Invasive Beetle Is Bad News for Baseball Bats

Bad news for fans celebrating the opening day of Major League Baseball. It turns out that baseball bats made of white ash could soon disappear.

Professional baseball players depend on bats made out of either white ash, the standard for most of the game’s history, and maple, which was introduced in the late 1990s.

New York Yankees' Derek Jeter bats against the Miami Marlins during the first inning of an exhibition game at the Rod Carew Stadium in Panama City March 16, 2014. CARLOS JASSO / Reuters

One fan of ash: soon-to-retire New York Yankees star Derek Jeter. Unfortunately, like Jeter, the emerald ash borer also likes ash.

“There has been nothing proven that could, on a wide scale, stop the emerald ash borer from decimating all of the white ash in North America,” Ryan DeSantis, a forestry adviser working for the University of California, told NBC News. He compared its fate to that of the American chestnut, which was nearly wiped out by chestnut blight, a fungal disease.

After a few decades, DeSantis said, “You might find a few white ash trees in the woods, here and there, but, for the most part, they will be all gone.”

While ash trees in the insect’s native China, Mongolia and Russia have natural defenses against the beetle, their North American cousins are essentially an all-you-can eat buffet for the insect’s larvae, which chew through the tree’s bark once they hatch.

Right now, some estimates put the total cost of damage from these beetles to the U.S. economy at $100 billion per year, partly from the cost of removing damaged trees from urban areas, where they are popular.

Extreme cold can kill the emerald ash borer larvae. Unfortunately, it has to be very, very cold, thanks to the insulation provided by the bark and snow. DeSantis said that scientists have not seen them survive temperatures below minus 32.8 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 36 degrees Celsius).

Could global warming boost the insect's population and thus hasten the white ash's demise? Possibly, he said, but it’s impossible to tell just how the weather will change in certain regions over the next few decades and how the emerald ash borer might adjust.

Regardless, the prognosis for the country's 3.3 billion remaining white ash trees is not good, meaning tomorrow’s baseball stars might have to switch to maple (or possibly beech) when stepping up to the plate.