Drought could mean big year for pine beetles

Updated: Mar. 30, 2017 at 5:31 PM EDT
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BETHLEHEM, NC (WBTV) - It is hard to hike or drive anywhere in North Carolina without seeing a lot of pine trees. They line the streets and fill the forests. But those trees could come under assault this summer.

Experts say the ongoing drought has made the trees vulnerable to the southern pine beetle.

"It could very easily happen this year," said NC Forest Service expert Brian Heath.

It's been 15 years since the last major outbreak, and with the pine trees under stress from drought, it could be a prime time for the beetles to attack in force again. They sense when trees are stressed, said Heath, and once they find a good host they multiply and can spread quickly.

The beetles bore through the bark and into the living part of the tree trunk. When enough beetles get in there, the tree can die.

"You can lose several acres a week if the epidemic is going pretty strong," Heath said.

Property owners should look for small popcorn-sized balls of sap on a tree trunk. If many are present, it likely means the beetles are too.

Sap is the only defense a tree has against the beetle. Drought conditions make it tougher for pine trees to produce enough sap to fight back.

However, the pine beetles do have a natural predator - the clarid beetle. Heath says as the number of pine beetles grow, so do the clarids. Eventually, the clarids will be in such numbers that the pine beetle population drops significantly.

It can take a couple of years, though, for the infestation to get under control. The last major outbreak lasted from 1999 to 2002.

Officials have been placing traps across the state so they can get a count on the numbers of both varieties of beetles. That should tell them what they may be facing this summer.

They hope to have the count complete sometime in May.

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