Thursday, January 01, 2015

Say Goodbye To The Red Bay Tree

If You Haven't Already Done So, Go Outside And Hug Your Red Bay Trees, Because They Are Doomed.
Doomed, and there is nothing you can do to prevent it.
Let's not sugar coat this.
This is bad.
This just another of far too many invasive, nonnative introductions to Florida. This one, an exotic fungus spread by an exotic beetle, is possibly an extinction event for the beautiful, (and previously taken for granted by me), Red Bay Trees (Persea borbonia).

This is a depressingly common view on most of our rural Levy county roads. A wall of green punctuated by dead and dying Red Bays.

The Red Bay Ambrosia beetle, a tiny Asian insect only about 1/16 of an inch long infects a healthy tree with a fungus, that the beetle then feeds upon.

The Red Bay has no natural defense against either the Ambrosia Beetle or the fungus since the two villains in this tale are from Asia.

Essentially, the beetle inoculates the Red Bay tree with the fungus, creating a food source for the insect to feed upon.
As the fungus spreads, it clogs the vascular tissues causing  the Red Bay to wilt and die ... often within a week or so of infection.

This is what an infected Red Bay cambium looks like.
A cross cut on a healthy Red Bay has creamy white wood up to the bark layer.

The Ambrosia Beetles may have arrived here in wood product shipments and have been moving through the South rapidly in the past decade.
From my vantage point in the wild and rural nature coast area, it's been a dramatic sea-change in the local forests.

On my own property, my beloved Pure Florida HeadQuarters (PFHQ), I see brown everywhere I go.

Take for instance the photo below. The crispy brown leaves above my head are the lowest branches of a once beautiful Red Bay that I thought would always be here ... long after me.

Today, the first day of 2015, I cut that tree down.
The wood will all be burned in our fire pit, one small and mostly meaningless gesture to ... well, to at LEAST NOT spread it.
The one thing we all want to do is not transport cut Red Bay ANYWHERE.

I loved this tree, loved the fragrant leaves, the evergreen nature of it, and the way it leaned WAY out from where it started under a bunch of mature oaks.

Poor thing.

You can see how this tree frantically produced new, green shoots down around the base, but eventually those will succumb too.

In the past, I hacked at it's lower branches with the machete to keep my trail and gopher tortoise area open, never thinking much about a gentle touch. It was just another Red Bay and there were a blue million of them here at PFHQ.

Now, I'm pretty sure that except for young saplings popping up from last year's seeds, there probably won't be any Red Bays on my property by the end of 2015.

That really bothers me, but this will run it's course and there doesn't seem to be much we can do to stop it.

There are other things at risk here too.
The beetle and fungus combo also attack Red Bay relatives like Sassafras and the Avocado.
And then there are the native North American ecological relationships that have evolved over thousands of years ...

When the Red Bays vanish, the food they provide in the form of berries and leaves for everything from birds to bears to butterflies will go with them.

For the Palomedes Swallowtail butterfly, the Red Bay is the main larval food. As the trees disappear, so will the Palomedes Swallowtail ... which just happens to be the primary pollinator of the Pine Lily.


So, the loss of the Red Bay may result in the loss of other organisms too.
Sounds corny to say it, but you know you're thinking it ... "It's all connected."
Not a very cheery New Years message, I know.

Ever the optimist, I'm hoping that somewhere in the millions of Red Bay seedlings pushing up into a dangerous new world, there may be a few with just the right DNA bouillabaisse to fight back with a bit of good ol'fashioned genetic resistance.

Time will tell, and on December 31, 2015, I will post an update of the Red Bay situation here at PFHQ.


Pablo said...

A bad tale told well.

Mark P said...

I hate to see this kind of thing. It's a real shame, but I don't think there's anything that can be done, given the interconnected nature of the world today. I wonder how much effort will be put into controlling it if it starts affecting a cash crop like avocado.

Julie Zickefoose said...

Tragic tale well told. I wonder what else will succumb to this beetle and its dratted fungus? For better or worse we have a global flora and fauna, and nowhere is that more evident than in your beloved subtropical biome. Selective pressure all around. I share your hope that some spindly red bay sapling can sneer at fungus, but it is a slim hope.

R.Powers said...

Thanks Pablo!
Mark, I wonder the same. In FL the state will do anything to protect citrus farmers even raiding homeowners backyards to pull citrus during outbreaks of med fruit fly.

Julie...I hope for Super Bay is way out there...bouyed by the American Chestnut stubborn survivors, but unrealistically optimistic.

robin andrea said...

Such a heartbreaking story. I hope the Red Bay rallies and finds an inner DNA secret to defend itself. Wonder what native species there will someday develop a taste for and eat those invasive beetles.

Doug Taron said...

The spicebush swallowtail will also be affected by the fungus. :-(

Wally Jones said...

Well, THAT'S depressing!

Like you, I'll hold out a slim hope evolution will expedite a solution. What a shame we have to wait until pocketbooks are affected before much can be done.

Minnie said...

Oh, no. And NOT sassafras, too!

threecollie said...

So sad to read this and so sorry that you are losing all your trees in such a terrible manner. We actually noticed the brown trees standing out here and there on our little whirlwind trip and wondered what they were. Now we know. What a shame.

Anonymous said...

Hate to hear that. Something has killed all my dogwoods, now is killing my junipers, cedars. I sprayed what is left of the junipers about four. not sure if it is a fungus or borers. Hoping to save them for the birds. I just planted four more.
My Dad has red bays over in Ms. Probably some here as well. Sad news. Depressing and some times it seems like a losing battle. Lower Al. is eat up invasive privet. I hate that stuff.
Tammy in LA

Aunty Belle said...

FC, NO!!

Hate to learn of this... but, very serious inquiry, has the country or sate done ANYthing to try to stop this? If so what have they tried that failed?

R.Powers said...

There was a little limited success with some fungicides, but from what I read the vector... the beetle, just moves too quickly to make treatments effective. Population ecology implies that this beetle's population should crash at some point when it has killed off the abundant redbays, course that doesn't help the red bay much.

Aunty Belle said...

hmmnn..Ok, I wonder if you would be willing to try something on your saplings? a product not in your local stores, but used in the state for many agricultural non toxic, has EPA label, amazing on fungus, less so on virus. Used to zap canker (fungus), not so much with greening (virus).

However, if saplings are not prey to the beetle it may not be a problem until they mature. The product can be used as a systemic, it won't kill the beetle that bores into the tree, but it will deny the fungus a toehold in the tree.

No expectation, but If you want to experiment, I can send you a bottle. ABPORKRINDS@YAHOO.Com

Ivan said...

Here in Brevard the red bays all croaked 4-5 years ago. Swallowtails seen are a few zebras, a few giants, and a few tigers, but none of the laurels now.

Anonymous said...

I live in Suwannee County and my bay trees are either dead or dying. Some were old, large, majestic trees. I noticed this problem only a couple of years ago. I questioned folks in the area about it then and I was told the last freeze killed them. I heard about the Asian beetle fungus just this past weekend, from a friend who lives down south.