By Lisa Swann

Southern pine beetle damage.
Southern pine beetle damage. Credit: Ronald F. Billings, Texas Forest Service,

You have no doubt heard by now the story of the mountain pine beetle devastating hundreds of thousands of acres of forests in the western U.S. A similar tale is playing out in the mid-Atlantic, as the southern pine bark beetle has taken hold in the vast and dense New Jersey pinelands. About the size of a grain of uncooked rice, the beetle destroys trees. Sub-zero temperatures used to control it, but now with global warming raising New Jersey’s average temperature by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the last century, scientists believe climate change is to blame for the beetle’s northward march.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, loblolly, shortleaf, pitch, pond and Virginia pines are the beetle’s favored hosts. Its range covers states from Pennsylvania and New Jersey south to Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. The beetles burrow through the tree’s bark and attack tissue that provides nutrients and water to the tree, basically starving it and causing its green needles to turn brown. When under attack, some trees produce enough pitch to force the beetles out but this is not always the case. A massive beetle attack can easily overwhelm a tree.

The other issue with the southern pine bark beetle is fire suppression, which has caused more forest density — which the beetle thrives on. In the New Jersey pinelands, foresters are thinning stands, hoping to keep the beetles at bay. Controlled burns and selective harvesting are considered to be good ways to fight the infestation.

The concern now is that nothing will stop the beetle from continuing to move northward into coastal areas of New England.