Future Scientists Spotted at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Let’s start with a riddle. What do cell phones, children, and invasive tree-eating insects have in common?

Science, that’s what!

On June 10, Corazón Latino and our partners hosted an awesome civic science event at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington, D.C. This time, the hot topic was an invasive species known as the emerald ash borer. This little bugger is a green Asian beetle, first documented in the United States in 2001. Since its introduction to the United States, the emerald ash borer has wreaked havoc on our nation’s urban and rural forests, destroying tens of millions of ash trees nationwide.  

But how do they do it?” you ask. Female beetles lay their eggs in the nooks of ash tree bark. When the larvae hatch, they feed on the soft wood beneath the bark where the tree’s nutrient transport system is housed, creating little tunnels or “galleries.” Over time, the tree’s nutrient transport system becomes less able to move necessary nutrients between its roots, trunk, branches, and leaves, ultimately starving the tree to death.

But here’s the million dollar question - “Why should we care?”  Well, that’s what we sought to answer at our event at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

When everyone arrived (about 50 people in all), our friends at the U.S. Forest Service led everyone in a Bioblitz dance. As we all shook our proverbial tail feathers, we got rid of any stresses accrued during the work week and readied ourselves for some history and civic science. National Parks Rangers John and Sarah told us about the history of Kenilworth Gardens, and Forest Service Entomologist, or insect scientist, Tom Eager talked about how the treeline has historically changed since emerald ash borer infestation began.

Afterwards, Tom led us over to an ash tree nearby and pointed out the signs and symptoms of the emerald ash borer invasion. There were little branches sprouting near the base of the tree, referred to as “epicormic branching;” the larger branches were bare, there was bark splitting along the tree trunk, and there were galleries everywhere beneath the outer bark. Kids of all ages walked up with magnifying glasses to get a better peek at the tree and at the preserved emerald ash borer specimens Tom passed around. Amidst the observations, one girl declared, “I’m going to be a scientist when I grow up!” When she grows up to be a world-renowned scientist, don’t forget that we knew her before she was famous.

 Tunnels, called "galleries," created by emerald ash borer larvae can be seen beneath the bark of ash trees in the later stages of the infestation.

Tunnels, called "galleries," created by emerald ash borer larvae can be seen beneath the bark of ash trees in the later stages of the infestation.

We split into three groups (future scientists and all), and moved to the River Trail. Here we did some Project Learning Tree i-Tree activities and learned how to identify tree species based on leaf shape and orientation. You can even learn a lot about a tree based on twigs you find on the ground! Talk about an impressive party trick.

So how does this relate to the emerald ash borer? Well, after exploring methods of tree identification, we talked about the value of trees. Trees provide us with so many benefits, or ecosystem services, such as clean air, fresh water, not to mention all of the wood products we use in our daily  lives. When the emerald ash borer destroys millions of ash trees, we’re not just losing something nice to look at, we’re losing all the ecosystem services those trees provide.

Let’s bring this a little closer to home. Having trees in your front yard can save you money on your energy bill, which is pretty great right? If you want to calculate this dollar amount for the trees in your yard, it’s pretty easy. All you need is the iNaturalist app on your phone to identify the tree species, a measuring tape to measure the circumference of the tree’s trunk, and the MyTree webpage. This was how we measured the economic and environmental value of different trees at Kenilworth. Well, some kids were so excited about making accurate measurements with a measuring tape that they went on a data collecting spree. You know you’ve got scientists in the making when they get excited about data collection (trust me).

 A couple of scientists-in-the-making measuring the circumference of a Sugar Maple. 

A couple of scientists-in-the-making measuring the circumference of a Sugar Maple. 

After learning about all the things trees do for us, we decided it was our turn to do something for trees. We walked back to the entrance of Kenilworth Gardens with shovels in hand. It was time for a tree planting! We had purchased a small white oak tree, which is native to the area, from a local tree nursery and were excited to give it a new home. Our friends at the National Parks Service dug the hole for us, and we set the tree in its place. Several kids came forward and packed the dirt snugly around the tree with their hands, solidifying the message of environmental conservation.

 Kids helped plant a white oak tree in the name of conservation!

Kids helped plant a white oak tree in the name of conservation!

Of course, it wouldn’t have been a Corazón Latino event without dancing and food! As Kenilworth Gardens closed for the day, we moved locations to Kenilworth Park down the street for some Zumba, pupusas, dancing, and quality time with our friends and familia. Some of our Forest Service friends showed off their very impressive salsa skills while others enjoyed delicious food, hula hooping, and great conversation.