A full-grown Southern pine beetle is still about half the length of a grain of rice, but state and federal forestry officials worry this tiny bug could have a monster impact this year on the state of Alabama’s $11 billion wood products industry.
“With Southern pine beetles, the Latin name (Dendroctonus frontalis) actually means tree killer, and it is,” said Edward Loewenstein, associate professor of silviculture at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences. “It is well-suited to take trees out.”
This year’s concerns are rooted in the large number of trees left stressed or already dying from last year’s record-setting drought. Drought-stressed trees don’t make sap as well as healthy ones, and that sticky sap is the tree’s primary defense against beetles.
“We’re in crisis right now because any organism that’s under stress is less able to deal with stress, and all of our pine beetles, bark beetles are stressors to trees,” Loewenstein said. “When you’ve got this extraordinary drought like we had this past year, that is a huge stressor put on not only individual trees but entire stands and entire landscapes.”
The results can be devastating to forest industries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates a widespread outbreak that begin in 1999 in east Tennessee caused more than $1 billion in timber losses. Foresters fear the dead or dying trees left by the drought could provide fuel for a similar large-scale infestation, and are already seeing evidence of increased beetle activity, even though outbreaks usually don’t flare up until the late spring or early summer.