Oak wilt spreads to other oak trees in two ways – long distances with the aid of certain beetles or locally through common or grafted roots. Sap-feeding (nitidulid) beetles are believed to be responsible for much of the long distance spread of oak wilt. During the spring, the oak wilt fungus forms special spore-producing structures called fungal mats on red oaks. Nitidulid beetles are small (about 1/8-inch long) and are attracted to oak wilt fungal mats because the mats have a sweet, “fruity” smell. Mats form underneath the bark of diseased red oaks and are not known to occur on live oak trees. The fungal mats apply pressure under the bark causing a tiny crack to form.
These mats can be found on the trunk and major branches of red oaks. When a nitidulid beetle feeds on an oak wilt fungal mat, spores of the oak wilt fungus will cling to the body of the beetle. Nitidulid beetles also feed on tree sap associated with fresh wounds. If a beetle contaminated with oak wilt spores lands on a fresh wound on a healthy oak, then that tree can become infected. Tree wounds can be made by man or nature, but nitidulid beetles are attracted to both.
Once established, the fungus moves from one tree to the next through common or grafted roots.