Future entomologist thinks like a beetle | PostIndependent.com

Future entomologist thinks like a beetle

Rachel Sobke
Post Independent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Students recently took part in an EcoFlight program that looked at the pine beetle epidemic. The following column was written by one of the students who took part.

Desire. I gnawed my way into the world, driven solely by my overwhelming hunger for a mountain lodgepole pine tree. Flanked by hundreds of my brothers and sisters, I take flight in search of easy prey. Six feet to my left I sense a tree severely weakened by drought and land softly on its bark. I send a signal to my family and soon the tree is surrounded, a sneak attack. Boring into the wood, sap defenses try to expel me from my course, but it is not enough to keep me from reaching the soft heartwood. With hundreds of small identical holes, one more tree dies in the forest. I am satisfied. I am the mountain pine beetle.

Since 1996, 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pines in Colorado have been hit by the mountain pine beetle “epidemic.” Interestingly, the beetles are a native species that have coevolved with lodgepole pines for many years as a natural check of the tree’s population size. In bi- annual cycles, they normally attack small patches of trees. They then bore into the heartwood of the tree and reproduce. These holes weaken the tree, but a blue- stain fungus that the pine beetle carries completely kills it.

However, several factors have exploded the beetle population in Colorado. Drought and suppression of fires (which creates vulnerable old stands of trees) have weakened the lodgepoles. Global warming has prevented deep freezes that usually kill the beetles and has even accelerated their life cycle to the point that there are now annual outbreaks. This has created great swaths of beetle kill throughout Colorado, which could introduce major problems. Dead trees pose an extremely dangerous fire hazard to entire mountain communities. Economically, the tourist business could decline because of the loss of the trees that enhance Colorado’s natural beauty.

EcoFlight is an organization that flies politicians, activists, students, and concerned citizens in small planes over impacted areas in order to gain an aerial perspective. Recently, I was selected to fly, along with several other local students, to Jackson, Wyo., to view the beetle problem from the air and attend a seminar of students from different states addressing the mountain pine beetle epidemic. We had discussions with scientists and conservationists and viewed the devastation of the pines from the beetles in the greater Yellowstone area. As a component of the project, students bring their knowledge back to communities and spread their ideas using the media. I am currently working on an article addressing my opinions on the subject. Furthermore, I am opening up debate about the problem and possible solutions in my discussion-based environmental issues class. After talking to the speakers, I realized that I could apply my lifelong interest in entomology (the study of insects) to conservation with subjects like the mountain pine beetle. I was given the contact information from the speakers for several entomologists so that I can further explore that career option. But regardless of whether I study entomology, EcoFlight has been an unforgettable experience.

Rachel Sobke is a senior at Glenwood Springs High School.

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