This book should be required reading for people who still laugh at those stale dinosaur-flatulence jokes whenever the topics of environmental degradation and global warming come up.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/8/2011 (3753 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

This book should be required reading for people who still laugh at those stale dinosaur-flatulence jokes whenever the topics of environmental degradation and global warming come up.

Earth-orbiting astronauts and airline passengers crossing the Rocky Mountains can't miss seeing vast and ever-widening patches of red and grey among green-canopied pine forests, stark evidence of a growing empire fashioned by minuscule architects.

This little bugis causing massive damage to North America's forests

CP

This little bugis causing massive damage to North America's forests

Worldwide there are similar scenes, far-flung territories belonging to an empire so old and adaptive that it once included dinosaurs and today controls the vagaries of our continent's huge lumber economy.

It's only fitting that a renowned gadfly like Andrew Nikiforuk, the award-winning Calgary-based journalist and author with an interest in education, economics and the environment, should turn his inquisitive nature to the world of bugs.

In his latest, relatively short yet scholarly investigation, Nikiforuk takes readers into the fascinating world of beetles and how one species in particular, the mountain pine beetle, belonging to the genus Dendroctonus, meaning "tree killer," is decimating pine forests throughout North America.

During the last two decades, in the Yukon, he writes, "the beetle has killed approximately 100 million trees," and in British Columbia "the outbreak grew from two million to 10 million acres," pointing to an expanding empire in spite of increased efforts to subdue it.

Nikiforuk contends that governments and their corporate forest surrogates, hoping to eradicate the beetles while seeking profits, make matters worse by altering nature's time-honoured system of slow, gradual and varied tree growth.

The clear-cutting of forested areas in the vain hope of thwarting the beetle's territorial expansion, "dramatically changed the flow of water throughout British Columbia," while the manic desire to suppress forest fires, "because a burning tree represented a lost dollar," ignores the role of fire in regenerating healthy forests.

Even planting millions of single species trees in neat orderly plots, creating fast-growing artificial forests to satisfy demands of the housing industry, often turns into a beetle buffet.

Colorado's fast-spreading infestation of bark beetles has killed 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pines.

ED ANDRIESKI / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVES

Colorado's fast-spreading infestation of bark beetles has killed 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pines.

Nikiforuk doesn't directly refer to Winnipeg's elm-tree problem, but he does briefly mention the elm-bark beetle, explaining the complicated relationship between the beetle, the mites it carries, and the fungus the mites themselves carry which change the trees' phloem, or innermost layer of bark, to make it palatable for the mites. Nature is never simple.

Trees that grow to maturity within a milieu of other species strengthen their resins and chemicals and can withstand bug infestations.

Eventually, though, the old and diseased trees fall victim to the bug, in time creating the dry fuel for forest fires that begin the growth cycle again.

Unfortunately, such natural cycles conflict with civilization's immediate demands. Nikiforuk quotes noted American entomologist Stephen L. Wood, who says it is people who turned the beetle into a pest, because it's only humans who worry that "several hundred years might be required to restore the original forest."

A bark beetle is the size of a grain of rice, and the trees it seeks can be towering giants, but as Nikiforuk reminds us, in the natural world size is always trumped by sheer numbers.

Copulative-minded beetles are now reproducing faster and faster, since climate changes and global warming are shortening reproductive cycles.

In one compelling account, Nikiforuk relates how a northern B.C. meteorologist, intrigued by strange blips on his radar screen and suspecting these could be flying insects, rented an airplane with butterfly nets under the wings.

The clouds were really millions of flying beetles, and calculations revealed that wherever they landed there were "enough to kill 1,400 trees an hour."

Each of the book's 10 chapters stands on its own, yet is skilfully connected to the book's main message -- that the relationship between beetles and trees is mutually beneficial, and when we mess with nature, we do so at our own peril.

 

Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.

Book review

Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America's Great Forests

  • By Andrew Nikiforuk
  • Greystone Books, 240 pages, $20

If you value coverage of Manitoba’s arts scene, help us do more.
Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow the Free Press to deepen our reporting on theatre, dance, music and galleries while also ensuring the broadest possible audience can access our arts journalism.
BECOME AN ARTS JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.