ORLANDO, Fla., July 1 (UPI) -- Throughout North America, Europe and Asia, beetles are blamed for large areas of dying trees. But a Florida entomologist says the bugs are just a symptom of the real problem -- climate change.
In Florida, recent hurricanes have caused billions of dollars in losses to the lumber industry, particularly Hurricane Irma, which swept up the middle of the peninsula in 2017, and Hurricane Michael, which mowed down homes and trees in the Panhandle in October. Forest losses from Michael alone are pegged at over $1 billion.
Even trees that survive the storms often are stressed by wind damage and flooded roots, making them targets for beetles and other disease.
"Some people who manage forests or harvest lumber want us to target the beetle by cutting down trees or using insecticide," said Jiri Hulcr, forest entomologist for the University of Florida. "But that would only treat the symptom. The only real solution is to reverse climate change. The time has come -- it's real."
Bark beetles have been around for thousands of years. But modern trade and transportation have distributed new bugs to new regions around the world, where they are considered invasive species. Meanwhile, drought, storms and heat have stressed many forests, so they are more vulnerable.
Hulcr is so passionate about the death of forests around the world that he started a contest earlier this year to devise a name for the phenomenon. He doesn't have a winner yet. The prize is either free registration to a bark beetle conference in Taiwan or a reference collection on the 40 most destructive beetles. Entries can be made at Hulcr's website.
"I wind up talking about climate-induced bark beetle infestations killing forests, or things like that. But that's not easy to grasp or remember," Hulcr said. "It's such a big crisis, it needs a new name."
He thinks something short and snappy might work to draw attention, like Zika virus -- which is named after the Ziika forest of Uganda where the disease was first identified -- or WiFi, which doesn't really stand for anything but was considered similar to HiFi, short for high fidelity.
Hulcr spoke to UPI via phone from Prague, where he was attending a conference. He noted the extreme dry and hot weather Europe has experienced already this summer.
"They are now having the largest outbreak of spruce bark beetle here ever," he said. "It's happening in Israel, Germany, the U.S., all over."
A report from Radio Prague on June 18 said the Czech government warned that spruce is the country's most common tree and over 1.2 million acres of forest are at risk this year.
"It's not really the beetles' fault," Hulcr said. "The problem is the trees are not well. The trees are stressed, worse in some places than others."
Other pests introduced over the past century have wiped out significant tree species. Fungus left American chestnuts almost extinct, and wiped out elms in many areas. Emerald ash borers from Asia killed off ash trees.
The Florida Forest Service has put out traps to catch pine beetles in the area affected by Hurricane Michael, said Jeffrey Eickwort, biologist and supervisor with the agency. He's aware of Hulcr's name challenge and praised him for trying to bring attention to the problems.
"We're offering technical advice to landowners in damaged areas. There is some federal money that is supposed to be coming," Eickwort said. He said pine beetles are native to the area, so forests will only be cut down if severe infestations are found.
"Its the invasive pests and diseases that are the most serious problem. It keeps us up at night," he said.
But Hulcr sees reasons for hope. He said policy has shifted in the southern United States to thin forests and manage them more sustainably.
"The name challenge is an educational tool and 5,000 people have seen the video I created," he said. "There are discussions out there about it, and that's what I really want."