Invaders threaten Rome’s iconic pines

ROME (AFP) – Rome’s majestic umbrella pines are as much part of the landscape as the ruins and cobbled streets, but they are under threat from a tiny insect invader – the pine tortoise scale.

“If we do nothing, the pines of Rome will be destroyed by the thousands,” warned agronomist Franco Milito, who estimates there are around 60,000 such trees in the city’s public areas and another 30,000 on private land.

“And they are really the trees of Rome, which shape the views. We must look after them.”

The insects, originally from North America, can kill trees already weakened by the urban environment within just two or three years, experts told AFP.

“It’s very serious,” said Patrizio Zucca, head of the association of agronomists in Rome. “Urgent action is needed.”

Toumeyella parvicornis, to give it its Latin name, is about three millimetres long, and its reddish-brown oval shell resembles a tortoise.

It was unknown in Italy until five years ago, but after ravaging the stone pines of Naples in the south, it has moved up the coast.

The insect operates like a little vampire, sucking with its syringe-like mouth the sap from both the tree’s needles and its bark.

It produces a sweet white excrement, on which thick black mould develops, covering the tree and blocking the process of photosynthesis.

In Campania, the southern region that includes Naples, although many pines succumbed, others resisted.

“The scales act like agents of natural selection,” said Antonio Pietro Garonna, professor of entomology at Naples Federico II university.

He suspects that high temperatures, over 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), can cause them to disperse.

A worker prunes pine trees opposite the Colosseum monument in Rome. PHOTO: AFP