These ladies are no southern belles and you won’t likely find their suitors charming, either.  

Some southerners have come to the Island and, if unchecked, could bring damage, death, and destruction. This is not another Civil War, a cotillion, or a Gone With the Wind film festival. And, luckily, it is not yet an infestation.  

Southern pine beetles have been found in at least three locations on-Island, according to a survey done last spring and summer by the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation’s Forest Health Program. While it is not yet time to panic, there is reason to be concerned, as these beetles could decimate the Island’s pine woodlands.  

Hailing from the southeastern United States, southern pine beetles have been migrating north as temperatures moderate in formerly cold climes. Thanks, climate change.    

Their range had previously excluded the northeast mid-Atlantic and New England regions, but in recent years these beetles have moved into and through New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Rhode Island, and are now present in Massachusetts. They were first found on Martha’s Vineyard in 2015 and conservation folks have been keeping an eye out for more. 

A petite pest, the southern pine beetle is about the size of a grain of uncooked rice and is brown-black in color. But size doesn’t matter with this species, which can multiply quickly and kill a tree within a week; with an infestation, a whole forest could be gone in a season. This beetle is a landscape-changing force that will be difficult to stop if it gets a foothold.  

Like the name suggests, these beetles prefer pines. At our latitude, they nosh on pitch and white pines, though they also are attracted to Norway spruce. The beetles crawl under the bark and eat the phloem — vascular tissues under the bark — carving S-shaped tunnels that will interfere with the movement of food and water and eventually kill the tree. They also introduce a fungus that also harms the tree. A one-two punch.  

Trees do have some ability to fight this beetle. Pines have pitch or sap that will push the invader out of the tree or drown them.  However, our northern trees’ pitch is not as effective at combating these beetles as the southern pines that have co-adapted with them.  

Female southern pine beetles use their feminine wiles — in their case, pheromones — to attract a male and breed under the tree bark. One beetle can produce more than 160 eggs, and can have multiple reproductive cycles every year that will cause a boom of beetles that can overwhelm a tree. Once they have killed their host tree, the swarm will move on to another tree and, as they multiply, can take out whole forests in short order.  

The best defense is offense and all of us can help to keep the beasts at bay. Knowing the telltale signs of the southern pine beetle and reporting them can help us slow their advance and protect our forests. Look for popcorn-sized pitch tubes on the bark of pine trees, the insect’s red-brown frass (droppings) and small holes that the beetles create to get into the tree’s cambial layers.  

State and local conservation professionals will also be on the lookout for these beetles, and will continue to monitor and trap these insects. While we will likely find more washashore, or flyashore, beetles, there are a few things that can be done to fight them after they are discovered. Foresters suggest thinning the tree density in the pine woodlands and using fire to open up the forest canopy.   

I’m for whatever it takes to keep this beetle from becoming the belle of the ball. 

Suzan Bellincampi is Islands director for Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown and the Nantucket Wildlife Sanctuaries. She is also the author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.