The Carpenter Ants Killed My Trees, He Said

4 August 2014  Idea of the day “Strenuousness is the path of immortality, sloth the path of death.  Those who are strenuous do not die; those who are slothful are as if dead already.”     Guatama Siddhartha, the Buddha

Have you ever noticed in the middle of a mystery, with no information, people will pick the darndest explanations.  Any explanation is better than none to them.

Today I had a favorite property manager call me.
“Hey Bob, you know out at Oak Meadow where you pruned everything last summer?” she asked.
“Sure.”  I remembered it well, up against an undisturbed lowland area (you might call it a swamp here in Florida!) full of interesting varieties of trees not always seen around the developed areas of the county.
“Well the owner at 113 is telling me two trees behind his place just suddenly died.  He says he thinks its the carpenter ants he sees around that did it and he wants them taken down and out of there right away.”
I laughed softly.
“Just so you know Kay, carpenter ants don’t kill trees.   In the insect world they’re the parallels to vultures in the animal kingdom. They just clean up the dead decaying wood once it’s died,” I explained.
“Well he’s worried they’re going to kill the rest of his trees in his back yard.  Can you take a look at them and calm him down?” she pleaded.
“No problem.  I remember his townhome.  I’m pretty sure I already know what it is.   But I’ll go up and look at it,” I replied.
“Thanks!  Send me an estimate for the removals and whatever you find!”
“I sure will,” I assured her.

It was always an interesting trip to the north part of the county because the winter weather was enough different from the south part of the county, that the species of native trees were noticeably different up here.   More pines, fewer exotic tropical trees.  More hardwoods like maples and sweet gum and red bay, fewer palms.   More northern species that weren’t common in semi-tropical climates.

I got up to the community and drove to the address.  I was 99% sure what I was going to find.  I walked behind the unit and yes, there they were just as I remembered them – except sadly they were brown and  dead this time.  It was the two red bay trees that had been alive last summer and now had all the leaves brown and still on the tree.  They would stay that way for a while before they fell.

If you have been following my blog you know the story behind these.  This was the laurel wilt fungus that clogs up the vascular system of the tree so it can’t get water and nutrients up from the roots to the upper canopy and leaves.  The fungus is brought there by the red bay ambrosia beetle, a particular ambrosia beetle that was almost unheard of in the United States ten years ago. But then some shipment from China had them infested in shipping pallets and they deported at the port in Savannah, GA.   They took the fungus they carry to the local bay trees and that laurel wilt fungus killed them all.   Then they headed south looking for more red bays to infest.

In five years they reached Central Florida and you would be very hard pressed today to find a live red bay in the Orlando to Tampa Bay area.  It’s amazing how the beetles seek out and find only that species.   Well almost only that species.  They don’t like a cousin of the red bay as much, but they also go for the avocado trees occasionally.   Somebody must have taken a load of infested shipping palettes south because they recently jumped the map and showed up down near Ft. Lauderdale close to the center of the Florida avocado industry.  The growers are pretty worried down there about this beetle wiping out avocadoes in the state, the second biggest fruit crop after oranges.

I looked at the trees and sure enough there was the characteristic orange frass that the beetles had forced out as they bored into the tree sprinkled like powder all along the crevices of the trunk.  And yes there were now a few carpenter ants cleaning up the dead wood.

The resident saw me taking notes and walked over.
“Hey what do you think killed these bay trees? ” he inquired.
“Well I don’t ‘think’ I said.  I know,” I said joking around.
“Yeah, me too!”he laughed.  “It’s those damn carpenter ants,” talking cockily.
I had to tell him how it wasn’t the carpenter ants.  He was crestfallen!
“Well then some kind of a bug . . .  I mean look at all those wood shavings,” he pointed out observantly.
“Technically not a bug, but the fungus that the beetle carried here.”  And I told him the rest of the story.
“That’s a shame he said.  They were a different tree back here.   And my wife used the leaves in cooking to flavor our curry dishes and other spiced dishes.”
“Yeah they’re real good for that,” I agreed, “Gourmets love bay leaves for flavoring, even if these aren’t the classic bay leaves, they do work close enough.  But I guess now you’ll have to buy them in the grocery store.”
I explained to him how the carpenter ants were not going to attack the rest of his trees, hollies, cypress and oaks.  He sighed.
“Well that’s a relief!”
First job accomplished.

After doing the removal calculations I did a little walk around the property.  I was impressed with what a good job our guys had done the previous summer.  The trees had been beautifully pruned, they still were well clear of buildings, driveways, sidewalks and roads and still had very little dead wood in them.  Nothing like some of the obviously over pruned trees  you sometimes see after a property has been mishandled by a company of untrained tree trimmers.   These trees looked natural and you couldn’t even tell they had been pruned.  It was the difference between a top salon haircut and a quick buzz cut from a buddy in the dorm in college.  The owner of the company had said having our experienced arborists prune the trees was like having a veteran surgeon perform an operation compared to an aspiring pre-med student who had to do it out in the hinterlands because no one else was around.  Not so pretty.  And more than a little dangerous!

But the walkaround did show up some interesting items.   I found 4 more dead red bays, although right at the edge of the lowland brush areas.   I found a dead maple at the same edge border.  Maples like being next to water like this lowland area but this one just hadn’t made it. It was about 35 ft. high so maybe it was just old age.   At any rate I was going to recommend it be removed before it fell on a building.  And then I saw the usual number one invasive plant in Florida, Brazilian pepper, growing aggressively into the lawn areas from the brush.  I wouldn’t mind if that species went extinct.  I heard an old Florida lady the other day call it “Florida holly” as if it were something desirable! Made me laugh.  The stuff doesn’t stop growing and overtakes entire landscapes if unchecked.  The only way to permanently get rid of it is to have a licensed pesticide company re-cut the stumps and within 15 minutes apply the right herbicide before it grows back a protective shield.

I also found a few laurel oaks which in just one year had already developed more dead wood over driveways.  That needed to come out.  One broken limb of that 2″ diameter size could put a $700 dent in the cars parked below it.  And it’s summer storm season.  People have to be forewarned about how this dead wood will blow out and break off in windstorms.  Sometimes even overly top-heavy live limbs will break off – good reason to not over prune the center part of limbs.  That just causes excessive growth at the tips (called lions tailing) which then acts like a sail in windstorms and greatly increases the chances of limbs breaking.  And that’s not even mentioning the fact that this kind of incorrect “center pruning” also keeps limbs spindly and thin because of no nutrients going to the main parts of the limbs.  Instead they grow long and skinny and snap prematurely.  So don’t let anybody prune your trees like that, low and out of the center of the tree.  Trees need inner foliage to act as a dampener in wind.   Proper pruning takes place at the tips and takes weight off the ends.   That way limbs grow thick and strong and aren’t nearly as likely to whip and break off  in wind.

So I wrapped up all my suggestions, put it into my laptop proposal and shot it off to the property manager.  They’re only suggestions of course but with the reasoning I put in, the associations usually take a large portion of my recommendations so they won’t have liability problems through the storm season.  And dead red bays can be a liability, although usually they are smaller and not as dangerous for example as a huge dead oak.  At least I keep them informed and aware.  And calm them when they worry the carpenter ants are killing their trees. 🙂






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