Young students knock my socks off with their ability to grasp new concepts! I delved into the world of the emerald ash borer, a nasty invasive insect, with third, fourth and fifth graders of Piseco’s After School Program. When I asked how many students heard of the emerald ash borer, none raised their hand. By the end of the interactive program, they understood its life cycle, listed invasion clues, and knew how to stop its spread. Talk about a class of intelligent students!
The program kicked off with some nitty gritty definitions. I asked the students what they thought the differences were between native and invasive species. They knew that native organisms are ones that have been in the Adirondacks for a long period of time, and invasive organisms are ones that cause harm to the environment, economy, or society.
I explained that emerald ash borer is native to Asia, and probably traveled to the United States in wood packing crates. Students studied an invasion map and named the 17 states, including New York, in which the insect has been confirmed.
Students learned the life cycle stages of emerald ash borer. Adults munch on leaves, mate, and lay eggs on ash trees. Eggs hatch into larvae that burrow into the tree, pupate, and chew their way out through the bark. Winged adults can fly up to half a mile.
I asked students to raise their hand if they ever played baseball with a wooden bat, and many hands went up. Students discovered that emerald ash borers can infest and kill trees that are important to the baseball bat, lumber, and nursery industries, as well as neighborhood trees.
Drinking straws were passed out to show how emerald ash borers kill trees. Larvae chow down on tissues under the bark that transport water and nutrients throughout the tree. I asked students to plug their nose and breathe through their straw to represent a healthy, uninfested ash tree. They then put one kink in their straw, and breathing became more difficult. With 2 or 3 bends, breathing became nearly impossible. Emerald ash borer larvae cut off a tree’s circulatory system, starving it of nutrients and water, the same way kinks in a straw made it difficult for students to breathe.
In the gym, we got some exercise and played the emerald ash borer invasion game that showed the kids how invasive insects spread. Emerald ash borers hitch a ride to new locations in firewood, nursery stock, green lumber and other wood products. I asked for a volunteer and handed him an emerald ash borer card. The rest of the students formed a forest and were given cards with an ash tree on one side and an emerald ash borer on the other. I explained that trees cannot move to escape an invasive insect invasion. As the student with the emerald ash borer card flew around the gym and tagged ash trees, these trees became infested and died. Many students really got into the game and died dramatically, coughing and withering to the ground.
They then turned into emerald ash borer insects who tagged more trees. In no time flat, the entire forest was crawling with invasive insects. One lone student tree growing on the outskirts of the forest survived the invasion because the distance was too long for the emerald ash borers to fly. I gave another student a firewood card that was moved to the uninfested area by campers, and she tagged the last remaining tree who became an emerald ash borer.
Back in the classroom, I described some invasion clues that the class could be on the lookout for. Woodpecker damage, called blonding, is a great initial clue to an insect problem as insectivorous birds love to dine on emerald ash borers. Adult beetles chew small, D-shaped exit holes in tree bark. Students learned that trees produce new shoots from their trunk called epicormic sprouts when they are stressed from an invasion. Canopy dieback is another clue.
I asked students to put on their metaphorical detective caps and grab magnifying glasses to play a game called Native or Invasive? The kids were divided into two teams. Each team was given a set of invasion clue cards to read and decide if their ash trees were being invaded by the emerald ash borer or if it was a false alarm caused by a native look-alike insect.
Students asked me fantastic questions throughout the presentation. They inquired if the purple traps have anything to do with emerald ash borer. I explained that the traps are hung from ash trees and are used to inventory areas for invaders. The traps have a special scent that attracts emerald ash borers that fly into the sticky sides.
It is amazing to educate the leaders of tomorrow about good environmental stewardship, and I believe our environment is in good hands. Because these students already had a great understanding of invasive species, they soaked up the new material like sponges. The kids had a ball playing games, problem solving with team members, and learning.