Killer pest may have hitched a ride in Royal Academy’s Wei­wei sculp­ture

The Daily Telegraph - - News - By Sarah Knap­ton SCI­ENCE ED­I­TOR

THE Royal Academy may have ac­ci­den­tally im­ported deadly Asian longhorned bee­tles into Bri­tain in­side an Ai Wei­wei sculp­ture, the Gov­ern­ment’s chief plant health of­fi­cer has dis­closed, as she warned of the dan­gers of bring­ing wooden items from abroad.

Prof Nicola Spence said she had been vis­it­ing Tree, which was in­stalled in the An­nen­berg Court­yard of the academy in Lon­don in 2015, when she no­ticed the tell­tale signs that bee­tles had bored their way out of the wooden struc­ture.

Asian longhorn bee­tles can kill broad-leaved trees such as oak by bur­row­ing into their heart­wood, and De­fra has been bat­tling for sev­eral years to prevent the in­sects from be­com­ing es­tab­lished in Bri­tain.

The sculp­ture was made from dead trees brought down from the moun­tains of south­ern China and sold in the mar­kets of Jingdezhen, Jiangxi prov­ince, where the bee­tles are rife.

The Royal Academy was forced to close and fu­mi­gate the art­work, and has since in­tro­duced strict reg­u­la­tions to prevent sim­i­lar in­fes­ta­tions.

Speak­ing at the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety’s an­nual John Ma­cleod Lec­ture in West­min­ster, Prof Spence said many peo­ple did not re­alise that wooden items, such as fur­ni­ture, sculp­tures and pic­ture frames may be in­fested with pests. “Asian longhorned bee­tles are a real and se­ri­ous threat to us,” she said.

‘Some­times our in­spec­tors get in­volved be­cause some­body will re­port an un­usual pest that’s popped out of their chair’

“The art world is not im­mune from this. I went to the Ai Wei­wei ex­hi­bi­tion, took some pic­tures and I started hav­ing a closer look, and sure enough there were exit holes in this piece of art.

“So we got the Forestry Com­mis­sion to come and do a sur­vey and we had to li­aise with the Royal Academy, and the ex­hibit was fu­mi­gated in an en­closed space. It was des­tined to travel to other Eu­ro­pean cap­i­tals, so that was a les­son learnt for the Royal Academy.”

Prof Spence said peo­ple some­times even be­lieve their fur­ni­ture is haunted.

“Some­times our in­spec­tors get in­volved be­cause some­body will re­port an un­usual pest that’s popped out of their chair, and they sud­denly find it in their con­ser­va­tory,” she added.

“It’s of­ten very poor-qual­ity wood, cov­ered in some kind of fab­ric. Peo­ple buy them on ebay and think it’s a bar­gain and they get a plant pest com­ing out and the chair has to be de­stroyed.

“One fam­ily be­gan to re­alise there was a sort of scratch­ing noise com­ing from their head­board, and they couldn’t work out what was hap­pen­ing. They thought it was the neigh­bours, and even­tu­ally the pest con­trol peo­ple came and sure enough there was an Asian longhorned bee­tle bor­ing its way through their head­board.”

A spokesman for the Royal Academy said: “The work was in­spected by the Forestry Com­mis­sion, who found no sign of ac­tive in­fes­ta­tion of Asian longhorn bee­tles. They rec­om­mended that if the works were go­ing to stay in the UK, they should be fu­mi­gated as a pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure.”

Prof Spence also warned that mil­len­ni­als were pro­mot­ing trendy new foods which of­ten con­tained viruses un­known to sci­ence. The ul­luco po­tato, a hip­ster favourite be­cause of its bright pink, green and yel­low ap­pear­ance, was found to con­tain sev­eral viruses which could have oblit­er­ated po­tato crops.

Prof Spence said De­fra was con­sid­er­ing an im­port ban on all or­ganic ma­te­rial, as in Aus­tralia. Sue Biggs, di­rec­tor gen­eral of the Royal Hor­ti­cul­tural So­ci­ety, said: “It re­ally doesn’t need me to tell you about the ter­ri­fy­ing prospect of what is await­ing us on our doorstep, it’s over 1,000 pests and dis­eases now. For many peo­ple, wan­der­ing the olive groves of Italy and laven­der fields of France are as much a part of the hol­i­day ex­pe­ri­ence as the cities and beaches.

“But we’re ask­ing peo­ple to leave th­ese beau­ti­ful plants where they are for fu­ture vis­i­tors to en­joy and not to bring them back home with them.”

Ai Wei­wei, the artist, with one of his trade­mark works. Left, an Asian longhorned bee­tle

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