Andrew Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle is not just a primer on the life cycle, usefulness and recent rampages of the tribe of bark beetles that have killed more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees in Canada and the American West. It is not just a virtual gathering of the dozens of scientists, artists and philosophers who have grappled with the sudden beetle onslaught that has wiped out whole forests. It is not simply another tome that blames all hell on climate change. And it is not only an indictment of politicians and industry leaders who disdainfully refer to the mountain pine beetle as “an insect no bigger than a mouse turd.”
It is at its best a principled reflection on what ecologist Crawford Holling has called “the pathology of resource management.” The never-before-seen complete virulence of the bark beetles in the conifer forests – with a few aspen forests thrown in for good measure – is not just the result of some wrong turn in forest policy. It is a result of the mistaken notion that any forest policy is better than learning from nature and following nature’s ways.
Nikiforuk shows frankly that bark beetle outbreaks are nothing new. He cites characters in native tales that represent the bark beetle. He records outbreaks revealed in the distant past by dendrochronology, and more recent ones of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. In each, the tiny beetles use extraordinary means – pheromones, commensal fungi, associated mites – to gather in huge numbers to overcome mature pines and kill them.
Unlike many pests, who weaken but do not kill their hosts, the bark beetles specifically and intentionally destroy the trees they attack. When they are done, they move on to new trees. And so forth and so on. For a hundred million years, the family of the scolytids have served to remove from the landscape over-mature trees that could not defend themselves from the mass attack.
Indeed, the response of a healthy young pine to the first bark beetle to arrive is often to eject it bodily from the tree or entomb it in a stream of gooey resin. The oldest bark beetle fossils are preserved in amber, and were certainly victims of an ancient pine’s defences. If the first few beetles cannot gain a foothold, they do not call their fellows with pheromone cues, and a mass attack does not occur. They move on to other, weaker trees.
So why have the attacks of the past two decades been so much more virulent than any previous attacks that we know of?
Quite simply, the reasons are the arrogance and stupidity of management. We have created a world in which far too many beetles survive and propagate. The denser the populations, the more beetles to attack each tree, the more that even a healthy young tree may be overcome by sheer numbers. And the more the beetle is successful, the more beetles it makes for the next wave.
Climate change is one, but only one, of the causes. When northern and mountain winters warm, only a small fraction of the usual winter kill of beetles occurs. There are thus orders of magnitudes more to expand the killing front, come spring.
Just as important to the rampage of the beetle is long-term misguided policy that regards forest fires as an evil to be eradicated. Motivated by the desire to protect private property and valuable timber, the Smokey the Bear ethos has done more damage than any raging fire. Until the policy-makers decided to stop the fires, the conifer forests had lived by fire for millennia of millennia, renewing themselves by burning.
When fire removes a forest of old trees, the food for the beetle is significantly diminished and the beetle population itself is depleted. In the aftermath, the beetle population in the area crashes, giving a renewing pine forest a new lease on life.
If you prevent forest fires, large numbers of aging trees remain in the forest. The older they are, the more chance they have to be weakened by pathogens or simply by years of standing out in the weather. They are ripe for beetle attack. If the scolytids get them instead of fire, who can blame the beetle? They are simply doing the job that fire was meant to do.
To make matters exponentially worse, the policy-makers then go the beetle one better. If the bark beetles are killing whole forests, why not beat them to it by clear-cutting dying, dead and healthy trees? The last of these make a windfall for the forest products industry, while the first two are the foundation of new industrial opportunities, for example, in pellets for wood stoves. Doubtless, the wood pellet idea has already been given the badge name of “innovation” by some enterprising Babbitt.
This does not stop the beetles, but it gives a good shot in the arm to industry. Unfortunately, it also leads to massive erosion, destruction of the mycorrhizal communities upon which the trees depend, and other changes that make forest regeneration difficult, if not impossible.
Most books of this kind leave one feeling powerless. If these forces are so big and so wrong, what can I do, little me? Perhaps I would be better to sit in a corner and cry. But Nikiforuk neither recommends this nor leaves us in the dark. Among the fine portraits in the book are several of artists who respond to the beetle. One carves massive eyeless watchers with his chainsaw and scatters them about the landscape. Another begins to make furniture of the blue-stained wood.
But you don’t have to be an artist to respond. Again, he cites Holling on the inherent unpredictability of the future. No policy can encompass it. In this world, individuals and small groups make all the difference. What will become of the empire of the beetle will not be decided in Ottawa or Washington, nor by some “grassroots” movement, but by the individuals, families and communities on the land.
William Bryant Logan is an arborist in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the author of, among others, Oak: The Frame of Civilization and Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.