When a tree falls in the forest

Margaret Hancock


   Margaret Hancock might be older than the massive pine tree that sits in her front yard, but not by much.

At 73, the petite three-time cancer survivor has seen it all over the years. She’s a registered nurse and she and her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, are on a fixed income of little more than $1,000 per month.

So when the majestic pine trees surrounding her property began falling onto her home, she soon realized nature wasn’t going to cooperate and let her live a quiet life in her Birch Street home.

A call to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension office in Jefferson County revealed Mrs. Hancock has a serious case of pine beetles, known by their scientific name Dendroctonus frontalis.

The boring bugs dig their way into ailing pine trees and don’t stop until the tree is dead or it falls to the ground.

“When those trees fall, they hit everything,” Hancock said. “I have three trees in the back and they (pine beetles) destroyed them. The expense of having someone come in to redo your roof, redo your patio cover — it’s terrible.”

Having had at least four pine trees fall on her roof, Hancock said she’s tired of the cost associated with the falling pines, saying she’s out of more than $20,000 in the last five years.

And Hancock says she’s not the only one.

A visit to two of Hancock’s neighbors on Birch Street revealed many in the area are having problems with pine beetles.

“I have fought with them ever since I’ve been here,” said one 76-year-old neighbor who declined to be identified.

Hancock’s neighbor, like many on Birch Street, is older and on a fixed income of Social Security and can’t afford the insurance deductibles when pine trees come crashing down.

Jeanene Ebeling is a horticulture program assistant with Jefferson County and she said many landowners in Beaumont’s northwestern areas are having problems with falling pines killed by pine beetles. But she said pine beetles are just doing what they do best.

“The pest isn’t what creates the problem,” Ebeling said. “It’s stress. The tree is stressed and not healthy. That’s when your pest or disease attacks. They are very opportunistic.”

Mostly drought-damaged or sickly trees become infested with pine beetles, Ebeling said, comparing stressed, sickly pines to weaker, sickly animals in Africa’s grasslands who’re easy targets for predators.

“There’s a good chance they were stressed from the drought a few years ago and then the pine beetles just took advantage of that and started attacking them,” Ebeling said.

Micah Meyer is the parks administrator for the city of Beaumont’s parks division. He said the problem has spread to nearby Klein Park where pine beetles have caused many trees to be removed for safety reasons.

“Pine beetles are anywhere where there are pine trees,” Meyer said. “In the city of Beaumont, some trees will have pine beetles, some will be free from pine beetles. But really, they attack the weaker trees in the group. A good healthy tree normally has enough sap to deter pine beetles. But at Klein, yeah there have been trees that have died from pine beetles. But that’s gonna be anywhere there’s a population of pine trees. It comes with the territory.”

Meyer said homeowners can protect themselves from the boring bugs by a few simple methods.

“What landowners and homeowners can do is try to maintain a healthy tree,” Meyer said. “If we go through extended periods of drought, watering your pine tree can be a benefit. Fertilization is good. Just try not to do anything that hurts the root zone. Try not to dig trenches around the root zone. Avoid root damage if they can. Avoid trunk damage if they can.”

Meyer said the signs of an infested pine tree are usually clear and include a change in the color of the tree’s pine needles from dark green to lighter in color. The tree’s bark may also change to a lighter color and begin to fall off.

“Mid to late summer is when they become active,” Meyer said of the beetles. “And sometimes you can actually see the sawdust from the beetles where they’ve been digging. Other times you’ll see a lot of sap oozing out from the tree.”

But once beetles are in a tree, the expense to cure a pine of its beetles may be too much for many landowners to stomach.

Hancock is one of those landowners and she says she can’t afford the $2,000 it will take to have her massive pine removed.

“That’s why I bought this place,” Hancock said of her massive, dying pine tree. “Had I known, I would have preferred an oak tree.”