Riggins says research underway on beetle which is destroy redbay trees

Published 12:48 am Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Friday, a research scientist who is heading a study of an Asian beetle, which carries a disease deadly to members of the laurel family, that is attacking the redbay tree, a member of that plant family, in southern forests and threatens the tree’s possible extinction says that research efforts will require additional funding as the study gets fully underway in the next two years.

Said Dr. John Riggins, “I foresee quit a bit of research over the next few years that will require additional funding.”

Riggins is an entomologist with Mississippi State University who has been awarded about $30,000 so far from the U.S. Forest Service for the initial study of the beetle in Mississippi.

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Riggins said that his studies so far have focused on identifying precisely what specie of the beetle is attacking the redbay, how it got to Mississippi from the Eastern Seaboard and what might be done to combat the spread of the beetles.

Researchers believe the beetle came from Asia through an American seaport in a load of wooden crates used for packaging.

There is no known antidote for the beetle, which kills the trees by injecting them with a fungus that clogs the trees’ circulatory system.

The damage caused by the beetle has been given the name the “laurel wilt disease” because one of the first signs a tree is under attack by the beetles is wilting leaves.

Riggins said that scientists have been able to pinpoint the spread in Mississippi by placing traps in the area where the beetle has been spotted and also by use of satellite imagery by tracking dead trees.

He said state officials were first alerted to the spread into Mississippi by a landowner who noticed redbays on his property were dying.

He said right now only an area in the sandhill crane refuge in Jackson County along the Pascagoula River has been pinpointed with an infestation of the beetles, but forest experts are afraid that it might spread into other Mississippi forest areas.

In Georgia, the beetle destroyed entire stands of redbays in as little as a year after it infected the trees.

Scientists know the beetle spread into North and South Carolina after infesting Georgia forests and then spread into southeastern Florida and in some portions of the Florida Panhandle. Florida officials are afraid the beetle might attack their avocado industry.

However, Riggins said researchers are not sure how the beetle got to Mississippi so fast, although they think it might have come in a load of firewood. Forestry officials have cautioned residents to use only locally harvested firewood.

Riggins said a big and expensive part of combating the problem will be the development of some sort of antidote to the disease. “That will be very expensive,” he said. “We currently have ways of combating it with insecticide but it is cost prohibitive.”

Forestry experts are saying that the beetle infestation has the potential for changing the entire complexion of the southern forest, much like the Asian blight destroyed the American chestnut tree.

The beetle not only infects the redbay but also attacks sassafras trees. The leaves of both trees are used in Cajun cooking, and three different types of butterflies nest among the leaves of the redbay.