Beetle Mania

Photo via flickr by esagor

Researchers at Northern Arizona University (NAU) think they may have found an environmentally safe and readily available weapon against the tree-eating armies of bark beetles that have chewed through millions of acres of West’s pine forests, leaving behind dead tress and the risk of wildfires.

A research assistant suggested using sounds to aggravate the beetles. They tried Queen and Guns N’ Roses and played snippets of radio talker Rush Limbaugh backward. None produced the desired results. Then, the beetles were exposed to digitally altered recordings of their own calls, the sounds they make to attract or repel other beetles. The response was immediate.

The beetles stopped mating or burrowing. Some fled, helter-skelter. Some violently attacked each other. Most important, they stopped chewing away at the pine tree, suggesting that the scientists may have discovered a sort of sonic bullet that could help slow the beetles’ destructive march.

“Our interest is to use acoustic sounds that make beetles uncomfortable and not want to be in that environment,” said NAU forest entomologist Richard Hofstetter, who led the experiment nicknamed, without apology, “beetle mania.”

Bark beetles have killed nearly 80 million ponderosa, piƱon and lodgepole pines in Arizona and New Mexico and tens of millions more across the West over the past decade. Years of punishing drought left the trees unable to protect themselves against the attacks, which carve ugly scars into forests, weaken the surrounding ecosystem and heighten wildfire danger.

The lab hopes to find more funding to continue its research into acoustic pest control. Scientists think it won’t be long before they can take the experiment into the field.

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