When beetles attack! | University of Oxford
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OSB archive

When beetles attack!

Pete Wilton

It may be only the size of a grain of rice and harmless to humans but the mountain pine beetle is a woodsman's worst nightmare.

Why? Well according to Canadian reports it has infected over 700 million cubic metres of pine forest. Female beetles bore their way into trees eating as they go before laying their eggs; and secrete pheromones that result in mass attacks that can devastate huge swathes of forest [the image above shows the devastation they can cause - the red trees are dead or dying].

2008 has seen particularly damaging infestations, believed to be ten times larger than previous years. Cold weather is what usually keeps the beetles in check, and should bring a halt to this year's attacks, but the forests take decades to recover and a fresh worry is that climate change could limit these cold snaps.

The case of the mountain pine beetle is another example of the often-neglected impact that insect species have on our planet. It's what makes Oxford scientists helping to sequence the first beetle genome or examining butterflies as an 'early warning system' of habitat destruction so important: we'd be wise to pay more attention to the ecological impact of the most diverse group of animals on Earth.

When we do look more closely the results can be surprising. According to Canadian scientists the pine beetle infestation has meant that, due to enormous amount of rotting dead wood, affected forests are actually putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they are absorbing.

Global climate change is, they believe, at least partly responsible with warmer winters seeing more beetles survive and warmer summers enabling them to breed more successfully. The end result could be a trail of lonesome pine nobody will want to sing about.