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BARK BEETLE BOY: ACT III - THE DRAMATIC CONCLUSION

Feb. 4 2016: So how does an insect that has co-evolved with its host for millenniums suddenly become the Scourge of the West? Climate change, that's what most that study the beetle believe. . . .Ah, there's that climate change stuff again, you're probably saying. The answer to everything these days is climate change, including why my last check at the supermarket bounced and if you're one of the maligned few that are climate change deniers, or climate skeptics, as they prefer to be called, it's got to be so frustrating you just want to grab your rifle and your tinfoil hat and go squat on some federal land. But I digress.

If our winters are getting warmer and our summers are getting drier, as forecast in a 2012 US Forest Service study of the Pacific Northwest, then what happens is a higher percentage of bark beetles survive through the winter. The more that make it through the spring the larger the populations become. The climate no longer acts like a check to the population. Drier summers results in greater drought stress in trees and we know now that's a veritable cavitation symphony (see Bark Beetle Boy-Act II for cavitation explanation) to the beetles.

Our own forest management practices have contributed to the beetle explosion. Diligent fire fighting has reduced forest fires in the past. That's good for timber production and public safety and also the beetles. The ecology of fire is to thin out and cull the sick and unthrifty (overmature trees, suppressed trees, stressed trees).the same trees that are ideal beetle targets. The irony is that as the bark beetle problem gets worse, due in part to fire reduction efforts, the trees that the beetle kills (estimated at 100,00 per day) leads to a dramatically increased fuel load in the forest. When forest fires come now, they are doozies.

So how is the beetle fought in the vast arena that are our Western forests? There are a number of strategies proposed and underway. One is to do nothing. Some scientists believe that natural selection will prevail. That within a tree species population there are individuals that genetically are better adapted to warmer climates and drought stress or can better defend themselves through greater pitch production than their peers. Those "supertrees" survive and pass on their genotypes eventually creating a forest that is resistant. Natural selection is not exclusive though and the beetles can also be co-evolving along with the supertree. Proponents of the watch and wait approach point out that, despite over 300 million spent so far in beetle control measures, overall forest damage has only been reduced marginally.

One of the more active controls is the pursuit of controlled harvesting through logging and pre-commercial of forest stands. By decreasing a forest stand's density, you also increase it's vigor, so a less compact hardier forest is less susceptible to beetle attack. By harvesting dead and dying beetle-killed trees, you are removing the beetle at its buffet. At least that's the logic.

Verbenone packetVerbenone packetRemember pheromones from the last article? They are being used now. One pheromone in particular, verbenone, is being used for controlling mountain pine beetle (MPB)and Ips beetle. The synthetic pheromone is a repellant. It mimics the beetle's "Stay away from my trough!!" scent . It is applied via bags stapled to trees or plastic flakes that are broadcast from the air. Because of cost (~$170/acre), its unfeasible for the forestland, except for very high value small stands. The city of Big Sky, Montana and a ski resort near Aspen, for example, have used this control. Timing is critical with pheromones. It must be out just before the first male beetles fly in the spring. Miss that variable window and you're hosed.

Chemical insecticides are largely ineffective. On high value landscape pines, some insecticides can be used as a preventive during beetle flight but must be applied annually. Once the beetle gets inside the tree no insecticide will work effectively. On a forest wide basis, chemical control is impractical, costly and environmentally unsound. For the homeowner it may be an option but requires hiring a commercial applicator with high pressure spray rig to completely cover the tree. It's not a DIY thing.

Since beetle attacks and drought stress go hand in hand, for the homeowner with a few landscape pines summer irrigation can help relieve that water stress. It's not an absolute safeguard but it helps.

Ending Scene - Bark Beetle Boy
(War torn, smoldering forest rubble. Final battle over. Dead bark beetles by the thousands, crashed planes, burnt out tanks, etc litter the scene. Our hero/ine stumbles through, aghast at the death and destruction. Stops in front of the huge dead prostrate body of Bark Beetle Boy. Behind him/her follows Old Bearded Guy with Suspenders)

Hero/ine: My God! What a cost, but it finally over. Our forests can finally heal now. Our children can finally go alone into them without fear. He (points to BBB) and all his kind are gone!

Old Bearded Guy: Nah, chief. They've gone away, but they're not gone.

Hero/ine: You mean they'll be back?

Old Bearded Guy: Sure, they always have. Maybe not tomorrow or next year but they will be back, and they'll be stronger and smarter and smellier.

Hero/ine: It'll never end?!

Old Bearded Guy: It'll never end.

(Both look into the horizon. Camera pans to dead Bark Beetle Boy. Zooms in to compound eye. One of the three hundred simple eyes appears to wink. )

(Screen goes black. The End)

I have to say I've been a little bit disappointed in the major comic publishers in jumping on this. All I've received from them so far are some cease-and-desist letters about using their names in this blog.
I have, however, received a $50 cash offer for exclusive movie rights from Roy's Comic Books in Minot, N. Dakota. Roy promises to have it in production and ready for a screen debut at the Parker Senior Center in Minot by early 2018. It's not as much as I hoped for, but this story has to get out. I hope you'll join me for its debut.

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BARK BEETLE BOY: ACT II-B

BARK BEETLE BOY!!!: ACT II-B

In the insect world, communication within a species can be through several media. They can communicate through sight and movement, such as the honeybee "waggle dance". They can communicate through sound like the chirping of cicadas. By far the biggest is the media of smell. Pheromones are chemicals produced by insects and animals and even some plants that affect behavior. Sometimes the behavior of another member of your species, sometimes a member of a totally different species (Truffles, for example, produce a pheromone similar to a sexual attractant pheromone produced by mammalian males. That's why pigs can "smell" them and find them) Some have an odor to them, some do not.

The bark beetle's pheromone lexicon is pretty ingenious. When an adult male locates a susceptible tree (remember from Act II-A how they can hear stress), they land on the bark and chew into the inner bark. If they're successful and haven't been drowned by the tree's pitch, they emit a pheromone that attracts other bark beetles, male and female. "Hey. I found a way into the store! There's lots of loot!"

At some point, after a number of other beetles have taken the invitation (particularly the females), now the original colonizers start issuing a pheromone that says, "Buzz off. No room at the trough!" Kind of the chemical equivalent of gang tagging their territory.

Mountain pine beetle galleryMountain pine beetle galleryThe beetles do damage in two ways. First, the adults that make it past the outer bark, begin to feed on the inner bark. The inner bark contains the phloem, the food carrying part of the tree. The female also lays eggs here and when they hatch, the larvae also begins to chew tunnels through the phloem. Its effect is to girdle or sever the highway between the food producing needles and the food needy roots. Roots that can't get food will die and now they can't pump up water and minerals to the needles above. Not good at all for the tree, but the tree still have a shot at surviving.

The second type of damage, the double whammy for the tree, is the fungus that the beetles carry on their body. This fungus, called blue stain fungus, infects the sapwood of the tree. The sapwood is the newest wood of a tree, from the last 3 to 10 annual rings of growth. The sapwood contains the xylem, the water and mineral conducting vessels. The fungus grows rapidly and clogs this xylem up. That means sudden death to the tree. No water, no leaves or needles.

Blue stain fungus got its name because it stains the wood blue. When beetle killed trees go to a sawmill Blue stain fungusBlue stain funguswhat gets milled out are boards with a bluish cast to them. When I was an extension agent in Colorado, a couple decades ago, blue stained lumber was just coming down from a peak demand craze. For awhile, everybody wanted to line their rec rooms with blue stain board paneling. With lots of beetle killed trees and lots of demand, local loggers were doing well. No fads last forever, and soon blue stain lumber was old hat. Instead of beetle killed stands being harvested, they were left standing and the incidences and severity of forest fires went up.

We have now large areas of dead standing timber thanks to the bark beetles. Every year we seem to have a fire season worse than the preceding year. What is causing this escalating plague of bark beetles? How can we stem the tide? That will be Bark Beetle Boy: Act III - The Dramatic Conclusion.

(Note to Marvel: So of course, we'll have the Army, Air Force, Seals and Marines all battling Bark Beetle Boy and the Legion, but to no avail.

Scene: (Field Commander in tent. Military personnel racing around.)
Commander: "Nothing we do seems to work! Every stratagem, every maneuver we make they anticipate! It's as if they read our minds."

(From the dark background of the tent, an old bearded guy in suspenders shuffles up.)

Old Bearded Guy: "Nah, chief, they're not reading your mind, they're smelling it. If you want a chance, you gotta fight smell with smell. Here." (Hands an aerosol can to the Commander)

Commander: "What's this? Date-Mate??"

Old Bearded Guy: " It's a sexual attractant pheromone. Spray this on every tank, plane and soldier we have. Not only will they know we're coming, but they'll come to us. Love will conquer all."

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BARK BEETLE BOY!!!: ACT II

Jan. 21, 2016: In Act I, I introduced our antagonist, the bark beetle and the dramatic question -how will our forests be saved from this rapacious beast? In any good suspense story, I would now portray that villain in a most maleficent light so you would hate it and thereby root for the protagonists (the trees). When you look at how bark beetles interact with their prey, it's pretty tough to paint a black and white picture. For something the size of a mouse dropping , they are remarkably "clever" (if I may use that anthropomorphic term).

Our three biggest bark beetle pests, (the Ips, mountain pine and western pine beetles), are all native to North America. This is no alien invader introduction. They have co-evolved with western pines for millenniums. Why now are they such a plague? That is the dramatic question that will be answered in Act III.

Pitch tubesPitch tubesMany years ago I had a student, in my horticulture program in South Carolina (where they have southern pine beetles), that managed the grounds of a shopping complex. He asked me to come out and look at a group of Loblolly pines that looked like they were dying. They were located in a parking lot island surrounded by other healthy pines. Four trees out of that group of twenty or thirty were showing decline (browning and dropping needles) and little white irregular bumps, or pitch tubes, on the trunk. These trees were under attack by the southern pine beetle but why only four trees and not all the trees surrounding them? When I started questioning the groundskeeper, he told me that one of the trees had been struck by lightning in a storm two weeks before. Lightning often does more damage underground to roots than is exhibited aboveground and more than likely the four trees all had root damage due to the lightning grounding out. That explains why beetles attacked these trees but did not explain how they can detect stressed trees. When I'm stressed, I swear a lot and snap at people, but I've never seen that with trees.

The reason why bark beetles attack stressed trees is that stressed trees are less able to defend themselves. When a bark beetle attacks a pine, the adult must first chew through the outer bark into the nutritious inner bark, which contains the phloem, the food bearing "arteries" of the tree. The trees defense is to produce large quantities of pine pitch in an effort to drown the invading beetles. Those are the pitch tubes you see on an attacked tree. Healthy trees are very effective in this defense and any bark beetles that attacked healthy trees would not fare well in this world. So in the constant evolutionary cat and mouse game, the beetles have developed a way to sense stress in trees and thereby improve their success. That was something that was widely known, even by me, back in the stone . . . well awhile ago.

But how do they do that? How? How? That question bothered me for years. Alot! Not such that I lost a marriage or jobs or took to excessive drinking over it (though I think that would be a great idea for the protagonist in the movie), but I thought about it frequently. One day I was at a seminar, and an entomologist was talking about bark beetles and he revealed the secret . . . they hear it! Talk about a hosanna moment! And (this is even more amazing!) what they hear is cavitation within the tree! "Really?"you're saying"Cavitation? That's amazing! What the h. .. is cavitation?"

I'm glad you asked. There is cavitation in pumps and there's cavitation in the xylem (water conducting tubes) of the tree. Both types of cavitation, the pump kind and the tree kind, involve air bubbles getting into the stream of fluids. In a mechanical pump, it causes a rattling. In a tree, it cause causes a rattling, though not at a decibel that you or I or any animal can hear, but the bark beetles do. Trees that are healthy don't have air bubbles in their sap, trees that are drought stressed or having dying roots, say from lightning strikes, do. There is even a branch of science research called acoustic ecology.

For me, the answer to that long vexing question filled that void in my soul that nothing else before could, even the excessive drinking . . .well, forget that last part. (Note to Marvel: Final Climactic Battle Scene: Large army flatbeds pull up with huge megaphones mounted on them and atop them are mounted megaton bug zappers. Our sober protagonist hero/ine stands in front as the beetle horde approaches. Pretty dramatic, eh.)

Once the bark beetle detects the stressed tree what happens next is even more, or, at the very least, AS amazing. And this time, its involves the sense of smell. And that, most patient reader, I will reveal when next I blog : Pine Beetle Boy!!! Act II-B. Until then, don't excessively drink and go into the forest alone.

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BARK BEETLE BOY!!!: ACT I

Jan. 12, 2016: I recently saw the movie Ant-Man on DVD. I'd like to say I watched it with the grandkids but I rented it and watched it myself. I got to thinking that there are very few insect based superheroes. Besides Ant-Man maybe the Green Hornet, but he had just the name and not much insect stuff about him. And yes, there is SpiderMan, but he is technically an arachnid and not an insect. There are even fewer insect based supervillains. Maybe The Fly, but that's it.

What Marvel Comics needs as there next blockbuster hit (which I'm willing to sell the rights to for reasonable royalties) is another insect supervillain. It will be insidious, deadly, wily and there will be legions of them perhaps lead by one insect criminal mastermind. Like any true evil they will be almost impossible to stop. The fate of humankind will hang in the balance.

That dread supervillain is Bark Beetle Boy!!!!! and his evil army of kagillions. Ravaging the forests of the West, nothing seems to stop them. No guns, bombs, sonic cannons, nor even kryptonite, affects them. What will the world do?? Who will save us??

Well, I haven't thought that far yet and until Marvel Comics comes up with a retainer offer, I'm probably not going to spend a lot of time developing storyline. The nice thing is the real storyline won't take much embellishing (that being said . . . Marvel, let's not waste yours and my time. We can start negotiating in the six figure area). The real storyline is chilling and the fate of Western treekind does hang in the balance.

The Real Story
There are several hundred species of bark beetles that are native to North America. A handful of species cause a lot of problems - to the tune of an estimated 46 million acres. That's about 100,000 trees killed per day according to the US Forest Service. The most predominant culprits are 3 species groups of beetles: the mountain pine beetle, the western pine beetle and the ips beetle. Their cumulative range is from the Rockies west to the Cascades and Sierras, from northern British Columbia to northern Mexico. They attack ponderosa, lodgepole, sugar, western white pine and other pine species - in other words, most of the forest type of the interior West. I have even seen pine beetle damage and death in ornamental pines, eastern white pine and Japanese black pine, here in the Willamette Valley.

My first experience with bark beetles was on the Western Slope of Colorado, where I was an extension agent. Whole sides of mountain were covered in huge blotches of rust (dying ) and grey (dead) lodgepole Beetle killed forestBeetle killed forestpine. It was surreal. I thought I would never see such an astonishing sight again, but unfortunately I have here in central Oregon. One of my favorite fishing spots, Dead Horse Lake, was a pristine high elevation lake surrounded by lodgepole pine. It was the classic high country beauty we envision of the Oregon Cascades. But the beetle found it. The Forest Service closed access to it for several years because of the hazard of dead trees and when it finally opened up and I went up to go fishing. I was horrified, aghast. It was a lunar landscape. It was a lake surrounded by stumps and snags as far as my eye could see. I went elsewhere to fish.

So, I'm seeing the opening scene of the movie. A happy family is having a picnic beside a beautiful high country lake. Suddenly, the ground begins to tremor slightly. There is the sound of rasping. At first low and then building until it becomes a roar. Trees tremble, needles begin to drop and then rain down upon the terrified family. The earth writhes as branches break and trees come crashing down. The family's minivan is crushed. They have no escape. The camera closes in on the terrified family huddled together as they stare focused on something the camera now pans to. There towering over the tree tops is Bark Beetle Boy(!!!), his dead multifaceted stare and shiny mandibles grinning and dripping with sap. Scene blacks out. Ominous movie score. (Note to Marvel: Can we get Aaron Copeland for the score? Is he still alive?)

As with any good supervillain, they garner a certain amount of grudging respect and admiration from the viewer for their evil genius . This tiny black insect (it's size compared to a grain of rice or a mouse turd) is remarkable in its ability to find and attack it's prey. In Act II, we'll explore the evil genius of the bark beetle and in Act III, we'll talk about controlling the beetle and the future of western forests (and how this can be spun into lots of sequels improving the profit potential of both production and merchandising. Note to Marvel: Don't wait too long to jump on this. I can always take this to DC Comics.)

Until then, don't go into the forest alone!

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THE 4 PLANTS OF CHRISTMAS: POINTSETTIA

Dec. 20, 2015: And now to our fourth and last plant, the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima. That beautiful plant we adorn our hearth with was developed from a roadside weed that grows in southern Mexico.

(Editor's note: If you have been following this series, as I unfortunately have, you may have noticed that the author started out with 12 Christmas plants and ended up giving us only four. Such web journalistic bait-and-switch tactics are insulting to our readers, at least those that can count, and are not condoned, nor sanctioned by this website)

The plant was used for medicinal and dye purposes and, in Aztec symbolism, the blood red bracts stood for the blood the gods sacrificed to create the universe and that blood debt we owed the gods through sacrifice. To me, that gives a whole new perspective and respect for the plant. As I sit at Christmas dinner, with family around the table, I can gaze at the poinsettia centerpiece and think, "Today someone will be sacrificed".

Of course, poinsettia was not its original name. Cuetlaxochitl was its name and it means . . . I don't know what. I looked it up on Google Translate and its says its Uzbek, but I'm pretty sure its Aztec. I don't think you can count on Google Translate when it comes to ancient languages and definitely not for Joel PoinsettJoel Poinsetthieroglyphics, unless maybe you've got a hieroglyphic keyboard. But, I digress. So it had this weird Uzbek like name that maybe the Aztecs could pronounce but the rest of us couldn't. In comes Joel Roberts Poinsett, first Uzbek GuyUzbek GuyUS ambassador to Mexico, who was also an amateur botanist. He took cuttings of the plant and sent them to his greenhouse in South Carolina. John Bartram, a famous (check out previous blog The Bartrams: The Not-So-Boring Botanists series, Dec 2012)) nurseryman in Pennsylvania is credited to have marketed the first poinsettia. Some say another nurseryman, Robert Buist, first introduced it, but he's not in my blog series, so he's notAztec GuyAztec Guy as famous. Poinsettia was named after Joel Poinsett and Cuetlaxochitl faded away with the rest of the Aztecs. Thank God for that! I mean that name, not the Aztecs. They could have given it a simpler name like Gul, which is Uzbek for flower.

To get those gorgeous fully flowered plants at Christmastime is not an easy growing feat. Poinsettias are very temperature and light sensitive. They are short day plants, meaning that flowering is initiated when daylight lessens. The plants actually measure the period of darkness. Starting in October (if you want plants you can sell for Christmas), the plants must have uninterrupted darkness for 14 hours a day. The plants are so sensitive to light that if a grower checks the greenhouse at night they must use tiny maglight flashlights lest they interrupt the dark period. I once had a friend that was starting out in the commercial growing business. His first year, he grew poinsettias and had a beautiful crop of them, two weeks AFTER Christmas. Several thousand dollars down the drain and he couldn't figure out why. Late one evening, he was in the greenhouse when the garbage company came to empty his dumpster beside the greenhouse. The lights of the truck shown through the greenhouse illuminating it for a couple minutes, enough time to break the dark period and screw up the flowering. Case solved.

I hope you enjoyed this Christmas plant series. With only four more shopping days left, I'm out of here. Xompaqui ihueyihuiuh acuetlaxochitl! (That's Aztec for "Have a happy great festival with poinsettia!)

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F & P