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Are pine beetles on the decline?

The pests have been scarce lately, but experts say that's expected in cold weather. Spring could bring new infestations.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


Pine trees aren't turning the red color that signifies death by Southern pine beetle with much rapidity these days.

The number of the tiny beetles showing up in traps around Hernando County is negligible, while the presence of their natural enemies has grown. On a recent flyover, state forestry officers located only one active infestation in the county, which has seen more than 16,000 acres overtaken by the invaders.

On the surface, it looks as if Hernando County has battled back the bug that has cost taxpayers more than $70,000 in removal expenses and that caused former state Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford to declare an agricultural emergency in October.

But officials are not ready to declare victory. The current situation just as easily could be "the boding of something bad," said Jim Meeker, forest entomologist for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Cool winter weather slows the rice-sized, brownish beetles, Meeker said. They disperse and hibernate in small groups of trees, often far from the swaths they already have killed.

Any pines they destroy during the winter can remain green for months, he added, making it almost impossible to detect whether the beetles have come and gone.

Spring could bring another beetle explosion or show the population is on the decline.

"We cannot at this point in time have any reasonable picture of what the Southern pine beetle is doing," Meeker said, adding that he hopes the trap results signify the beginning of the end of the county's beetle epidemic.

While waiting for telltale signs to reappear in the spring, he said, county officials and landowners have an opportunity to catch up with the backlog of tree removals the beetle caused.

"The only thing that's not slow is we've got a contractor out there handling all the trees," said Parks Director Pat Fagan, who heads up the county's tree removal program.

County commissioners have committed $107,500 to helping residents remove beetle-infected pines from home sites one acre in size or smaller. In the past year, the county has helped pay for cutting down more than 750 trees, spending about $71,000. It has contracts with several more homeowners.

Last week, commissioners renewed their agreement with Asplundh Tree Expert Co. of Ellenton for another six months of tree chopping. Purchasing Director Jim Gantt estimated the arrangement would cost the county another $50,000.

The commission also approved an increase in the price per tree that Asplundh manager Paul Robinson requested. In a letter, Robinson explained that his workers faced some problems gaining access to trees near mobile homes, and that they also had to climb several trees to cut them.

"This process consumes more time spent on site," Robinson wrote. "Also, travel time to and from the dump site has created a small burden on us."

Instead of charging $90 to remove a tree 13 to 18 inches in diameter, the company now will charge $105. Prices rose similarly for larger trees.

Even with these increases, the company is costing less than the bids made by other tree-removal services, Gantt said.

To offset the county's share, County Administrator Paul McIntosh has submitted an appropriation request for $132,500 to state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite and state Rep. David Russell, both Brooksville Republicans.

In his narrative, McIntosh describes a problem that threatens Hernando and surrounding counties for the foreseeable future without action -- and money -- to manage the situation.

"With continuing drought conditions and changing weather, the beetles are becoming increasingly harder to eradicate and therefore will continue to attack the pines in Hernando County," McIntosh wrote. "The destruction and loss of pine trees creates an immediate and imminent threat to property and lives, thereby creating a danger to the public health, welfare and safety of the community.

"Control of the Southern pine beetle in Hernando County is necessary to prevent the spread of the Southern pine beetle epidemic to surrounding counties," he concluded.

Southern pine beetles appeared in about 17 Florida counties last year, including Pasco, Citrus and Hillsborough. State officials have deemed the situation worst in Hernando, which became the site of Florida's first pine beetle emergency in October.

The beetle also has wreaked havoc in Alabama, where more than 1.5-million trees have been killed, in the mountains of east Tennessee, in western North Carolina and in southern Kentucky. For the first time in 25 years, southwestern Virginia is suffering from pine beetle infestations. The Piedmont of South Carolina and Georgia also have outbreaks of the bugs.

Brown-Waite and Russell have included Hernando's appropriation in their list of money requests to the full Legislature. Committees are to begin reviewing appropriation bills this week.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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