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


Beginning in the late 1980s, a series of improbable bark beetle outbreaks unsettled iconic forests and communities across western North America. An insect the size of a rice kernel eventually killed more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees from Alaska to New Mexico. Often appearing in masses larger than schools of killer whales, the beetles engineered one of the world's greatest forest die-offs since the deforestation of Europe by peasants ...
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Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America's Great Forests

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Beginning in the late 1980s, a series of improbable bark beetle outbreaks unsettled iconic forests and communities across western North America. An insect the size of a rice kernel eventually killed more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees from Alaska to New Mexico. Often appearing in masses larger than schools of killer whales, the beetles engineered one of the world's greatest forest die-offs since the deforestation of Europe by peasants between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries.

The beetle didn't act alone. Misguided science, out-of-control logging, bad public policy, and a hundred years of fire suppression created a volatile geography that released the world's oldest forest manager from all natural constraints. Like most human empires, the beetles exploded wildly and then crashed, leaving in their wake grieving landowners, humbled scientists, hungry animals, and altered watersheds. Although climate change triggered this complex event, human arrogance assuredly set the table. With little warning, an ancient insect pointedly exposed the frailty of seemingly stable manmade landscapes.

Drawing on first-hand accounts from entomologists, botanists, foresters, and rural residents, award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, investigates this unprecedented beetle plague, its startling implications, and the lessons it holds.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Nikiforuk leavens this tragic, instructive history with curious facts about the complex, intelligent insect"—Publishers Weekly

"Sometimes called the "Katrina of the West," these infestations received very little publicity but caused the loss of millions of dollars worth of lumber ...Well written and informative... Highly Recommended"— Choice Reviews

“A terrific book on a terrifying subject... a chilling, fascinating, and important contribution to our understanding of a rapidly changing world.”— John Vaillant, author of The Tiger and The Golden Spruce

"A compelling look at what may be the single biggest impact of climate change, and a harbinger of life to come on a warming planet." —Jim Robbins, Science Journalist, The New York Times

"Empire of the Beetle is a work of great skill and passion, and vital to anyone courageous enough to be interested in the ecology of the future."—Rick Bass, author of Winter: Notes From Montana

“[T]he Iliad of the bark beetles. It really demonstrates how intertwined nature is... as Andrew shows so well, we are part of nature.”
—John Perlin, leading U.S. solar energy expert and author of A Forest Journey

Library Journal
Bark beetles: they are as tiny as a match head, individually fragile, and yet as a swarm more destructive than any forest fire. Nikiforuk (Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent) follows bark beetle outbreaks from the last three decades in Alaska and the western United States. Despite its grim title, the book paints a complex picture of bark beetles that showcases their incredible qualities as well as their potentially harmful ones. Nikiforuk argues that bark beetles are a part of western North America's natural ecosystem, but the growing human population and its demands on natural resources place the insects in the role of nuisance. As a pest, however, they are incredibly dangerous to forests and have, to date, killed more than 30 billion trees since the 1980s. VERDICT Nikiforuk tallies the human and ecological costs of bark beetles' destruction of wide swathes of trees, costs that are exacerbated by climate change. His plainspoken writing style is especially poignant as he gives voice to the devastating human experience of lost forests. Recommended.—Marianne Stowell Bracke, Purdue Univ. Libs., West Lafayette, IN
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781553658948
  • Publisher: Greystone Books
  • Publication date: 7/22/2011
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 945,539
  • File size: 663 KB

Meet the Author

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has written about education, economics, and the environment for the last two decades. His books include Pandemonium, Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig's War Against Oil, which won the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction, and The Fourth Horseman: A Short History of Plagues, Scourges and Emerging Viruses. His bestselling book Tar Sands won the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award.
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 8: "The Sheath-Winged Cosmos"

Before the advent of the computer screen, suicide bombers, and acid-filled oceans, beetles got some respect in this world. When human languages and cultures were as diverse as the stars, beetles informed how we lived. They inspired artists, fascinated scientists, illustrated evolution, educated philosophers, pollinated crops, delighted children, hardened warriors, decorated women, and put food on the table. They even merited legal representation in fifteenth-century ecclesiastical courts. Not so long ago, the noble beetle populated our songs, dreams, poems, proverbs, and fables. European peasants gave thanks to "Beasts of the Virgin." Egyptian pyramid builders wore dung-beetle charms for good luck. Samurai warriors strutted about like Japanese horned beetles, and German and French villagers made soups out of cockchafers. Beetles inspired all sorts of human inventions, including agriculture, the wheel, mummification, the theory of evolution, and, yes, the chain saw.

Although most politicians don't know it, beetles belong to the "great commonwealth of living things." Coleoptera (the word means "sheath-winged") not only outnumber and outrank mammals but predate dinosaurs. They remain the most successful animals on earth. When William Blake wrote about holding "infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour," he was probably thinking about beetles. Every day, the sheer audacity and abundance of beetles makes Homo sapiens look like a somewhat spindly branch on the tree of life.

Beetleness is about being small, six-legged, invisible, mobile, and well protected. Unlike such insect show-offs as butterflies, beetles generally live out of the way, beneath the surface of things. Every beetle begins life as an egg and then progresses to a wormlike state (larvae and pupae) before metamorphosing into an armored adult sporting a fancy pair of forewings with protective hard casings called elytra. Many beetles fly as clumsily as drunken sailors walk.
In the global food chain, beetles remain our greatest and sharpest competitor for nutrition. Grain weevils (members of a family of numerous species of beetle with a comical long snout) typically chew their way through a third of the world's grain crop every year. The Western corn rootworm, dubbed "the billion-dollar beetle," can reduce corn yields between 10 and 80 percent. Cucumber beetles, potato beetles, taro beetles, and soybean beetles all nibble at the global food banquet. Beetles are hardcore foodies. "For every bean full of weevils God supplies a blind grocer," goes an Arab proverb.

Since 1758, scientists have described and named more than 400,000 species of Coleoptera. That's more than four species a day. In 2005, U.S. scientists named two new species of beetles that dine on slime mold, Agathidium bushi and Agathidium cheneyi, after then president George W. Bush and his vp Dick Cheney. (There's an Agathidium rumsfeldi too!) When the entomologist Terry Erwin fogged the canopy of just one tree species in a Panama jungle in the 1980s, 163 different species of beetles dropped to the ground. Coleopteran exuberance once prompted the irreverent British geneticist J.B.S. Haldane to suggest to a group of clerics that God obviously had "an inordinate fondness for beetles."
God may even look like a beetle, for in diversity lies not only divinity but extraordinary resilience. Coleoptera make up a third of all life on the planet, and a quarter of all animals. If the Internet accurately reflected biological life on earth, one out of three websites would be devoted to beetles, including pugnacious beetle sex. Most scientists suspect the actual number of beetle species is close to 10 million. Not surprisingly, beetles live in rivers, lakes, jungles, caves, forests, and deserts and on mountaintops. Bark beetles alone outnumber all mammal tribes by at least a thousand species. In fact, the great Coleoptera fraternity makes mammals look like a quaint evolutionary experiment with limited prospects. Thanks to climate change, forest destruction, and human city making, a quarter of all mammals may go extinct by 2050. The beetle tribes that survive such depredation may well inherit whatever is left.

Coleoptera stand out as walking evolutionary billboards for innovation and adaptability. Scientists once thought that beetles' numerical superiority sprang from their size, their mobility, and their well-protected bodies. But their impressive diversity, still the subject of rigorous debate, probably owes as much to their evolutionary age as to their collective ability to change their diet.

Beetles first appeared in the fossil record 350 million years ago, and over time evolved into more than one hundred separate families that largely fed on primitive grasses, mosses, palms, fungi, and the bark and wood of gymnosperms. These forebears to modern trees included pines, conifers, and ginkgoes. Some bark beetles still dine on the monkey puzzle tree in Argentina right next to fossils of their 200-million-year-old ancestors. Scientists call this beetle picnic area "a little Triassic Park."

When flowering plants appeared some 140 million years ago, beetles took advantage of this new fast food and exploded in their diversity. Some beetle species dined on flower petals; others chewed leaves, stems, fruits, and roots. (A beetle's ability to turn a plant or tree into a leafless or fruitless skeleton is really an insect version of shock and awe.) More plants begat more beetles, and more beetles begat more plants. Wherever you find lots of beautiful flowers-Papua New Guinea and Venezuela are two examples-you find an abundance of beetle species. (And a diversity of human communities, too.)
Beetles and plants, of course, have also been at war for millions of years. Every time a plant secreted a new poisonous sap or perfume to ward off hungry beetle armies, the insect adapted by making its own defensive chemicals derived from its herbaceous enemies. Although half of all beetle species remain dedicated plant eaters, many have changed their eating habits to include excrement (digested plant matter), insects, fellow beetle species, vertebrates, and carrion. Ground beetles and rove beetles, for example, behave like the jaguars of the insect world and eat whatever comes across their path. Dermestids specialize in cleaning up bones, so natural-history museums keep colonies of the flesh eaters on hand to polish up animals with backbones.

Scavengers such as the famous dung beetles probably started off dining on the excrement of mammal-like reptiles before moving on to mountains of dinosaur shit. Today, their well-diversified descendants (some 7,000 species) work with camel, elephant, kangaroo, or howler monkey dung. In just two hours, 16,000 dung beetles can clean up and bury 3.3 pounds of elephant poop. Some members of the dung beetle family gather at the anus of a marsupial in anticipation of an offering, much like Sunday urbanites lining outside a breakfast diner. Other dung beetle species dine on the slime tracks of snails.

Beetles regulate the common wealth of trees and other plants by safeguarding diversity. Their innumerate duties include gardening, dissembling, pollinating, boring, pruning, killing, recycling, and refuse eating. They are Mother Nature's handiest garbage collectors, and as such belong to the prestigious fbi agency of global dissolution: fungi, bacteria, and insects. As engineers of decomposition and global protein renewal, beetles take apart weak, abundant, or aging plants, thus making room for new growth.
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Table of Contents

Chapter One: The Alaska Storm
Chapter Two: The Beetle, the Bus, and the Carbon Castle
Chapter Three: The Lodgepole Tsunami
Chapter Four: The War against the Insect Enemy
Chapter Five: In the Wake of the Beetle
Chapter Six: The Ghost Forest
Chapter Seven: The Song of the Beetle
Chapter Eight: The Sheath-Winged Cosmos
Chapter Nine: The Two Dianas
Chapter Ten: The Parable of the Worm
Sources and Further Information
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