The size of a grain of rice, Dendroctonus ponderosae – better known as the mountain pine beetle – is a small bark beetle, the most ravenous of its kind.
1. Adult beetles attack fresh targets in the late summer. Once the tree succumbs, eggs are laid below the bark and, several weeks later, white larvae with brown heads hatch.
2. The larvae munch the tree, in part so they can produce glycol, an antifreeze that allows the new beetles to mostly survive freezing winters.
3. New DNA research by the University of North British Columbia reveals that the beetle's genes are similar to those in rats and humans that help stave off starvation. “Like rats, if you starve rats, or in people, marathon runners, when they're entering what might be considered a stage of starvation,” said chemical ecology expert Dezene Huber of UNBC. “It seems the insects go through what looks like a marathon.”
4. The best beetle killer is severe cold. While sustained temperatures toward -40 in the winter is one death blow, the likelier kill comes from “sharp shocks” in the fall or spring, when the temperature suddenly falls from higher than zero to lower than -20.
5. By early summer, larvae become pupae and then shortly thereafter adults, ready to attack.
1. Beetle infestations have occurred in British Columbia several times in the past century. This epidemic emerged in several places in the mid-1990s, with the north side of Tweedsmuir Park being a particular hot spot.
2. By the early 2000s, the infestation was out of control and the beetle exponentially attacked. It killed 30-million cubic metres of forest in 2002, a figure that peaked at 140-million in 2005. Forestry companies now rush to salvage dead pine before it rots to useless quality.
3. By 2010, a total of 700-million cubic metres has been killed and is expected to drift higher toward one billion – three-quarters of all of B.C.'s pine trees and, on paper, as much as $30-billion lost.
4. In a somewhat perverse equation, B.C. foresters see a boom coming. Because the province previously supplied so much wood to North American markets, and with supply permanently reduced, industry executives and investors forecast “peak lumber” and a tight market thereafter. The price could spike when the U.S. housing market eventually recovers. Survivors will profit.
1. Alberta has had pine beetle infestations before – the mid-1970s to mid-1980s was the most recent. The current scourge began in force in June, 2006, when beetles from British Columbia flew to Alberta.
2. Last winter, an aggressive counterattack in the Banff National Park region, combined with a cold snap, stopped the beetle in Southern Alberta, where very little work is required this winter.
3. North of Jasper, the situation remains difficult in the beetle's hot spots. About 150,000 newly infected trees were taken down last winter; and upwards of 169,000 are in the dock this winter – compared with barely 200 in the south.
4. Although it appears Alberta can hold the line, new research by Allan Carroll of UBC indicates urgency remains. The beetles' march eastward across Canada is a “significant risk,” he said. Whether that happens quickly, or is measured in decades, depends on what happens in Alberta. “If the beetle remains in an outbreak population, its capacity to move large distances is still very high.”