Interesting thoughts on the Mountain Pine Beetle outbreak epidemic from one of the world’s foremost experts in beetle-fungi symbiosis:
THOUGH THEY’RE OFTEN described as pesky invaders, bark beetles have been a key part of conifer ecosystems for ages, ensuring that groves don’t get overcrowded. When a female mountain pine beetle locates a frail tree, she emits a chemical signal to her friends, who swarm to her by the hundreds. Together they chew through the bark until they reach the phloem, a cushy resinous layer between the outer bark and the sapwood that carries sugars through the tree. There, they lay their eggs in tunnels, and eventually a new generation of beetles hatches, grows up, and flies away. But before they do, the mature beetles also spread a special fungus in the center of the trunk. And that’s where things get really interesting.
[Diana] Six focuses on the “evolutionary marriage” of beetle and fungi at her four-person lab at the University of Montana, where she is the chair of the department of ecosystems and conservation sciences. Structures in bark beetles’ mouths have evolved to carry certain types of fungi that convert the tree’s tissue into nutrients for the bug. The fungi have “figured out how to hail the beetle that will get them to the center of the tree,” Six says. “It’s like getting a taxi.” The fungi leave blue-gray streaks in the trees they kill; “blue-stain pine” has become a specialty product, used to make everything from cabins to coffins to iPod cases.
A healthy tree can usually beat back invading beetles by deploying chemical defenses and flooding them out with sticky resin. But just as dehydration makes humans weaker, heat and drought impede a tree’s ability to fight back—less water means less resin. In some areas of the Rocky Mountain West, the mid-2000s was the driest, hottest stretch in 800 years. From 2000 to 2012, bark beetles killed enough trees to cover the entire state of Colorado. “Insects reflect their environment,” explains renowned entomologist Ken Raffa—they serve as a barometer of vast changes taking place in an ecosystem.