BIRMINGHAM, Al. - Considered one of the biggest causes of economic loss in forestry in the southeastern U.S., the southern pine beetle is a real threat to the region’s wood products industry.

This year's concerns stem from a record-setting drought in the area, which caused many trees to not make enough sap. Sap is the tree's best defender against the beetles.

"The lack of rain is causing long term damage to trees," said Georgia Forestry Commission Forest Health Coordinator Chip Bates. "We're seeing immediate damage in the form of dying tree tops, brown leaves and dropping needles. Without water, tree roots will suffer, and that's a perfect infestation scenario for the beetle."

The results can be devastating to forest industries. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates a widespread outbreak that began in east Tennessee in 1999 caused more than $1 billion in timber losses.

"These beetles feast on stressed trees, damaged branches and logging debris," said Bates.

Foresters fear the dead or dying trees left by the drought could provide fuel for a similar large-scale infestation, and are already seeing evidence of increased beetle activity.

The usual recommended course of action for a Southern pine beetle infestation is to clear a buffer area around the infested trees at least as wide as the tallest trees in the infested group to prevent the beetles from spreading. Those trees can be burned or simply left behind a safe distance from healthy forest trees.