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Fight to save bay area's red bay trees is costly, time-consuming

Faced with yet another hideous exotic invasion in a state where the top spot in the food chain of the most storied natural landscape has been claimed by an Asian snake, maybe all you can do is shake your head and laugh.

This new pest is called the red bay ambrosia beetle and, as the name suggests, it attacks red bay trees. These are common in suburban yards and even more common in the state's hardwood hammocks, a fact that doesn't become fully apparent until the beetles descend and kill every single decent-sized specimen.

It happened last year in Fort Cooper State Park in Citrus County. And judging from the beetle's usual rate of spread, said Vince Morris, an ecologist with the Florida Forest Service, "I wouldn't be surprised if red bays in (Hernando County) are wiped out by the end of the year."

He followed this with a chuckle, that I interpreted to mean, roughly, "What can you do?"

Well, at least a little something.

On Friday, state entomologist Jeff Eickwort drove down from Gainesville to the Withlacoochee Forestry Center north of Brooksville to demonstrate the only known method to control the beetle.

Like the Burmese Python, the beetle is native to Asia, including the nation also known as Myanmar. It arrived in a Georgia port about a decade ago, probably nestled in wood used for shipping crates, and quickly spread south.

In its home range, it attacks only dead and dying bay trees, Eickwort said. But for some reason, live red bays — as well as closely related swamp bays and, even more concerning, avocado trees — smell dead to them, which has resulted in a ferocious, fast-spreading epidemic that goes by the deceptively mild-sounding name of laurel wilt.

The beetles don't actually eat the trees, Eickwort said, but feed on a fatal fungus that they introduce and that then spreads through the red bay wood.

"They're basically fungus farmers," he said.

The treatment is a fungicide that costs $407 a gallon called Alamo.

The fight against the beetle is not quite as futile as that name suggests, but the Forest Service expects to save only a couple dozen trees near its headquarters and at the nearby McKethan Lake Park.

Besides the price of the chemicals, there's the intricate process of applying the stuff, which is like giving the tree an intravenous drip, only many times more time-consuming.

Eickwort dug away dirt around the base of a red bay in the yard of the forestry center, drilled holes in the largest roots and, into the holes, fitted nozzles connected to clear plastic tubing.

After a mere half-hour of fiddling labor, which included clearing the entire system of air bubbles — he was ready to start injecting the bright blue pesticide solution. The tree, he said, would absorb it all in a blink of an eye lasting no more than several hours.

Watching this process made it pretty obvious that the Forest Service could easily blow a large portion of its budget on the staff time and chemicals needed to treat all the trees in the state forests.

The hope, instead, is to perfect a system that can save select trees, including ones in homeowners' yards.

First make sure you have a red bay and not a live oak, because the trees look similar, with twisting trunks and leathery leaves. But bay leaves are slightly bigger, flat rather than spoon-shaped and, like the related bay leaves used in cooking, give off a distinct, resin-like aroma when crushed.

Once you are sure you do indeed have one of these doomed red bays in your yard, call an arborist, who should be able to treat it for less than $100. Or you can seek free advice — but not treatment — from Hernando County forester Justin Draft, whose email address is justin.draft@freshfromflorida.com.

Watching Eickwort at work might also make you wonder about the task of fighting exotics in Florida.

It can seem as hopeless as preserving distinct regional cultures in the age of the Internet. Is it time to throw up our hands and just give in to the spread of a new, global ecology, to forget about seeing raccoons and foxes roaming the Everglades, at least until some type of python-eating predator moves in?

I admit it's crossed my mind.

But no, Morris pointed out, it is feasible to control some exotics, including cogongrass, coral ardisia and air potato.

And in large areas of the forests that have been rid of such pests, he said, "you can expect to see something very close to the native Florida landscape."

"Minus the red bays of course," he added, then shook his head and laughed.

Fight to save bay area's red bay trees is costly, time-consuming 03/10/12 [Last modified: Monday, March 12, 2012 5:34pm]

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