Empire of the Beetle

“I’m here to protect the trees from the beetle,” said the academic. The logger laughed and said that was bullshit. “The trees and the beetles have been in cahoots for millions of years.”In Empire of the Beetle, Andrew Nikiforuk tells the tale of the destruction caused by the disruption of that cahoot-ness, as tiny beetles, spectacular ignorance and mismanagement by humans, and climate change have united to destroy 30 billion lodgepole, pinyon, ponderosa, and whitebark pine trees in western North American during the last two decades, radically transforming individual human lives and communities.

Essentially, the beetles, de facto forest managers, used to hit old and already weakened trees, creating the conditions for the fires necessary to clear away competition for the trees and fertilize new seedlings sprouting from the seeds from heat-sprung cones. The fires would also cut back on the beetles, who otherwise might increase ad infinitum. Colder winters also checked beetle populations. A century of fire suppression and then runs of impotent winters resulted in locust-like plagues of Dendroctonus (“tree killing”) species bark beetles.

The locust analogy is illustrative: in the late 1870s, Melanoplus spretus exploded across the prairies, devouring everything in their path from grain to leather, wool, and the family laundry. A migratory grasshopper, the locust moved from food source to food source in massive clouds. Estimates of the number of these Rocky Mountain locusts are given in the trillions and measured by the ton. (The film Days of Heaven gives a spectacular, hallucinatory suggestion of what it was like for humans to be caught up in this storm of insects.) And then, as the locusts’ grasslands habitat was undone by plow and irrigation, the locust disappeared. The last known specimen was taken in 1902. It is now considered extinct.

Meanwhile, one of the methods used to try to stop the bark beetles was arsenic. Jesus. That turned out to kill one of the most effective anti-beetle defenses, fifteen species of woodpeckers (termed “bark-foraging wildlife tree users” by some bureaucrat).

Consider these rice grain-sized beetles. Like all animals, they are also zoological compendium, carrying multiple species of bacteria, yeasts, fungi, mites, and nematodes, which themselves are transporters of fungi and etc. (A blue-staining fungi carried by the beetles has resulted in a desperate timber industry selling “denim pine.”) Nature is close enough to infinite, and we have only the vaguest understandings of how it works. This book, with its fugue in awe of beetles, one of the dominant life forms on the planet, is a good place to start our educations.

6 Responses to “Empire of the Beetle”

  1. 1 myra hope August 13, 2012 at 9:26 am

    Just returned from Colorado where in Breckenridge the surrounding forest is 80% dead wood. It’s stunning to see all these trees still standing, as if poised for the match strike (or just as likely lightning).

    The east coast is graced with the wooly adelgid which is decimating the hemlock forests in much the same fashion…..

  2. 3 Elizabeth White August 13, 2012 at 11:28 am

    I was just out in Colorado last month and saw the damage done by the beetles – whole mountainsides covered with dead trees with an occasional green spot where a beetle hadn’t struck: maybe the tree was too small in diameter.

    What was even sadder was seeing the piles of wood stacked by the side of the road waiting for the Park Department’s portable furnace (probably a technical name for this that I don’t know) to come by and burn it. I asked why the wood couldn’t be used – the beetles were long gone from it. The answer: all the local already had all the wood they could use from dead trees on their own property, and it wasn’t economical to truck the wood out.
    It’s the West – paper production, for instance, requires a lot of water, which is always in short supply, especially in a drought year like this.

    I have a few pictures…

    • 4 mthew August 13, 2012 at 2:16 pm

      Great, more carbon in the atmosphere!

      Now shouldn’t you really have a blog or Flickr to show your pics to the world?

  3. 5 alphonsegaston August 13, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    We must never underestimate the power of insects. I recall this as a scifi theme in an early story by, I think??, J.R.R.

  1. 1 Books « Backyard and Beyond Trackback on December 18, 2012 at 7:50 am

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