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Beetles: Number One Exotic Pest Intercepted at U.S. Ports

By Hank Becker
April 25, 1997

Beetles are now the number one insect interloper at U.S. ports. That shouldn’t be a surprise, since beetles are also the dominant animal life of our planet, with nearly 300,000 described species--about one-fourth of all animals.

Many beetles are beneficial and fill important roles in maintaining ecological balance. But certain beetles are bad news because they gnaw wooden shipping crates and infest stored products and produce.

When foreign shipments come into U.S. ports, they must be checked to intercept any potential insect pests that might have hitched a ride. If insects are found, they must be identified and appropriate action taken before the infested cargo can be unloaded.

Fortunately, a group of scientists with USDA’s Agricultural Research Service specializes in identifying beetles. In 1996, ARS experts at Beltsville, Md., and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., received 2,445 requests for emergency insect identifications. About 700 urgent requests required immediate identification of more than 1,500 beetle specimens.

Beetles and their larvae feed on everything: green plants, stored products, wood, animals, dung and even each other. Their uniquely adaptive body design has allowed them to exploit an array of ecological niches from the driest desert to mountain streams, agricultural fields and our homes.

Beetles cause millions of dollars in damage to structural timbers, stored products and crops each year. Many beetles of foreign origin, such as Japanese beetles, are now major U.S. pest species. Careful science-based studies of foreign specimens are essential to ensure that exotic beetle species don’t slip into the United States.

Scientific contact: Natalia J. Vandenberg, ARS Systematic Entomology Laboratory, National Museum of Natural History, Wash., DC, phone (202) 382-1792, fax 786-9422,