Ravenblog: A Tale about Beetles

There are many ways to approach most ecological problems, including pine beetle outbreaks. For many centuries nature dealt with these outbreaks herself. How else would you imagine the forests of North America got so extensive and productive before Europeans arrived to cut the trees down and manage the continent? If in our absence the pine beetle really would have wiped out the forest in the Rocky Mountains, the beetles would have had ample time to kill all the trees and the storms with their lightning would have burned down every scrap of standing wood long before the Mayflower landed on the continent’s eastern shore. But, now that ‘we’ are here, the forests of the Rocky Mountains are overrun by pine beetles. Why?

Well, there are many insects and birds that eat pine beetles. Before ‘we’ got here these beneficial creatures would turn up whenever pine beetles were readily available, just as flocks of birds turn up when the crabs migrate across Caribbean islands. Some beetles survived every year, of course, and the trees they killed kept parts of the forest canopy from closing off too much, allowing sunlight below the treetops for the baby trees and other plants that could not thrive in a dark, perfectly intact forest. When settlers arrived in Colorado, birds were considered game, all birds. Men would turn up with their guns and kill as many birds as they could, for fun, collecting all the carcasses in huge piles to be photographed with their dead, but rarely making use of the carcasses for food or anything else. After all, without good refrigeration how would you use several hundred woodpeckers, pheasants or ducks, let alone smaller birds? Men in those days killed everything that moved, it seemed, as if they expected that there would always be plenty more, and anyway, why should they feel responsible for their actions? (Can you tell I have no respect for such men?) Woodpeckers were easy to kill, because they are brighly colored and make knocking noises on trees while they are feeding, an easy noise for hunters to trace to pick off these birds from their tree trunks. Well, what do you think these birds were eating on those tree trunks? Bugs.

Woodpeckers have the right beaks to pick out beetles from tree bark, and they used to turn up in large numbers whenever the pine beetles were out. Pine beetles spend most of their lives inside trees. They hatch from eggs deposited inside a tree, and immediately start eating their way through the tree, growing as they eat their escape tunnels. When they reach the outside of the tree they are full grown and can fly to the next tree, where they land, attract a mate, and then the female burrows into the new tree to lay her eggs and die inside the tree. No doubt hunters recognized that there were days when woodpeckers were paritcularly abundant in forests with these beetles, and I’m sure the hunters killed many birds that arrived to eat these beetles as they emerged from their birth trees and headed to their new trees. Woodpeckers have small families, raising only a couple young each year, while beetles have many young each year. So, killing the woodpeckers gave the beetles the breathing room to really increase their populations. The huge fires we have had over the past decade in Colorado are due to all the dead trees these beetles have killed- dead trees burn easier, so that ordinary lightning-sparked ground fires that would only singe the bark of a healthy tree lead to massive, very hot forest fires that wipe out most of the trees, healthy and dead.

Today it is illegal to go out and kill woodpeckers for fun, so why are they not back to eating all the beetles? First of all, they may take decades more to recover from all the hunting that decimated their numbers, since they still have very few young each season. Second, while the woodpeckers have been too few to control the beetles, we have developed deadly chemicals that we dump from helicopters and planes onto our forests. The aim of all this chemical dumping is to kill pine beetles, but as I already explained above, these beetles are only out in the open for a brief time as they fly from their old trees to the new ones. Once they are under the bark of their new trees, the chemicals dumped on their forests won’t reach the beetles. But it does reach all the smaller birds, rodents and predatory insects that have been eating beetles, and these deadly chemicals kill or weaken these beneficial creatures, making the beetles’ lives even easier. I am sure some of the professionals in the Department of Agriculture know that their sprays are not working to kill the beetles, especially since after 30 years or more of using those deadly chemicals, the beetles are still spreading quite happily. Since the huge forest fires that have destroyed hundreds of homes in and around Colorado Springs and Fort Collins, the agency can’t afford to look like it is doing nothing, though, and while spraying doesn’t actually kill off the beetles very well, it looks better to taxpayers than sitting back and promoting birds and other beetle-predators to kill the beetles. Most taxpayers don’t understand how the birds, rodents and beneficial insects are connected to the beetles, and it takes a lot of hard work to teach ecology to everybody so they can understand what the government is doing. So, we keep spraying.

And what are the costs to us in the long run? The birds are becoming fewer every year, the beneficial insects and rodents are also disappearing. The chemicals also impact the lizards, snakes and frogs, of course, which are also dying in greater numbers. Then we have the impacts from the fires, from the massive damage that the beetles do in the absence of their predators. And last, but not least, especially for me, we have the effects on humans directly from all those deadly chemicals. When my mother was hiking one day in the late 1970’s there was one of these chemicals in the forest, having been recently dumped in bucket-loads all over the trees and the trail she was walking along. She was pregnant, and 6-7 months later I was born, with a disorder called VACTERL Association. It is something that is caused by a chemical interfering with foetal development at a particular stage of development. Since it is not likely that women expose themselves to this nasty chemical at just that right time in their pregnancies, this disorder is relatively uncommon, and certainly there is not enough data to absolutely conclusively prove that THAT chemical is the culprit. So, it is actually still in use over 30 years later as a spray to control beetles in our forests. I get no compensation from the government, because how could I absolutely prove that they were responsible for my disorder? And meanwhile that chemical continues to kill off the creatures that are our only real hope of killing the pine beetles that are destroying our forests.

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About Ravenmount

Independent science nerd/writer/music blogger/arts enthusiast/theorist currently in Colorado.
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