A tree fungus known as laurel wilt is spreading rapidly across parts of central Florida, killing hundreds of redbay trees in its wake.
The fungus carried by ambrosia beetles attacks very quickly, killing the trees almost overnight, according to the Daytona Beach News-Journal. Leaves then hang on the dead trees for weeks or months.
"Trees are dying everywhere," said Don Spence, a certified arborist who owns Native Florida Landscapes in Ormond Beach. The infestation has spread across Volusia and Flagler counties and has been spotted in the Ocala National Forest and up and down the St. Johns River.
The beetles drill into redbay trees and the female beetles inoculate the tree with rapidly multiplying fungi, according to Farley Palmer, who owns Palmer Biological Services in New Smyrna Beach. He said the bugs feed on fungus, which block the tree's capillaries and prevent water from getting into the limbs, branches and leaves. The leaves quickly change from green to brown.
Specialists said the only hope is for trees to be treated early enough with a fungicide that protects the roots and keeps the fungus from taking hold. Palmer said that can cost between $100 and $300 per tree.
Federal officials believe the fungus and beetles came from Georgia in 2002, probably from importing shipping materials. It first appeared in Duval County in 2005 and spread to Volusia County in 2008.
Florida Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Denise Feiber said the fungus is in 41 Florida counties. She said 98 percent of the native redbay trees were destroyed in some north Florida counties within two years of the beetles' arrival.
Officials said the beetles also attack other trees, including swamp bay, sassafras and avocado.
Palmer and other experts say it's key for people to understand what kinds of trees they have in their yards. Many people mistake redbay trees for oak trees, he said.
"Making that connection between the species they have and the disease is the real key to saving these trees," Palmer said.