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June 27, 2011

MIKE LUNSFORD: His tolerance for insects ends with sawyer beetles

TERRE HAUTE — As I sloshed a can of water over a pot of red petunias a Sunday morning ago, I saw a pine sawyer beetle make its way slowly up the vinyl siding near my front door. I swatted it to the concrete, and smashed it with my shoe … with impunity, I might add.

I don’t have a problem with most insects at all. Sure, I’ve just about had it with the wasps that keep building their nests over and over in my hose reel box and menace us as we water our tomatoes, and I have wood bees snooping along the eaves of my cabin, which I now inspect almost daily. We faced an ant invasion in our kitchen this spring, too — a little spraying and a lot of vacuuming took care of it — and we occasionally find in the garage those huge wolf spiders that send shivers up our spines. But, for most part, we live with the bugs around our place, taking the good with the bad. We enjoy our dragonflies and butterflies and the occasional praying mantis, and I mow slowly when the clover is in bloom just so our honey bees are given a chance to get out of the way. I hear that the walking sticks we always have near our porches are pretty good at eating bad bugs, so we leave them alone, too. Like everyone else, we tolerate the gnats and the black flies and the mosquitoes.

Sawyer beetles — also called long-horned beetles — are a whole different story.Not only are they repulsive-looking little buggers, they are the main reason I am cutting down most of the Georgia red pines on my property, trees that I planted 25 years ago to serve as windbreaks and natural privacy fences. The beetles not only have the rotten habit of feeding on the young pine shoots, which causes enough damage, but also they release hitch-hiking nematodes — tiny worms — from their breathing pores that go on to chew on the already wounded tree until its needles turn brown, its bark peals off like sunburned skin, and the tree dies a slow, creeping death. 

When we first moved here, the only trees that had ever really been planted on the property were a few fast-growing locusts and soft maples. Within a year or two, we had to cut down a massive, dying sycamore in our front yard, and one of the locusts blew over in a storm. I made up my mind that I was going to plant more trees as I expanded and groomed my yard, and I did just that, sticking pin oaks and tulip poplars that have grown and prospered and shaded us just about everywhere we can walk.

Since we own a large, long front lawn, and the wind blasts across it from the fields to our west, I decided to plant a windrow of pines to cut the current down a bit. I ordered trees from the state Department of Natural Resources, and when debating as to whether I should order red or white pines, was told by a naturalist there that the white pines were more common but the red pines were hardy and would be more distinctive. I took his word for it and planted 24 of them along the roadside; the sawyer beetles must have paid him under the table …

The trees grew like weeds. For a few years — since I was living on a young teacher’s salary and couldn’t shell out the money for the quarter-mile length of garden hose I needed — I walked 5-gallon buckets of water to the trees. I pulled the weeds around their trunks by hand to protect them, and kept them fed with fertilizer. Within a few years, I was mowing around their broadening bases, amazed that they were getting so large and full and green.

Then the assaults began. The trees weren’t helped when a county road crew sliced into their roots as they “bermed” the ditches along my place with a road grader. A year or two later, a speeding driver managed to run off the pavement and whack into three of them. Over the years, wind blew the tops out of a few more, and it didn’t take long before the deer began to nibble on and rut against the rest. I have accidentally smacked into them with mowers and weed trimmers, and they have been pelted with sand and salt and rocks via the snowplows, but somehow, the pines thrived. That is, until pine wilt took over, caused by the pine sawyer beetles.

I hoped that somehow the trees would make it. I trimmed them religiously, first at their bases, then at eye level, and eventually from a ladder. I sprayed and fertilized and worried, but, one by one, the trees became skeletal and brown, and in even the slightest breezes the limbs dropped messily into the yard. Long, dry Indiana summers are particularly hard on red pines, so last year’s drought had to have been a contributing factor to my trees’ rotten health.

A few Saturdays back, Zach Sampson and Torre Lynn, two former students of mine who don’t think going to work is enough work to work at, dropped by. I had told them that I wanted to take out the dead pines, and they reminded me that they were up for the job since they both dearly love their chainsaws, making a few dollars and working together. I told them that six of the trees still looked pretty good, nine were on the critical list, but would be given a last chance, and nine had to be cut and hauled off. Within five hours, the trees were felled, cut into pieces, hauled off and burned (infested wood should be torched). They even raked up the lawn before they left. As I wrote out a check, I told them that the pines remaining on life-support would probably have to go by the end of the summer, and that I’d be calling on them again.

In the days since the trees were cut, I have missed them. That may sound silly, but I can’t help but mow the yard and notice the sun beating down where there was once shade or hearing the road noise that was once muffled. I know the pines I have left will have to go, and I think that once I get their stumps out of the way, I’ll probably plant crabapples or redbuds or dogwoods — something that won’t get too big and will add color to my yard. Ironically, I have planted a number of white pines around my place, and they are tall and healthy and green. White pines rarely contract pine wilt …

Much has changed since I first planted my red pine trees. I know I don’t have the desire to haul water two buckets at a time to what will be growing out there next, and I know it was easier on my creaky back to have those two young guys doing the cutting and lifting, raking and sweating on that humid Saturday afternoon, too.

But if I happen to see another pine sawyer beetle anywhere on my property, he’s all mine …

Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at, and visit his website at His third collection of stories, “A Place Near Home,” is due to be released in the fall.


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    March 12, 2010