Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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August 28, 2012

Asian beetle and its fungus threaten Florida's flora

LIVE OAK, Fla. - Red bay trees distinctive to the landscape of Florida and the coastal Southeast are under attack by an invasive fungus from Asia. Florida's avocado crop may also be at risk.

Laurel wilt disease attacks red bays and sassafras trees, as well as the avocado tree. The disease is carried by a fungus borne by a small beetle some believe traveled to the United States in wood packing material.

The red bay ambrosia beetle was first discovered in Georgia in 2002. Laurel wilt disease was found two years later.

Suwannee County forester Brian Cobble noticed the fungus in north Florida in 2009, but it didn't spread until recently. Now, he said, red bays are dying "at an alarming rate" near Branford, a small town on the Suwannee River in the southern part of the county.

No control measures are known, said Cobble, though Florida's avocado growers are searching for ways to protect their $30 million per year industry.

In Suwannee County, laurel wilt is just the latest assault on the area's trees. Cobble also has been combating caterpillars that defoliate oaks, as well as small wasps that lay eggs in abnormal growths on various species of oak.

This year has been good for insects, he said, blaming a mild winter and rainfall from two tropical storms. And this was before the rains deposited by Tropical Storm Isaac.

"With warm days still forecast and Isaac on the radar, it might not yet be over,” he said.

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Details for this story were provided by the Suwannee Democrat in Live Oak, Fla.

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