Beetles attack plastic gas tank

A close-up of Eugene Cutrer's perforated gas tank.

Everybody knows gasoline kills any kind of bug — everybody except the camphor shot borer beetle.

These invasive beetles are so attracted to the scent of ethanol gas that they’ll bore through plastic fuel tanks.

Then they die.

Eugene Cutrer of Osyka knows all about it, as the tiny critters destroyed the plastic gas tank of his zero-turn mower recently.

“I was filling it and I looked down and said, ‘Man, where is this gas coming from?’ It was dripping on my shoe,” said Cutrer, 70, a retired music teacher who lives on Highway 584 West.

“I said, ‘My goodness, there are holes all over this thing.’ It was oozing out all over the thing,” he said.

Close inspection revealed the tank to be riddled with tiny holes. Cutrer compared it to a shotgun blast with No. 8 shot pellets.

He drained the gas, filled the holes with J.B. Weld, called the dealer — he’d bought it in Louisiana — and then the manufacturer. The company promptly sent him another tank.

Cutrer went online and identified his assailants as camphor shot borer beetles, jokingly referred to as “boozy beetles” since they like alcohol.

“It’s an invasive species that actually entered this country in Mississippi in 1999,” Cutrer said. “It’s kin to the ambrosia beetle of China.”

The beetles are drawn to the smell of ethanol, which trees emit when stressed or dying. They especially like sweet gum trees.

And they apparently can’t differentiate between the scent of ethanol gas and ethanol from trees.

“Those silly things, they bore in and the gasoline immediately kills them,” Cutrer said.

They focused on the seams of his tank, where the plastic is evidently weaker.

The bugs did their work with amazing speed. Cutrer had used the mower just three days prior with no trouble.

“This happened within a three-day period,” he said.

The bugs have already spread across the eastern United States. They got the attention of Florida wildlife officials due to the threat to boaters, who might set out on a journey only to have bug-riddled tanks lose their fuel.

Julie Dycus of T&D Repair, Osyka, said she hasn’t run across any instances of camphor beetle infestations — in fact, hasn’t heard of them.

Neither had a spokesperson for the Pike County Extension Service, which fields landowner questions.

“I’ve been here 25 years and I’ve never had this to happen,” Cutrer said.

He looked around for clues. He recently built a woodshed for firewood, and put some old lightning-killed pine kindling in it. And there are plenty of sweetgums on his place. Nothing unusual about all that.

More unusual is the fact that he lives in a log house, but he built it 25 years ago, and besides, the logs were well soaked in Boracare before being stained.  

“This is unheard-of,” Cutrer said. “I’ve asked numerous people.”

Mississippi State University entomologist Dr. Blake Layton said the beetles are pretty rare.

“It’s not something that happens every day, but it’s not the first, second or third time I’ve heard of it in my career,” he said, noting they’re statewide.

The beetles attack not only plastic gas tanks but pasture or row crop sprayer hoses winterized with alcohol-based antifreeze.

“Prevention would be to use pure gasoline,” Layton said. “For somebody with a mower or gas can, that would be the best prevention.”

Cutrer has done just that. He switched to ethanol-free gas for his mower — which is a good thing since the replacement tank appears identical to the old one.

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