New Brunswick

16-year-old faces down emerald ash borer threat

The plastic palm trees that decorate the Hartt Island RV park in Fredericton are safe from the predicted invasion of emerald ash borer beetles. The ash trees along the nearby St. John River are not.

Heading into Grade 12, Jacob Palmer has spent the summer trapping and tracking bugs

Sixteen-year-old Jacob Palmer has crisscrossed the Maritimes, trapping and tracking different insect species, including the emerald ash borer. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

The plastic palm trees that decorate the Hartt Island RV park in Fredericton are safe from the predicted invasion of emerald ash borer beetles.

But the towering ash trees growing along the nearby St. John River are not.  

And during the summer months, a bright green prism, coated in sticky glue, has been hanging high up in one of those trees, a defender in the coming war on the bug. 

Beetle traps like this are being used throughout Fredericton and in other areas across New Brunswick to signal the first arrivals of the invasive species. 

And they're being checked with the help of 16-year-old Jacob Palmer. 

Bugs are 'cool'

"I was that kind of kid that when there was a bug on the ground, an earthworm, a ladybug, a beetle, whatever, I would pick it up because I think it's cool," Palmer said from under an ash tree he helped check for invasive beetles.

"And I'd show people and they'd be, like, 'You're weird." 

An emerald ash borer trap is placed in the mid-canopy of an ash tree alongside the St. John River in the Hartt Island RV park in Fredericton. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

That inquisitiveness helped land the budding entomologist a summer position with the Canadian Forest Service as part of the federal student work experience program. 

"I like being outside," said Palmer, who is heading into Grade 12 this fall. "It's doing something with my hands. But even when I'm in the lab, I'm still doing stuff with my hands, like looking at the specimens under the microscope." 

I never thought bugs could harm stuff this badly. Now I'm like, 'This is actually happening.'- Jacob Palmer 

Palmer has spent much of his summer under the supervision and tutelage of Kate Van Rooyen, a forest invasive species technician with the Canadian Forest Service. 

"He's good," said Van Rooyen, who often launches the beetle traps high into trees using a slingshot. "He's 16. And they all have their foibles.

"But he works really well. And he's had some good little innovations that have helped streamline some of the things that we've been doing. We're all pleased." 

The field experience will give Palmer a leg up his first few years of post-secondary education, she said. 

"He's using microscopes and he's identifying insects, down to species."

Experience over grades

Although the position has given Palmer insight and a head start into a possible career, he said he is not at the top of his class.

"I wouldn't say I'm the best student, but I work hard for the marks that I get," he said. "But with this, I do feel myself getting smarter."

"Before I even got this job I thought, 'what does it matter, trees don't matter.' I never really thought they mattered as much as they do. I never thought bugs could harm stuff this badly. Now I'm like 'This is actually happening.'" 

Kate Van Rooyen, a forest invasive species technician with the Canadian Forest Service, has supervised budding entomologist Jacob Palmer this summer. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

Van Rooyen said Palmer is getting experience dealing with a topic that could be a big concern in the coming years. 

"It's not an issue yet, but it's an up and coming issue," she said. "It has been positively identified in the city of Edmundston. So the chances of it coming here are very real." 

The species has destroyed millions of ash trees across the continent and has the ability to be a "major economic and environmental threat to urban and forested areas of North America," the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said earlier this year as it surveyed the movement of the species. 

So far, the beetle has only been identified in Edmundston, and the good news is that no specimens were found in Palmer and Van Rooyen's traps. 

About the Author

Shane Fowler

Reporter

Shane Fowler has been a CBC journalist based in Fredericton since 2013.