Dying pines? Look out – You Might Have Southern Pine Beetle

Image 4: Close-up of southern pine beetle; photo credit: Matt Bertone).
Image 4: Close-up of southern pine beetle; photo credit: Matt Bertone).

Many landowners in southeastern Georgia have seen their pine trees die this summer. Even if you were fortunate enough that the pines on your own property were spared, you may have noticed dying pines in clusters deep in the forest, or you may have spotted an individual dying tree in a yard or on the street. If you observed the needles on these trees going from green to yellow to dead in a matter of weeks, the culprit behind these sudden deaths may have been the southern pine beetle (SPB).

The SPB is a brownish to black beetle that is about the size of a grain of rice. The beetle is a major pest to pine trees in the Southeast. Both adult and larvae (or young) SPB chew their way through the tree’s phloem (the part of the tree that moves food from the leaves down to the roots) and “girdle” the tree, preventing movement of nutrients.

Adult beetles also carry a fungus that clogs the xylem and prevents movement of water. Many beetles attack a single pine at once, overwhelming the tree and leading to its death.

SPB infestations have been identified in 91 locations in Camden, Chatham, Charlton, Glynn, Liberty, and McIntosh counties in southeastern Georgia. During outbreaks, the SPB attacks healthy trees, affecting forests, neighborhoods, and recreational areas. The Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) has identified SPB as the worst insect pest to pine timber in Georgia. Since forestry contributes $23.6 billion and over 100,000 jobs to the state economy, this threat to trees and forests should be taken very seriously.

SPB attacks can be identified by small yellow to white sap flows embedded or following the crevices or furrows of the bark plates. The first pitch flows will normally be in the furrows of the bark approximately 15 feet up the stem of the pine tree (Image 5). These “pitch tubes” occur because the trees begin making more sap to trap the beetles (Image 6). Since SPB outbreaks move quickly, killing pine trees in only a few weeks, proper action must be undertaken immediately once signs of an infestation are observed.

In southeastern Georgia, loblolly pine is very susceptible to SPB attacks. But what makes a tree susceptible? Simple: stress. When you’re stressed – for example, from your job, or from a poor diet – you’re more likely to get sick. Trees are the same way. When trees get stressed they are more likely to get attacked by insects and diseases. Trees can be stressed by droughts, overcrowding, or just old age (yes, trees get old and sick too!). In any of these cases, trees are more likely to be attacked by insects such as the SPB.

Once SPB is present, the most effective way to stop an infestation is to harvest infested trees and cut a buffer strip ahead of the infestation to prevent further spread of the infestation. In nearly all cases, you can contact a Consultant Forester or a commercial timber buyer to draw up a timber contract to remove the infestation so that you will realize a financial return instead of a total loss from the infestation. In residential areas, tree removal may be the only option, and it is unlikely that you will find a commercial timber buyer to do this. In all likelihood, you’ll have to pay to have your tree removed. But, there are some pesticides available that can help protect a high-value tree, like one in your yard. Check with a forester or arborist for anything related to pesticides.

The Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) can help guide citizens in protecting their property during an SPB outbreak. “We work diligently to identify new infestations, and we are working one on one with landowners across Georgia to slow and control the spread of SPB,” said Chip Bates, the GFC Forest Health Coordinator. Please contact your local Georgia Forestry Commission Office if you suspect that SPB outbreaks are occurring in your area.

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