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Volunteers who spy on beetle bandits help defend ash trees

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Minnesotans are keeping their eyes peeled for bandits who can help in the fight to protect the state's one billion ash trees.

The smoky winged beetle bandit is an ally in the fight against the emerald ash borer. This thief is actually a wasp that does not sting people, but does pluck wood-boring beetles out of nearby trees and hauls them to underground nests to feed to its young.

The state agriculture department and University of Minnesota Extension have trained more than 100 volunteers to be "wasp watchers," who monitor the wasps and their nests and give researchers an early alert to any emerald ash borers that are found.

KSTP reports the wasps only fly about half a mile, so any emerald ash borers they catch have come from nearby trees.

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The wasp watchers are advised that baseball or softball fields are a favorite nesting spot for the wasps, KARE 11 reports, and the volunteers are equipped with nets, vials for collecting bugs, and packaging for mailing them to researchers.

U of M Extension's Jennifer Schultz, who coordinates the wasp watchers program, tells the station that detecting emerald ash borers as early as possible makes it easier to control the pests.

A website with more on the beetle bandit (whose scientific name is Cerceris fumipennis) says the native wasp can sniff out alien beetles from nearby woods in much the same way that drug-sniffing dogs detect narcotics at an airport.

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Emerald ash borers

Eight Minnesota counties are known to be infested with emerald ash borers, the Department of Agriculture says. Four are in the Twin Cities area (Hennepin, Ramsey, Anoka, and Dakota), while the others are in the southeastern part of the state (Olmsted, Fillmore, Winona, and Houston).

The pest often spreads to new areas in firewood, which is why Minnesota's infested counties are under a quarantine that bans moving firewood from those counties.

The emerald ash borer was first detected in Minnesota in 2009 and the damage here has been much less severe than in some other states. The Star Tribune reports that in Michigan and Ohio the pest destroyed 99 percent of the ash trees within six years.

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