Thousands of trees in Lebanon's largest cedar forest are in danger of dying thanks to the larvae of a small cousin of the bee known only in Lebanon, according to a French scientist working with Lebanese colleagues to save the trees.
The majestic cedar, with its almost circular layers of branches that diminish gradually in diameter to taper off at the top, is the national symbol of Lebanon and is the central feature of the country's flag.
For centuries it has been a symbol of grandeur and strength in the Middle East, and its highly fragrant wood was used in the construction of King Solomon's temple.
But for many of the cedars of Tannourine, located on the west flank of Mount Lebanon, grandeur is a word that does not apply.
Their drooping branches, whose needles have been sucked dry of chlorophyl by the larvae and look as if they have been struck by lightning, seem to have fought in vain to survive.
The cedars of Tannourine are found over an area of 600 hectares (1,480 acres) between 1,500 and 1,800 meters (4,950 and 5,940 feet) in altitude.
While dying trees "only represent 15 percent of the forest for the moment, their numbers will certainly increase if a radical treatment is not applied," said Guy Demolin, research director at the National Institute of Agronomic Research in Avignon, France.
For the second year of a three-year-Lebanese ministry of agriculture-project, Demolin heads a French team that is working with two scientists from the American University in Beirut, Nasri Kawar and Nabil Nemer, to save the trees.
Demolin told AFP that the culprit is a small cousin of the bee that has been dubbed the "Cephalcia tannourinensis" in honor of the area in which it was discovered.
It lays its eggs in the trees' budding needles at the end of May, with the larvae hatching in June. These larvae, initially yellowish in color, engorge themselves on the needles of the cedars, absorbing the chlorophyl and taking on its color.
Once the larvae have had their fill, they descend to the ground by means of a thin thread of saliva and burrow some 15 centimeters (7 inches) underground to hybernate, Demolin said.
By July, the desperate trees, weakened by the larvae, put out new shoots of needles that are easy prey for numerous insects.
The final blow to the trees comes from wood-eating insects, which are difficult to exterminate.
Entymologist Nemer said the insects have infested 80 percent of the forest.
However, treatment by spraying from over flying helicopters is helping.
When the trees were first sprayed last year with a chemical that impedes the larvae's development, leading to their death, the infestation was an alarming 1,200 larvae per square meter (yard). That figure has dropped sharply to 400, Nemer said.
However, Nemer said the larvae could survive as long as three years underground and that for the treatment to be effective it must be applied three times.
Faddoul Faddoul is one volunteer working to save the cedars that has a passion for this wild mountain, with its aroma of incense in the air and its small monasteries nestled amoung centuries-old trees.
"I came to give a hand," he said, "mixing the (chemicals) and refilling the spraying tank of the helicopter each time it sets down."
Pilot Philippe Rigoreau says the work is grueling - TANNOURINE (AFP)
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