The redbay ambrosia beetle is an invasive pest first detected in 2002 near Savannah’s Port Wentworth. Originating in Asia, this tiny beetle (2 mm) is thought to have been introduced via infested wooden packing materials at the port. Like several other invasive species, this ambrosia beetle has spread quickly and its effects can now be seen on redbay trees throughout the Georgia Coast and into Florida and South Carolina.
Unlike native ambrosia beetles, this beetle attacks healthy redbay trees by boring into the wood just under the bark, creating galleries in the sapwood where it will lay its eggs. However, it is not the boring, or even the beetles themselves that will kill the tree. The female carries spores of a fungus (Raffaelea lauricola) in a pouch in her mouth which she inoculates into the sapwood as she bores. The developing and adult beetles feed on the fungus while the fungus grows within the tree. As the fungus grows, it blocks water and nutrient movement within the tree, causing laurel wilt and eventually, the death of the redbay tree.
As you explore the maritime forest here on Little St. Simons Island, you will see sapling redbay trees, with the majority of their leaves brown with wilt. Currently, scientists have not found a method of fighting back against the redbay ambrosia beetle. As the beetle and fungus spread, the redbay could be affected across its entire range. An important host plant to three species of swallowtail butterflies, a decline in the redbay could also mean hardships for palamedes, Schaus, and spicebush swallowtails in the coming years.
For more on the palamedes swallowtail, read our previous Naturalist Fact of the Week.