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Beetle Infestation Killing Red Bay Trees

Jekyll Island Authority Landscape Superintendent Cliff Gowron kneels on the stump of a Red Bay tree next to the Horton House ruins on Jekyll Island, Ga. The tree, once considered to be one of the largest Red Bay trees in the country, had to be cut down in November due to an infestation of beetles that killed the tree. Photo by Michael Hall/The Brunswick News

Landscapers and scientists are battling the Red Ambrosia beetle, a pest that is destroying Red Bay trees in the southeastern United States.

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A 125-year-old tree at the corner of the historical Horton House on Georgia’s Jekyll Island was arguably the oldest Red Bay tree in the United States. It had to be eradicated last fall after becoming infected with Laurel Wilt disease, an infection caused by a fungus. The Red Ambrosia beetle, an invasive species from Asia, spreads the fungus from tree to tree and is wreaking havoc along the coasts of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida.

Cliff Gawron, landscape superintendent with the Jekyll Island Authority, worries that all the Red Bay trees on the island could disappear within the next couple of years.

“It’s so bad that they’re all nearly wiped out now,” he said. “I would say over 70 percent are dead already.”

Landscapers with the Jekyll Island Authority and foresters with the Georgia Forestry Commission have been battling the problem for over a year now. In December 2006, they cut down and burned more than 500 red bay trees at the state park to halt the beetle plague.

When that didn’t work, they engaged in chemical warfare with fungicides and insecticides, all to no avail.

“They’re just too aggressive,” said Gawron. “After the beetle inoculates a tree, it dies within a few days.”

But all hope is not lost, said Chip Bates, a forest health specialist with the Georgia Forestry Commission.

He has been on the forefront of beetle annihilation since the species was first discovered in Georgia.

Bates said there are promising remedies in the works.

“We haven’t found any silver bullet that will take care of the problem, but we have some new chemical methods showing great promise,” he said.

The resolution may not be in stopping the beetles. Instead, scientists are focusing their energies on the fungus.

“There’s some interesting stuff being done right now as we speak,” Bates said. “Instead of injecting pesticide into the trees to kill the beetles, scientists are injecting a new chemical that kills the fungus.”

Source: Brunswick (Ga.) News

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June 18, 2019, 8:35 am PDT

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