It seems that the tiny little bugs responsible for eradicating millions of acres of forest throughout North America don't have a taste for tea, or at least a chemical commonly found in it. Research released this month by the National Forest Service suggests that a pheromone used in herbal tea may curtail the mountain pine beetle's rampage on lodgepole pines.
Naturally occurring in rosemary and walnut husks, verbenone is often added to herbal tea because of its enticing aroma, yet when sprinkled amongst a forest of pines, scientists observed a marked decrease in the occurrence of pine beetle infestations. The chemical, however, is not only produced by herbs and nuts, mountain pine beetles naturally emit the pheromone as an indicator to their comrades that there is no vacancy in an infested tree and they should seek food and lodging elsewhere. While scientists have known how verbenone affects pine beetle behavior for about a decade, they have been unable to administer the chemical in an effective and economical manner, until now.
According to the study, a beta formulation of verbenone-emitting flakes was dropped by helicopter on pine forests in California and Idaho in an attempt to emulate the beetle's natural disbursement patterns. Previously, the practice had been to manually distribute packets of the pheromone among trees, which proved to be tedious and only moderately effective. Areas treated by helicopter saw a two-thirds reduction in infested trees when compared to control plots containing similar beetle populations. While the experiment was performed on relatively small areas of moderate infestation, Nancy Gillette, an author of the report, hypothesizes that the flake disbursement technique could be applied on a large scale to mitigate the pine beetle epidemic.
As a resident of Colorado, the pine beetle plague is a clear and present reality. Mountainsides that were pine green just a couple years ago have rusted to a burnt orange, a telltale sign of a pine beetle infestation. Rumors swirl that all of the pine trees in Colorado will be gone in ten years, and I have begun to believe them. As I wander through the Rocky Mountains, I try to imagine the coniferous landscape treeless and barren, and find that at a rapidly increasing rate, I don't have to imagine; the trees are disappearing. While the pine beetles are blamed for the devastation, climate change is the true culprit. Temperatures are no longer dropping low enough in the winter to kill the beetles, so their populations continue to expand. As the trees die, carbon levels increase, and temperatures continue to rise.
As I write this article, on the fifth morning of February, Denver is preparing for yet another 65 degree day. But this study brings me hope! Not only that the pine beetles' reign of terror may be coming to an end but that they may be squelched without the use of harmful insecticides. I find it refreshing to see government funds being allocated to investigate natural remedies for our environmental crises, because sometimes, all mother nature needs to feel better is a warm cup of tea... Okay, that may be a stretch, but you can find out more about the study at Bio-Medicine.Org or you can purchase a copy of the published research here.
image of pine beetle from www.treecanada.ca/
all other images provided courtesy of Alissa Wilson Williams