The Tyee

Nikiforuk: What the Bark Beetle Taught Me

Page 2 of 2

The history of beetle control, like most insect sagas, reads like a classic Shakespearean comedy. For 300 years, the authorities have tried to burn, electrocute, drown, gas, poison, explode and smother animals the size of mouse turds.

But guess what: they failed. The authorities always killed more trees than beetles, and when a cold spell ended the outbreak, the authorities invariably lied and claimed credit. The legacy is so horrible that Canadian provincial governments don't even want to spend money monitoring the failure of their billion dollar interventions in the woods.

Whenever people ask U.S. entomologist Jesse Logan what can be done to stop bark beetle storms, he calmly reminds them that they are natural events just like Katrina. "Could you build a fan big enough to blow a hurricane back out to the ocean?" asks Logan. He predicts that we'll see more chaos in the forest until we stop burning fossil fuels and plowing up landscapes. "What will happen will happen."

The climate change connection

Climate change didn't cause the beetle hurricanes, but it did trigger these natural disturbances. Unlike politicians, insects respond quickly to changes in the climate. Warm winters and often-warmer summers gave the beetles unparalleled advantages. They reproduced in ungodly numbers. Just imagine a pod of 3,300 (60 ton) killer whales flying over Alaska's spruce forests for a decade, and you'll have a picture of the insect biomass at work in one epidemic.

But climate change also weakened the trees. A drought-stressed pine can't produce much resin, its first line of defense against beetles. And so white spruce, guardian of the north, the white bark, king of the mountains, the lodgepole, the teepee builder, and the pinyon, the feeder of civilizations, fell in unprecedented numbers. Every day, 100,000 beetle-riddled lodgepoles come crashing down in the forests of Wyoming and Colorado.

With the uncertainty created by climate change, scientists don't know how many landscapes will recover in the wake of the beetle. In Alaska, Canada grass has smothered the ground and new spruce seedlings too. Throughout the Rocky Mountain west, the white bark pine is disappearing from the tops of mountains. In New Mexico, aromatic forests of pinyon and juniper have been reduced to a single species: juniper. "You can't force something back to existing conditions when they no longer exist," notes Diana Six, a beetle expert at University of Montana.

Big lessons from tiny creatures

So here are a few truths that the beetle had to tell us, and they are worth repeating to friends and relatives, even if these city dwellers don't think they have much to learn from trees or beetles.

Big things, the source of all social and political misery, always fail.

Small and improbable characters on the landscape invariably change history in unpredictable ways.

Aging forests, just like most corrupt financial or energy systems, will collapse whether we approve or not.

Humans love stability at any cost, but Mother Nature lives and breathes volatility.

Small things ride out volatility, while big systems fail.

A civilization that can't leave room in its forests for either fire or bark beetles has ultimately left itself no room to maneuver.

It is an accident waiting to happen.

[See more Tyee environment reporting.]

What have we missed? What do you think? We want to know. Comment below. Keep in mind:


  • Verify facts, debunk rumours
  • Add context and background
  • Spot typos and logical fallacies
  • Highlight reporting blind spots
  • Ignore trolls
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity
  • Connect with each other

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist or homophobic language
  • Libel or defame
  • Bully or troll
  • Troll patrol. Instead, flag suspect activity.
comments powered by Disqus