Forestry experts reeling at potential loss of red bay

Published 12:07 am Sunday, November 15, 2009

To say that forestry experts and scientists are devastated by the invasion of an Asian beetle that might be instrumental in changing forever the ecology of Southern forests is an understatement.

Now, forestry officials say they are about to begin a publicity blitz in South Mississippi about the dangers of transporting firewood that might contain the deadly beetle, after the beetle was discovered in portions of Jackson County in the extreme southeastern corner of Mississippi.

A Mississippi State scientist, Dr. John Riggins, has been awarded a grant by the National Forest Service in an effort to find out how the beetle got from Georgia to Jackson County and whether or not the beetle is continuing to spread in Mississippi.

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The red bay is not the only tree in line for attack. The beetle also likes to munch on sassafras trees. In addition, Florida farmers are worried that the beetle might attack avocado farms there.

State forester Randy Chapin of Brookhaven issued a clarion call recently for awareness of what might be ahead if the Asian ambrosia beetle continues its assault on Southern forests.

“We are very alarmed,” he said. “There is a possibility of the extinction of these two species.” He mentioned not only the red bay but also the sassafras tree, which is also under assault by the beetle.

According to nature writer Susan Cerulean, it all started near Savannah, Ga., in 2002 when residents and scientists began noticing that whole stands of red bay began wilting. Soon whole sections of the forest were brown and dying.

Scientists began looking into the problem and found the culprit: a little black beetle no bigger than half the size of a grain of rice. The beetle is thought to have come in from Southeast Asia, perhaps at the Savannah port, in wood crating.

It bores into the tree, lays eggs and injects the tree with a fungus, off of which it feeds. The fungus clogs the trees’ circulatory systems so that fresh water cannot flow through the tree.

Chapin says the beetle is deadly. “One beetle; one dead tree,” he said, pointing out it takes only one of the small bugs to kill a tree.

What has surprised and alarmed forestry officials in Mississippi, however, is that all of sudden the beetle shows up on the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Jackson County.

Says Chapin, “We knew about the outbreak in Georgia, but we had no idea that we would face this problem right away.” He said it was expected that it would take the beetle maybe 20 years to reach Mississippi, but it made it in seven.

Chapin said that the Mississippi Forestry Commission is preparing a publicity campaign to cover southern Mississippi counties urging residents not to move firewood out of their areas.

Scientists and investigators are not sure, but they think the beetle might have been brought to Mississippi in a load of firewood.

The U.S. Forestry Service has given MSU scientist Dr. John Riggins a grant to study the Mississippi infestation in Jackson County, and Chapin is hoping that will pin down how the beetle got here and where it is headed.

Researchers have already found evidence of the beetle in the sandhill crane refuge in Jackson County and portions of the Pascagoula River Basin.

Another alarming aspect of the invasion is that there is no known antidote to the beetle or its infestation, which scientists have already named the laurel wilt disease, because the first symptoms of the disease in the tree is wilting leaves and a discoloration of the leaves.

That lack of defense prompted Cerulean, the nature writer, to say that the beetle was feasting on an “undefended buffet,” as it munches its way across the Southeastern United States

Although scientists don’t like to mention it, the disease has the potential for an ecological disaster on the scale of that which struck the American chestnut and the Dutch elm.

Another Asian blight, called the chestnut blight, came into the United States at a New York port around 1900, and by the 1950s had wiped out the American chestnut and was called the greatest ecological disaster to ever hit the U.S.

Once there were an estimated 4 billion majestic American chestnut tress growing in the Eastern forests, feeding wildlife and people, but by the mid-1950s they all were gone.

Asked to compare the current outbreak with the American chestnut catastrophe, Chapin said, “Yes Sir! It has the same potential. It is that alarming.”

The red bay is not only used in cooking and woodworking, but it also produces fruit that is consumed by wildlife and is the nesting site for at least three different varieties of butterflies that lay their eggs on the leaves so the caterpillars will have food from the leaves when they hatch.

Sassafras roots were once used as the base for root beer, and the roots are still used to make sassafras tea in the Spring, an historic drink that once was a staple, even used as a medicinal drink. Old-timers said it “cleansed the blood” and drank it each Spring when the sap flowed. Crumbled sassafras leaves are the filet of filet gumbo.

Some scientists are saying that if the red bay goes, so might the swallow-tailed butterfly. Laura Reid, a South Carolina entomologist told Cerulean, “The first thing that came to mind when I heard about red bay mortality was butterflies. My God! I thought, what will the swallowtails lay their eggs on if the red bay is gone?”

red bays are host to three different species of butterflies: The palmedes, Schuaus and spicebush swallowtails, says Cerulean. The butterflies lay their eggs on the leaves and the caterpillars munch on the leaves for food when they hatch.

The red bay’s range begins in Virginia and flows along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to Texas. The disease has spread from Georgia into South Carolina and northeastern Florida, and now with the most recent discovery, into Jackson County, Mississippi.

The definitive article done so far on the problem has been written by Cerulean, who lives in Tallahassee, Fla.. She is a nature writer and the Nature Conservancy commissioned her article.

It can be found at

The article is appropriately entitled, “An Undefended Buffet: The Unnecessary Extinction of the red bay, A Defining Southern Tree.”