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Pine beetle scourge spreads, aided by drought


© St. Petersburg Times, published March 27, 2000

BROOKSVILLE -- On Thursday afternoon, in the woods north of Brooksville, Hernando County Forester Anthony Petellat checked a pine beetle trap that looked like an entry in a high school science fair.

Turpentine and other chemical baits draw the beetles to the trap. A stack of black plastic funnels directs them down into a cylinder, made of PVC and half-filled with water.

Petellat poured the brown water from the container into a jar and swirled it around to get a better look at the hundreds of beetle carcasses that had settled to the bottom.

"This ain't pretty," he said.

Neither, generally, is the prognosis for the county's population of pine trees.

The infestation of Southern pine beetles, first documented in August, is spreading rapidly, Petellat said. This is partly because the ongoing drought has weakened trees and partly because landowners have been sluggish in responding to the threat of the pine beetle, which biologists consider the most destructive pine tree pest in the South.

If landowners do not cut down infected trees -- the only way to halt the beetles' advance to neighboring pines -- the outbreak could rival the one that killed thousands of trees in Alachua County in 1994 and 1995. The beetles are also on the verge of crossing into Pasco and Citrus counties.

So the sight that has become common in and around Brooksville -- the clear-cutting of 5-, 10- and even 40-acre patches of diseased trees -- might become a standard feature of the county's landscape.

"We have a lot of susceptible forest in this area," Petellat said. "The potential out there is for us to see losses 10 to 50 times worse than what we've already seen."

These are some of the signs that the pine beetle threat is becoming increasingly serious:

The countywide total of damaged acres has grown from 53 in August to 175 in December, to nearly 900 now, Petellat said. For the first several months, the infestation was mostly confined to Brooksville and the land immediately surrounding it. Pine beetles are now showing up in nearly every part of the county west of Interstate 75.

The three beetle traps that have been set around the county to show the insect's spread have all been catching large numbers of beetles.

Probably because trees' resistance has been undermined by the dry conditions, the beetles have been attacking all species of pines. Normally, only loblolly pine trees are vulnerable.

This is alarming because longleaf pines, which historically covered most of the county, are considered the most environmentally valuable species.

Trees infected by the beetles develop a popcorn-shaped pox on their trunks. Their needles turn a telltale shade of reddish brown, then fall off.

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