Jon De Vos – Boring, boring, boring
Jon De Vos / The Friday Report
Grand County, Colorado
Today’s topic is even more boring than the usual drivel my editor complains about. Local Chambers of Commerce are tongue-tied and turning blue explaining to tourists that brown pine trees are natural and attractive and don’t detract in the slightest from property values and vacation experiences. I haven’t seen any “Dead Tree Tours” featured but when they become wildly popular, remember you heard it first here.
The mountain pine beetle is the culprit, a native American pest, responsible for the deaths of more than 2 million acres of lodgepole, ponderosa, sugar and western white pine from Canada to Mexico and California to Nebraska in an outbreak more than 10 times larger than any previous in recorded history. This tiny insect, about the size of a grain of rice, has destroyed more than a quarter of a billion trees, most of them in my backyard, and it ain’t over yet. In the record numbers of the current plague, non-host trees like fur, spruce, larch and cedars are also being slaughtered simply for the crime being in the beetle’s way. Nothing is even slowing it down. In areas where it wouldn’t naturally go, man has obliged the tiny pillager by exporting it in firewood to urban neighborhoods and isolated woodlands.
The beetle has a one-year life cycle, developing through four stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. But for the few days when they fly from tree to tree, their lives are spent breeding, eating and hiding just under the bark of a dying tree. So efficient a predator, the larvae shrug off freezing temperatures by converting the cellulose of the tree into glycerol, basically the same stuff you put into your car’s radiator to keep it from freezing.
Under the bark, female beetles dig egg galleries up to four feet long, laying tiny, pearl-white eggs during the summer and early fall. The eggs hatch in two weeks into tiny larva, a miniature grub worm stage that lasts 10 months, from August to the following June when they mature into adults. It’s at this stage that the adults emerge through tiny exit holes about the size of a BB. Each infested tree produces enough beetles to attack three other trees. A bit of math wizardry shows that the beetles in one infected tree can kill more than 360 trees in six short years. Multiply that by a gazillion and what you come up with looks just like Grand County.
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When a female beetle successfully bores into a tree, she comes back out and performs a seductive little lodgepole dance, wildly throwing off pheromones that brings the boys in droves, sealing the fate of the unfortunate tree. Once infested, there is simply no practical cure for the doomed tree. The beetles carry the spores of the blue-staining fungi in a special little divot on their heads. Under the bark, the fungi growth gradually shuts down the flow of water to the crown of the tree, resulting in its slow death a year later.
Prevention is possible but expensive and controversial. Carbaryl was first commercially produced by Union Carbide in 1958 and is today the third most used pesticide and possibly the best offense available to deter the mountain pine beetle. It’s toxic. It has to be to kill the beetles and trees must be thoroughly saturated from top to bottom with a mix of 5 ounces of chemical per gallon of water. It’s been blamed for everything from heart attacks and birth defects to cancer and irreversible chromosome damage but the truth of the matter is that it breaks down quickly into non-toxic byproducts and has been judged food-safe by the USDA.
Such a bore.
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