Be On The Lookout For Southern Pine Beetles

Mike Bolton | May 2, 2024

One of the first symptoms of a pine beetle infestation is a browning or yellowing crown on top of the tree. That is usually not observed until it is well established or when it can be seen from the air.

Whether you hunt, fish, bird watch, hike or just like to go camping, there is currently an issue facing all Georgia outdoor users. We are all under attack by an enemy few users even know about. You may scoff when told that the enemy is the size of a grain of rice, but it has the power to wreak havoc on your Georgia outdoor interests no matter what they are.

The current southern pine beetle (SPB) outbreak affecting Georgia forests is scary when you understand the details. Michael Torbett, forest health coordinator for the Georgia Forestry Commission, says in addition to the potential of damaging a major portion of the state’s economy, the outbreak can affect everyone who loves the outdoors.

“From late June to early August each year, the Georgia Forestry Commission and U.S. Forest Service flies and maps the state in a 10-square-mile gridded flight pattern,” he said. “In 2023, there were 320 spots on private and public-non federal land that had pine bark beetle infestations (273 were SPB) and almost 700 total spots, including federal land. Early indications are that it is worse this year.

“Why so many spots? We’re not really sure. It was warm and dry last year, but not as warm and dry as other years. As of right now, it’s about the same, maybe a little wetter. We don’t believe anything weather related is causing this. We know drought or too much rain can affect the numbers, but we haven’t seen those conditions in Georgia.”

Why This Should Concern Everyone

The average Georgian probably doesn’t understand the full scope of what the timber industry means to the state. Pine beetles affect you, your family, relatives and friends, whether you consider yourselves outdoor lovers or not.

Ask the average American what state they think of when they think of the logging industry and most will probably guess Oregon or Washington. Georgia beats them hands-down in almost every category. Georgia is first among all states in commercially available timberland. Georgia tops every other state in volume of timber harvested. Georgia leads all states in the export of 21 timber commodities with an estimated trade value of $3.9 billion.

Chances are someone you know is among the more than 140,000 state residents whose paycheck comes from the forest industry. A 2020 study by the Georgia Forestry Association showed that those people received $9 billion in wages and benefits, making the forestry industry the largest industry in Georgia in terms of wages and salaries. Overall, the timber industry has an annual $41 billion economic impact in the state.

How Does It Really Affect Me?

It is understandable that if you own or manage forest land that you should have concerns, but why should the average outdoors user, like hunters or fishermen, be aware? The forest industry in Georgia is a complicated jigsaw puzzle, and if one piece is missing, a lot can go wrong, Torbett explains.

“For hunters, a forest with a bunch of dead pines can change the landscape,” he said. “It can potentially change wildlife movement. Dead pines open the forest floor to sunlight. It creates an understory of brush and briars that make it difficult for hunters and hikers to see and navigate through the forest. Fallen trees and fallen tree limbs block everyone’s access to the forests. Falling limbs are also a hazard to everyone.

“Trees filter the water and put it back into the earth. Dead and eroding trees do not create clean water. Forests full of dead trees are a fire hazard. That’s not to mention what this does to the aesthetic beauty of the forest.”

In 2023, pine beetle infestations were documented in 47 Georgia counties. Those counties were Baldwin, Banks, Bartow, Bryan, Butts, Cobb, Columbia, Coweta, Decatur, DeKalb, Dodge, Emanuel, Fayette, Franklin, Fulton, Glascock, Greene, Habersham, Hancock, Houston, Jasper, Johnson, Jones, Lincoln, Macon, Marion, McDuffie, Meriwether, Monroe, Morgan, Newton, Oconee, Oglethorpe, Paulding, Peach, Pike, Putnam, Schley, Spalding, Sumter, Troop, Twiggs, Walton, Washington, Wilcox, Wilkes and Wilkinson.

Oddly enough, those who raise timber, and those who have hunting leases, may not even know they have a southern pine beetle infestation until it’s widely established. Of the major pine species in Georgia, loblolly and shortleaf pines are the most susceptible, followed by slash and longleaf pines.

Thanks to the aerial surveys, “We usually know there’s a problem before the landowner does,” Torbett says. “One of the first symptoms of a pine beetle infestation is a browning or yellowing crown on top of the tree. That is usually not observed until it is well established or when it can be seen from the air.

“Currently, we also have a few reports of Ips and black turpentine beetle infestations. The black turpentine is the only beetle that should be treated with pesticides. That’s because they only attack the lower 10 feet of a tree. A southern pine and Ips beetle however, can attack a pine at any height. That can be 60-plus feet up, and it is just not economically feasible to treat with pesticides.”

A Look At The Southern Pine Beetle

For their size, southern pine beetles are amazing little creatures. They become active in the spring about the time redbuds and dogwoods bloom. They attack weakened trees, and if those trees have enough sap, pitch tubes form at the insect’s entrance hole. Pitch tubes are usually white and about the size of a small piece of popcorn.

The beetles feed on tissue just under the bark. Females emit a pheromone that attracts males and more females to the tree. This pheromone, in conjunction with resin odors released by the attack points, attracts even more beetles to the tree.

The beetles invade the tree’s main stem and thousands may attack a single tree. They will attack the tree trunk at any height. Each will create a winding serpentine tunnel about a foot long between the bark and wood. The tunnels crisscross to form an intricate pattern. Eggs are deposited in niches along these tunnels. The larvae, usually feeding in the inner bark, can be seen when the bark surface is whittled away with a hatchet. After a few weeks, the larvae change to pupae, and new adults emerge in a few more weeks. They can produce six to seven generations per year. During certain periods, these insects may become so numerous that they are able to kill entire stands of trees up to several hundred acres or more.

What Are The Economic Consequences?

Jack Byrne has seen the economic consequences of the southern pine beetles outbreak firsthand. He is the regional manager for Holland M. Ware Charitable Foundation. His consulting company, Byrne Forestry Consulting LLC, helps to oversee the management of around 200,000 acres of timber in Georgia. He has seen the long-term investments of landowners’ returns lost.

“It’s very devastating,” Byrne said. “Timber is a long-term investment. Landowners plant pines and count on an income in 30 to 40 years.

“Saw timber from healthy trees in west Georgia is currently bringing in the mid $20s per ton. When you have a pine beetle infestation, you have to do a clearcut harvest and that timber usually becomes pulpwood, which brings $7 to $10 per ton depending on the market. That’s a huge loss for something a landowner has waited 30 or 40 years for.”

To slow the spread of pine beetles, a buffer around the infestation must be established. That entails taking out healthy trees that may or may not be ready to harvest. And then there is the added cost of site preparation to plant new trees, which is more costly than the original planting.

To make matters worse, pines that may otherwise be salvageable as saw timber can be affected by a fungus that the southern pine beetle can bring. It stains the tree’s sap a dark blue color.

“The mills don’t like it,” Byrne said. “It is known as blue stain fungus, and some mills won’t even take it.”

Byrne says timber growers and timber managers are holding their breath to see what this summer brings. A wet summer will help, but a long, hot and dry summer could add to the devastation.

“When a pine beetle enters a tree, the tree tries to push it out with resin,” he said. “When a tree is stressed, it doesn’t have the resin to fight off the beetles.”

Proper forest management is the key to healthy timber, Byrne said.

“You have to thin a forest to grow healthy timber,” he said. “Prescribed burning promotes overall forest health. It makes trees stronger. It puts nutrients in the soil.”

What Can Be Done?

“First and foremost, landowners need to be on alert,” Torbett said. “The best management practice is prevention. Healthy trees are not desirable to beetles. Pine trees need water and sunlight to be healthy. It’s a good idea to harvest old-age trees. Younger trees need to be thinned.

“Prescribed burning is a good practice. It does not kill the beetles, but it reduces stress on the trees by reducing understory competition. It also puts nutrients in the soil that the trees need. You have to make sure that you don’t burn too hot, though. If you scorch the tree, it attracts pine bark beetles.”

Should you discover that pine beetles have infested pines on your property, you should contact the Georgia Forestry Commission at once, Torbett says.

“We’ll send a forester to your property and identify what kind of pine beetles you have and the best way to attack the problem,” he said. “One thing we can do is mark the outside of the boundary of the infestation and come back two days later to see how quickly the infestation is spreading. How fast the beetles are moving will determine how large of a buffer needs to be cut of healthy pines to stop the spread. The Georgia Forestry Commission does not harvest timber for private landowners, but we maintain a list of consulting foresters and master timber harvesters. We make it a priority to get landowners the resources they need.”

The southern pine beetle is attracted to older pines, overstocked pines and pines damaged by lightning or other natural causes. They don’t stop with the damaged trees, however, Torbett says.

“If trees get too infested, the beetles will move to nearby healthy trees and begin damaging them,” he said.

An enemy the size of a grain of rice. It is a formidable foe.

Georgia Timber And Pine Beetle Facts

• Georgia is first among all states in commercially available timberland.

• Georgia tops every other state in volume of timber harvested.

• Georgia leads all states in the export of 21 timber commodities with an estimated trade value of $3.9 billion.

• Southern pine beetles were first reported in the South in the 1700s.

• Southern pine beetles have killed more than $254 million worth of pine trees in Georgia since 1972.

• Southern pine beetles undergo a complete metamorphosis with four life stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult.

• Adult southern pine beetles are dark red/brown to black in color and are about the size of a grain of rice.

• Female beetles will select suitable host trees and release chemical pheromones to attract male mates. She will penetrate the bark and begin creating a gallery where she is joined by the male and mates.

• Pines are most susceptible when they are stressed by drought, flooding, storm damage or by stand conditions such as overcrowding, old age or root disease. Lightning struck trees are particularly vulnerable to attack.

• Once the southern pine beetles become overpopulated and has attacked the unhealthy trees, they move to the adjacent properties and attack healthy trees.

• There are three primary pine bark beetles in Georgia: The southern pine beetle, Ips beetle and the black turpentine beetle. The southern pine beetle is the most destructive.

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