Long-horn beetles swarm Fairbanks

Posted: Sunday, July 06, 2008

FAIRBANKS - With their long antennae, stout mandibles and dark, black bodies, they resemble Darth Vader, and this summer they seem to be invading Alaska's second-largest city.

They are whitespotted sawyers wood-boring, long-horn beetles that are getting under the skin of some Fairbanksans.

"I've had 16 calls in six days," Diane Claassen, pest management technician at the Alaska Cooperative Extension Service said earlier this week. "In a normal year, I might get four or five calls about long-horn beetles."

One man called because he was painting his house and the beetles were raising havoc by landing on the fresh paint. Another man called because they were swarming around his firewood pile, and he was concerned about starting a breeding ground for the insects. Other callers want to know if the beetles will kill trees.

Most people, though, just want to know what the bugs are, how to get rid of them and what to do about bites, Claassen said.

"They do bite and they bite hard," Claassen said, speaking from experience. "Almost everyone who has called me says they've been bitten or they know somebody that has been bitten.

"I always tell people to keep them off you and keep them off kids," she said.

Some people call the beetles "pincher bugs," she said. They are also known as Japanese beetles, and one woman told Claassen she knew them as "whisker bugs" when she was a child.

Other than their nasty bite, though, the beetles are basically harmless, Claassen said. They don't kill trees because they target only dead or dying trees to deposit their eggs, she said. The beetles lay their eggs under the bark and the larvae bore their way into the sapwood to spend the winter before emerging as adult beetles the following summer.

Not only do the beetles appear to be more plentiful this summer, they also seem to have arrived early. They usually don't start appearing until early July, Claassen said.

The beetles have "little claws" on their feet, said Derek Sikes, curator of insects at the UA Museum of the North, which makes them difficult to shake sometimes. He compared the claws to the barbs on a fish hook.

"If you pull them quickly, it's like a fish hook getting stuck in your clothing," Sikes said. "They're very good at holding on."

The beetles are especially noticeable on warm days, Claassen said.

"They're more active when it's hot," she said. "That's when we get the most calls about them, after a hot weekend."

The beetles are attracted to humans because we stand upright, just like trees, and they don't have great eyesight, Claassen said.

"They zone in on vertical things," she said. "They think you're a tree. As you move, they'll follow you."

The beetles will inhabit white or black spruce trees and they love decks of cut, round spruce logs, Claassen said.

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