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.

F & P