Tucked away off a quiet suburban street in Ansonia is a long, narrow, tree-lined driveway with an improbably Harry-Potter-esque address, something like "17 1/2 Drab Road." (Citing security worries, federal authorities asked the actual address not be used.)
This innocuous little lane leads to a special federal "arthropod quarantine facility." It's not a place where casual visitors are welcome.
At the end of the drive, you come to a chain-link fence topped by barbed wire, a remotely controlled gate and blood-red signs warning that only "authorized personnel" are allowed within. If you do get past the fence, all you see are several modest one-story, gray-painted buildings. They are not identified in any way. No numbers, no name plates or emblems; nothing to reveal that they imprison thousands of the most economically dangerous environmental villains in North America.
Alien insect pests like the Asian longhorned beetle, the emerald ash borer and the gypsy moth are being bred and studied here by federal researchers. The idea is that, in order to conquer (or at least contain) your enemy, you first must understand how it breeds, lives and what might be the best way to kill it.
These creatures' relatives are already causing billions of dollars in damage in the U.S. every year. The prisoners housed in this U.S. Forest Service facility are considered so hazardous to America's forests that they are sealed off behind multiple, pressurized air locks, light traps, temperature controls and locked doors.
Only a very few researchers are allowed in. Visitors are rare. Anyone who does enter is required to sign in and don disposable coveralls and booties, which are first frozen and then washed or burned when you leave. If you bring a bag or briefcase in, it's hand searched on your way out.
Sinks and air ducts have filters. The multi-layered windows are air-tight. All waste goes through "autoclaves" where it's subjected to ultra-high heat and pressure. No trees are allowed to grow within a certain distance of the outer walls. The whole complex is constantly monitored by security personnel.
Every egg, larvae, pupae and adult insect is numbered and accounted for from the first day of its existence here to the last. Unauthorized possession of one of these little suckers is a violation of federal law.
"Anyone who loses track of an insect stays until they find it," says Melody Keena, a research entomologist with the Forest Service who's been working at the Quarantine Facility since it opened in 1992. Sometimes, she says, that can take "a long time."
In the 19 years since the Ansonia lab has been open, there is no record of any escapes and the facility has been rated by federal inspectors as one of the most secure quarantine facilities in the nation, Keena says proudly.
Keena is a short, stocky woman with an easy smile and eyes that light up when she talks about her bugs. She first became interested in insects as a kid who kept lizards as pets. "I had to give them live insects to eat," she explains, which meant she had to go out and capture the little critters herself, and that turned into a life-long fascination with arthropods of all kinds.
The kinds she deals with these days are foreigners. Some came on their own, sneaking in aboard ships, in wooden packing crates or on imported plants. (The problem of alien insect pests isn't a one-way situation. China is currently plagued with pine wood nematodes — an unintended present from North America — that are ravaging China's evergreen forests.)
Others, like the gypsy moth, were actually brought to this continent by misguided (some might call them blundering idiots) Americans for one reason or another.
In 1869, an enthusiastic amateur looking to breed a better silkworm brought gypsy moths from France to Medford, Mass. Unfortunately, gypsy moths have nothing to do with silkworms. Even more unfortunately, some escaped and began eating their way across New England's forests.
The Asian longhorned beetle (aka "starry sky beetle") is a far more recent arrival, having first been discovered in the U.S. in 1996. In its native China, Keena says, this dude was never much of a problem because native trees developed a resistance to it and there were natural predators. The current theory is that it arrived on this continent burrowed into wooden packing material.
Here, it feasts on maple trees and other hardwoods like they were candy. Some of the first people to notice its existence thought some jerk was drilling neat round holes in their trees. What experts call the "Mother Tree" is in Worcester, Mass., where experts believe the first infestation began. That particular tree is riddled with more than 400 beetle exit holes from tunneling larvae.
So far, federal officials say, more than 20,000 infested trees and another 10,250 "high-risk trees" have been destroyed in Worcester alone. Keena says there is now a 98-square-mile quarantine area around that region in an effort to keep the bugs from spreading.
If it does get beyond that line, there's nothing to keep this spotty bastard from boring its way right through our famous maple trees, ruining the maple syrup industry, foliage tourism and invading Canada.
Federal officials grimly announced earlier this month that Asian longhorned beetles have now been detected in Bethel, Ohio, about 30 miles southeast ofCincinnati.
Trees infested by this speckled assassin die "a long, slow death" that can take several years, says Keena.