Friday, March 30, 2012

Beetle Kill

The one thing I've noticed on my recent trips to "The Top of the World" where Hubby lives and works (Silverthorne, CO), are the number of dead trees.

I know what you're thinking! How can I tell if a tree is dead in the middle of winter! In the higher altitudes of the Rocky Mountains of Colorado there aren't that many varieties of deciduous trees. And I can recognize the ones that are there by either their bark or the location where the tree is growing (I grew up in the Colorado Rockies and my Father worked for the US Forest Service). So when I saw all the stark, skeletal remains of trees I knew that they were dead evergreen trees. I did a little research and discovered that these trees had fallen victim to the Pine Beetle.

Pine Beetles are an insect native to the forests of western North America. Under normal circumstances these beetles play a role in maintaining a healthy forest - they attack old and sickly trees. But the unusual weather patterns of the last few years - overly hot, dry summers and extremely mild winters - have caused the pine beetle population to explode and the beetles are now attacking healthy trees. The pine beetle lays its eggs under the bark of pine trees and at the same time introduces a fungus into the sapwood of the tree to prevent the tree from repelling and killing the attacking beetles with tree pitch. The fungus also blocks the transport of water and nutrients within the tree. The tree will be dead within a year of the attack. Recent studies have found that the beetles are now breeding twice a year instead of only once.

Large Pile of Timber waiting to be burned
There are various forms of control but when vast expanses of forests are affected it is hard to eradicate the insect, especially when they have begun to breed prolifically. Large stretches of dead and dying trees are now being cut down (main form of insect control). Huge piles of timber can be seen waiting to be burned. While beetle killed timber still retains its commercial value for 8 - 12 years, it seems that not a lot of it is making its way to the sawmills. Some of the dead timber is being turned into wood pellets for pellet (heat) stoves, but pine is not as desirable as harder woods for a heat source. What is needed are several extremely cold winters in a row to knock a dent in the population (I know, I know! Better watch out what I wish for!) 

While all the dead standing timber can be unsightly, the trees still serve a purpose. Dead trees provide shelter for over 1,000 species of wildlife - raccoon & squirrels, innumerable bird species, and many insects call dead timber home. One species of lichen which is food for deer prefers to grow on dead trees. As dead trees decay, they will fall to the forest floor and provide nutrients for the plants around them. These deadfall trees also provide  a perfect growing environment for young seedlings. Nothing goes to waste in Nature.

The local town of Frisco has embraced the Mountain Pine Beetle by holding a festival. This event serves to educate the public about the impact this insect has had on the area. Maybe their celebrating will help scare away those 'evil little bugs'!

1 comment:

Robin Larkspur said...

What a shame to see so many dead trees, but as you say they provide so much for others in nature. We have a a type of beetle here, a borer of some kind, I forget the name at the moment. It is killing of a lot of trees. There are elaborate trap-boxes attached to trees all over the place. Humans think they can stop it. (probably not)