A destructive beetle responsible for killing thousands of acres of pine trees in the United States has been discovered for the first time on Long Island, state officials said Wednesday.
Officials found the southern pine beetle -- native to the southern United States, as its name implies -- in the Wertheim National Wildlife Refuge in Shirley, Connetquot River State Park in Oakdale and the Henry's Hollow Pine Barrens State Forest in Hampton Bays.
The discovery marks the first sighting of the beetle in New York State, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
George Gorman, deputy regional director of state parks, said a staffer saw evidence of the rice-sized beetle on a tree at Connetquot River State Park and alerted the Cornell Cooperative Extension, which confirmed the identity of the insect Friday.
The extent of the infestation is still not known, officials said.
The pine barrens are mostly comprised of pitch pine, which southern pine beetles frequently infest.
Previously, the beetle hadn't reached New York. In New Jersey it has destroyed an estimated 1,000 acres of pine trees per year since 2001, according to the state DEC.
John Pavacic, executive director of the Central Pine Barrens Commission, said officials had been casting a wary eye at outbreaks in New Jersey.
"There's always been a concern about the fact could the southern pine beetle ultimately find its way here," Pavacic said.
But just how the beetle made its way to Long Island is still a mystery, said Carissa Aoki, a PhD student at Dartmouth College who has been studying the beetle in New Jersey.
"We don't know a whole lot" about how the beetles spread, Aoki said. "It seems like the pine trees in New Jersey are just relatively close."
The beetle kills pine trees by entering them through the bark, cutting through the pathways that provide nutrients to the tree, and finally overwhelming the pines through their sheer numbers.
Stanching an outbreak calls for cutting down the infected trees, in addition to a ring of healthy trees around them, Aoki said.
State officials plan to conduct aerial surveillance of pine stands on Long Island to determine the extent of the infestation, followed by ground examination of suspicious areas.
Infested trees show "shotgun patterned holes" and resin clumps that look like popcorn on their bark, while trees that have succumbed to an infestation will also display reddish-brown needles, according to the state.
"It's a concern," Pavacic said. "We'll be working closely with DEC and other involved agencies to address this as quickly and effectively as possible."
With John Valenti