Pesky beetles sit, ready to pounce on their unwitting prey: trees around the world, which sustain billions of dollars in damage because of these armored insects, says a University of Florida scientist.

Of the 600,000 beetle species globally, very few kill trees, but those that do cause enormous economic damage, says Jiri Hulcr, a UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ faculty professor of forest entomology. 

For example, the Redbay Ambrosia beetle and its associated fungus cause a disease called the laurel wilt that kills many trees, including avocados, he said. The Redbay beetle threatens Florida’s avocado industry, which UF researchers estimate has a $27 million impact on the state’s economy.

Overall, wood-boring beetles cause $2.5 billion annually in damage to U.S. trees, Hulcr says.

Wood damaging beetles hitch a ride all over the world, usually by accident or oversight by humans. “We put them in habitats where they shouldn’t be,” he said, by exporting wood or using it to send ship cargo. “It’s not as though these beetles have evolved as killing species. They have evolved in their native habitat.”

He further noted, “These are disasters in kind of slow motion” because they are not noticed until long after arrival and have established themselves as a problem. Once they reach their destination, the beetles look for something to eat, he explained. Slowly but surely, they discover and eat trees.

Hulcr has co-written a book about beetles native to Papua New Guinea. Thousands of beetle species make their home in Papua New Guinea, a small island off the northern coast of Australia, but only two or three have been discovered to have traveled to other parts of the globe.

Hulcr’s spent about a year and half as a research station manager in Papua New Guinea. He also did his doctoral dissertation on this group of beetles.

The book, Xyleborini of New Guinea, a Taxonomic Monograph, was co-written by Anthony Cognato, a Michigan State University associate entomology professor. Hulcr says next he and his UF research team will isolate fungi carried by these insects to see if they are deadly pathogens.

He says it is critical to study the species before it invades new continents and widens damage by spreading more tree pathogens.

“We should do something about it (them) before anything bad happens,” he said.