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State, county join battle against pine pest

As the Southern pine beetle infestation worsens due to the recent drought, authorities take measures to stop the devastation.

By JOSH ZIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 24, 2000


LECANTO -- In the ongoing battle against the Southern pine beetle, Citrus County is a fortress under siege.

The bugs, whose scientific name means "tree killer," have ravaged vast acres of loblolly pines in both Levy and Hernando counties. Drought and wildfire have weakened the trees' natural resistance.

Here, the voracious beetle has succeeded in infiltrating scattered areas along the borders, threating other heavily forested areas in the process, state forester Anthony Petellat said Friday. But their appearance has become threatening enough to spark a local response involving both the state Division of Forestry and the county government.

Standing off County Road 581, Petallat grabbed a cut-out section of bark from an infested strand of tree within the Withlacoochee State Forest. Up above, the generally lush canopy was dotted with the vivid red colors of dying loblollies.

A look at the bark revealed the beetle's take-no-enemies approach.

The outside was dotted with dried bits of yellowish, protruding sap called "pitch tubes." Looking like miniature popcorn, they are a telltale sign of infestation.

"The tree, as a defense, is trying to push it out with the sap," he said.

Tiny holes were made by the newly hatched bugs as they escaped in search of other victims.

A look at the inside revealed a labyrinth of channels carved out by the hungry beetles like ants in a dirt pile. Blue-green strands of fungus from the beetles remained behind to attack what the predators could not.

Pointing a knife tip at one of the brown-black bugs, he found a dead one. The insects are no bigger than a grain of sand. "It doesn't break my heart," Petellat said.

Petallat, the local pointman on the problem, said a single tree can house thousands of the insects. An invasion of Southern pine beetles can kill a tree in two days, according to the Division of Forestry.

So far, beetle infestations in Citrus are confined to small, isolated areas, Petallat said, including 10 spots totaling 20 acres. Another three acres are dying in Arrowhead.

He named other areas of concern. Homosassa is home to many loblolly pines and Inglis Island near the Levy County border is vulnerable because of the state Department of Environmental Protection's major prescribed burn last year.

By contrast, Hernando County is battling 122 known infestations covering hundreds of acres.

The statewide problem is reaching monumental proportions, Division of Forestry entomologist Jim Meeker said Friday. And observers still do not know the full extent of the infestation, largely because so much of the division's personnel is currently devoted to fighting wildfires.

But he estimated that at least 200,000 trees are being killed or have died.

"If it stopped today, it would almost exceed all prior annual levels of activity," Meeker said. "And there's very little signs of it abating in the near future and the year's only half over. My guess is that even with the concerted control effort by all people involved, we're still going to set records."

Petallat said it is still unclear why Hernando County has such a big problem. Levy County, on the other hand, sits on the bug's historic southern boundary line.

When trees are stressed -- as they are during drought and wildfire conditions -- they emit a chemical that alerts the beetles to vulnerable areas, Petallat said. Then, in attack formation, they converge on the pines.

Simply removing the trees is considered the best way to prevent the beetles from spreading, Petallat and Meeker said.

Hernando County recently established a $10,000 cost-sharing program to aid private landowners in paying the cost of cutting and removing their infested trees. Nearly half the fund already is used up.

Citrus is taking a much slower approach, although a Community Services staffer last week suggested setting up a similar fund as one potential counter-measure. Publicizing the problem and training people to identify infestations were listed as other possibilities.

The current shortage of loggers is forcing some landowners, including the state, to wait for help, Petallat said. Loggers are so busy these days they do not have time to deal with smaller problems.

The apparent onset of seasonal rains could halt the beetles' advance by improving the loblolly pines' resistance.

But the Southern pine beetle is no ordinary opponent. If the bug were an Olympic athlete, it would "win the gold medal," Petallat said.

The situation, at best, is uncertain, Meeker said.

"Now that the beetles are so numerous, it's going to be a long, hard fight that could go on into next year and could be worse," he said.

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