Roughly half of BC’s pine trees are now destroyed by the Mountain Pine Beetle. The forests will renew themselves. Meanwhile, we have a 20-year window to use what’s on the ground now. Ingenuity seeks an opportunity, the way nature hates a vacuum. A group of manufacturers near Quesnel have been promoting the blue-stained wood under the name “Denim Pine,” for flooring, siding and furniture. A master’s student discovered that pine beetle wood, mixed with cement and aggregate, creates a material combining the structure of concrete with the quality and versatility of wood. The new 2010 Winter Olympics Speed Skating Oval’s roof is almost entirely made from pine beetle wood. And it can be art.

They are no bigger than a grain of rice, but the impact of the mountain pine beetle is devastating: in the current infestation an area five times the size of Vancouver Island has been attacked. Although previous outbreaks of the beetle have occurred, a number of factors have combined to create an ideal environment for the beetle.

Why have things become so bad?

Mountain Pine Beetles thrive on Lodgepole pine trees that are mature, drought-stressed, or damaged by fire.

British Columbia’s forests are full of mature lodge-pole pine. The trees mature relatively quickly—in 80 years—but require fire to open and release their seeds. When fires rage through a particular area, the lodgepole pine are the self-starters that regenerate and repopulate with great ease, often beating out other trees. The Ministry of Forests and Range estimates that there are three times the amount of this type of pine in the forests than there were 90 years ago.

Making these trees even more appealing to the pine beetle are the drought-like conditions that have persisted in the BC interior for a number of summers, which not only weaken the trees but also contribute to the many fires in BC forests each year.  Although the trees needs these fires to regenerate, the damaged trees are less able to resist the advances of the attacking beetle.

Pine Beetle attacks!

When the ‘pioneering’ female beetles locate trees in these conditions, they release a pheromone, attracting others to the area. The newly arrived beetles send out their own pheromone beacons, assisting the relocation process. As they burrow beneath the bark of the tree—to feed and to lay eggs—the tree fights back by oozing a resin. However, the beetle carries a blue stain fungi, which has the ability to stop the tree’s resin output, while staining the wood a distinctive blue colour. More beetles are then able to move in to feed and lay eggs.

After the eggs hatch, the larvae settle in to the area under the bark and within about two weeks the trees begin to starve to death as nutrients and water are cut off. The larvae, however, are quite content and remain underneath the bark throughout the winter, transforming into pupae in the Spring, later emerging to start the cycle for the next generation of beetles. The host tree, now dead, does not yet show the distinctive red colour that is most identified with beetle-attack. The red colour will appear the following season, staying that way until turning gray. The beetles, having removed anything of value from the tree, are long gone, looking for new areas and new trees in which to begin the process again.

What will help?

The numbers of trees affected by pine beetles will continue to increase each year unless a sustained period of cold weather occurs with temperatures going below -35 or -40 degrees Celsius for several days. Even more ideal would be for this cold snap to occur in the late Spring or early Fall, killing off the beetle eggs, larvae, and pupae. However, researchers who have charted temperatures in the area note that each winter has been warmer than the last.

With conditions perfect for the beetles to thrive, forestry officials place the amount of wood lost somewhere around 620 million cubic meters, the equivalent of 15 million logging trucks (2009 figure). From an environmental standpoint, it is important to note that healthy trees ‘scrub’ the air of carbon, storing it to use to produce food. They also help clean the air by absorbing pollutants (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, for example), and lower air temperatures. When the trees die these greenhouse gases are released back into the air. According to estimates presented by a Canadian Forest Service scientist, beetle-related tree deaths will lead to the release of close to one billion megatonnes of greenhouse gases by 2020. To compare, this amount is equivalent to nearly five years worth of emissions from the Canadian transportation sector.

Salvaging economic value from beetle-attacked timber is a cooperative effort that requires a large workforce on the ground, involving many different types of workers.

After salvage harvesting is completed, the reforestation work begins, which is important for both environmental and economic reasons. Silviculture crews plant seedlings that will grow into new trees (silvi=forest; culture=growing) . Silviculture surveyors determine the appropriate species for planting and monitor the progress of newly regenerating forests.

There are also ongoing research projects that seek to find uses for the pine-beetle damaged wood. The roof at the 2010 Olympic Speed Skating facilities is almost entirely made of this wood (over a million board feet of pine-beetle wood). Tapping into an ‘eco-friendly’ ethos, companies are working to produce as many products as possible, such as counter-tops, flooring, furniture, and so forth, to help reclaim value and use what is available. Adding to the possibilities is the realization that the wood remains viable for use up to fifteen years after the initial kill, even if not suitable in all situations (i.e., in sawmills).