,” she said, adding that government funds for raising them are limited.

Raising the wasps for the government “could be a business opportunity for somebody,” she said.

Bauer and other researchers are also studying potential microbial insecticides for suppression of EAB populations through research that began in 2002. In 2006, expanded field trials were initiated with scientists from the USDA and Cornell University. Research is also under way on a microbial insecticide targeting adult EAB via aerial application.

Invasive species that threaten forests are nothing new, and forest products industries are used to dealing with regulations such as ISPM 15. Universal Forest Products Inc. (which supplies lumber to pallet and shipping crate manufacturers, among many other markets) states on its Web site that its “heat-treatment services are fully compliant with ISPM 15 requirements and can make virtually any wood packaging material phytosanitary and ready for international shipment.”

ISPM stands for International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures, publication 15, which was adopted in 2002 by the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), established in 1952 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Around the world, 165 governments now adhere to the IPPC.

High-grade lumber is kiln dried, which kills any insects in it, but it takes up to 30 days. Low-grade lumber does not have to be kiln dried but if going out of state or out of the country — or if it is ash — the law says it must be treated, either with heat or chemicals. Gas-fired heat chambers do the job in a few hours and cost from $75,000 to $90,000 apiece. Kamps installed his first heat chamber three years ago, and now has four.

Kamps got his start in the pallet industry in 1973, right out of high school. He began by pulling broken wood pallets out of a landfill near Marne, repairing them and selling them back to the many companies that use them, which includes Meijer, Alticor/Amway and auto manufacturers. Then Kamps discovered he could bypass the landfill by buying damaged pallets directly from the companies that had been dumping them, then repairing and reselling them. Now he has semi trailers parked at many companies; when each is fully loaded with damaged or unneeded pallets, one of his drivers goes and gets it, leaving an empty trailer in its place.

“We have 500 trailers all throughout the Great Lakes, picking up pallets,” said Kamps.

The pallet industry is a major player in recycling, too. Much of the landscape mulch sold today is old wooden pallets that have been ground up. Kamps is a major mulch producer, as many Grand Rapids motorists know: Small mountains of various types of mulch, dyed different colors with environmentally safe, food-grade dye, can be seen on the Kamps property on the south side of I-96 at Walker.

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