Climate Change and Bark Beetle Outbreak: The Beetles shaming and Norway Spruce Monoculture

Trees are fascinating creatures. When you give them the right conditions for life, they can outlive you several times, while being valuable to the variety of vital ecosystems surrounding them. But when you deprive them of the right habitat that they thrive in, they start struggling. For instance climate change and a bark beetle outbreak that stems from it could make their lives even more difficult.

The Central European Norway Spruce forests are a perfect example as they have been going through some rough times in the past decade. Many see the Šumava National Park in the Czech Republic as the place that has missed out on an opportunity to avoid the catastrophe that is currently destroying the lush green forests of Czechia. But in fact, poor communication about what is happening has lead to a bad PR of the bark beetle.

Climate change and the bark beetle outbreak in Czechia is inevitably the cause of many coniferous trees’ current death. But the outbreak itself is in fact a consequence of variety of previously ignored problems.

The past decade’s average temperature rise of 1C° and poor water management measures have brought many Czech forests to live on insufficient water reserves. Extensive droughts and higher temperatures enable the bark beetles to reproduce exponentially at a rate of up to 5 generations per summer. This quickly infests vast areas of Norway Spruce monocultured forests that further suffer from ill-timed measures prolonged by bureaucracy and conflicting interests of the lumber industry.

But only when the trees start dying on a large scale, we begin to see that the problem is in fact in communicating and tackling previously ignored problems.

It is as if no one listens to the be(a)tles anymore. They have their unique way of reminding us of the past, and learning from the current situation. This blog post is a story told by one of the many millions of the bark beetles that are currently eating the Czech forests alive. It is a sad story based on lack of understanding. But it reminds us of the workings and doings of nature that conflict with the interests of profit. 

Climate Change and the Bark Beetle in Czechia: Meet the Beetle

Last summer we decimated about a half of all Norway Spruce forests in the entire Czechia. Quite an achievement, eh? It’s also a great big bunch of us! But to be honest, it is getting much too crowded. Last winter, I shared a single tree with other 75,000 bark beetles. Then scale it up to 500,000 ha of forest that we’re currently reside on and you might get a hunch of why I worry…

The average temperature in Czechia since 1990s is 1 °C higher, so the bark beetle community keeps growing exponentially every summer.

Nothing like I imagined from the stories of my ancestors. The Central Europe and the Czech forests were not always so pleasant.

Where are the days when the bark beetles struggled for up to 2 years to reproduce because of the cold climate? If it wasn’t for the fruitful windy storms in the past decade and recent droughts, I must admit, it would be a lot harder.

Humans – the good old enemies are more and more turning into our allies! Who would have thought that one day, they will take such a good care of us? It’s as if they doing us a lot of favors.

Anyways, I’m having a hard time understanding what’s going on. If this continues, in the next 5 years the bark beetles will take over the Czech forests completely.

But I foretell, this growth of my fellow bark beetles; it will still create issues. We will eventually not be able to sustain ourselves. This unrestricted growth is slowly but surely killing us. We are already more than beyond the harmonious relationship we used to have with our ecosystems.

One day, there will be no more forests left. Although humans grow more of this tasty Norway Spruce every year, it’s not as sustainable for us. Not even for them, which puzzles me even more. It’s as if the humans have forgotten what they learnt about us in the past centuries.

The Norway Spruce, extreme weather conditions, climate change and bark beetles simply do not allow for a smooth, cost-effective way of producing wood.

Let me tell you a story about my tribe – the bark beetles (Ips Typographus). Story that is hard to believe. As absurd as it may sound, it is not like the conspiracy of Paul McCartney dying in a car crash in the early days of his career. This is actually happening. And indeed, as if our fellow Be(a)etles offered all the answers, you humans, will seek. I mean, let the Beatles’ song titles speak for themselves as headlines:

Check how much you already know about the bark beetles (Ips Typographus).

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Measures to Identify the Bark Beetle

  • Aerial Surveys – Identification of infested areas
  • Ground-based Surveys – Identification of specific trees by Saw-dusters (trained forest ‘doctors’)

You Know What to Do

My great-great grandparents told horrifying stories about their fellow bark beetles being killed with chemicals. They were constantly on the move and many of their descendants did not survive the swift human attacks. In better cases, they were taken out of the forests in their cradles way before they even left it.

It was hard work, my ancestors had to look throughout the healthy forests of Czechia for a new home. Everything was more in favor of you – the humans: milder climate, bigger variety of trees, and more water reserves. So, on a good day, my ancestors had to fly over a kilometer distance. With a bit of luck and good wind, even further.

But the lush green healthy forests of Bohemia and Moravia are a thing of the past. The dried seasons of the warm summers, wind storms and lack of water, make even the old Norway Spruce trees a perfect and attainable new home for us. And those were once really hard-to-get-homes.

How to manage bark beetle infested forests?

“Hello, Goodbye”

Sanitation– Clear-cutting = timely felling of infested trees and weakened trees in the vicinity of the outbreak.
– Felled trees are chipped, peeled and de-barked and left in the sun, which is sufficient to kill new bark beetle broods.
Pheromone Traps– Standalone traps or ‘bait trees’ attract new collonies of bark beetles.
– Can be costly and less effective at epidemic levels.
Fire– Mostly used in the past.
– Nowadays applied to some bark beetle species in remote forests of Alaska.
– Seldom successful results.
Insecticides– Heavily regulated in most European countries.
– Contaminant.
Salvation– Purely a measure for recovering some economic value.
– Ineffective for managing an epidemic.
Fettig and Hilszczański (2015), Grégoire et al. (2015)

But what happened to the humans? Even though we uncontrollably grow, this cannot be sustainable for us. Not to mention for you, humans. And we see that! I mean we already took more than a third of the Czech forests. Plus, on a good summer, we don’t hesitate to build up to 5 new homes. There’s plenty of trees literally being eaten every summer.

So, what happened to your swift actions of ‘clear cutting’ our cozy tree houses out of the forest? What happened to the ‘*saw-dusters’ – once feared enemies number one? When saw-dusters appeared with their magnifying glasses and suspicious looks, we knew it was over. Rumbling chainsaws and a one-way trip out of the forest was a sure thing in the following days.

These guys come with limited knowledge of ecology to ‘manage’ our forests.

Nowadays, we see humans felling trees that we don’t even live in anymore. And quite often they even bring more of those tasty Norway Spruce trees back instead. They grow fast, in a few years, with these summers, we’ll have more homes. But until then…?

The Life-Cycle of a Bark Beetle

‘You Won’t See Me’

The lifecycle of a bark beetle (Ips Typographus)

  1. Weak Norway Spruce trees are perfect hosts. In healthy forests, bark beetles maintain the healthy thriving population.

  2. Once the bark beetle finds its new host, it releases pheromones to attract more beetles.

  3. Bark beetles build chambers under the bark, where they spend most of their lives.

  4. Polygamous males mate up to 5 times per summer and each female lays 20-30 eggs.

  5. Eggs hatch within the upcoming 7 days.

  6. Larvae feed on the tree (phloem) for the next 6-8 weeks.

  7. In warm conditions the bark beetles leave their host tree in as little as 2 months and look for a new weak victim.

Let me tell you a bit about how we live. Our lives are a whole lot different to you, humans.

We used to be important or the ecosystems, but since you humans only started growing monocultures (forests of one species of tree) we kind of lost our purpose. It’s a little bit like when you started farming.

The weak trees that we used to attack were better off dying provided that the forests are generally in a good shape. The bark beetles are like the euthanasia for sick trees. We are just naturally the first step in transforming the tree into useful debris that create micro-organism-rich forest floors that are so good for the forests.

So, once we find a suitable home – a host tree, we release pheromones to attract our fellow bark beetles. In the meantime, we start building little chambers under the bark of our host tree. And that is where we spent most of our lives, to be honest.

Image description. Close up of a bark beetle larva crawling over a piece of wood.

We are polygamous, so if the conditions are right, male beetles mate up to 5 times a season. Females then can lay 20 – 30 eggs in the phloem of the tree (plant tissue conducting sugars and other metabolic products from the leaves). The eggs hatch within 7 days and larvae in varied stages then feed on the host tree for the next 6-8 weeks. Then we leave the host tree for good to search for a new victim.

Under ideal circumstances the male beetle can produce 2 independent broods on different host trees simultaneously. But in the cold climates, it may take us up to 2 years to mature and leave the tree.  

The Norway Spruce and Climate Change

“And when I awoke I was alone

Isn’t it good Norwegian wood?”

Climate change has become a hot topic in many fields in the last decade and the Czech forestry is not an exception. The rising summer temperatures bring unprecedented drought waves to the Central European landscapes.

These extreme climatic and weather conditions then in combination with non-adequate water management strategies and mono-cultured forests threaten the local ecosystems.

I tell you, growing one species of a tree is silly. To be honest, my neighbors’ kids are a burden. Sometimes I wish I lived somewhere more remote. I thought you humans knew that biodiversity is a key! I would have fewer annoying neighbors, while our forests would thrive for generations to come, taking care of themselves.

Why are Norway Spruce most common trees in Central European forests?

‘Back in the USSR’ it grew south

What may have seemed as a good idea to plant 40 something years ago, shows to be one of the critical misfortunes of today. And bark beetles’ homes – the Norway Spruce (Picea abies) is a great example.

As the common name suggests, it is native to Northern Europe and, as some foresters argue, less compatible with warm, dry climates.

The tree gained on popularity in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe for its fast growth (juvenile spruce can grow up to 1m/year), its ability to out-compete any weeds and grasses, and of course for production of soft timber and paper.

The unsustainable focus back in the USSR’s economy on production as opposed to paying attention to ecology lead to vast mono-cultured forests of Norway Spruce in Central and Eastern Europe.

Why isn’t the Norway Spruce a suitable tree to grow anymore?

‘It’s All too much’

As I said before, the increasing likelihood of strong storms and subsequent heat-caused drought are major threats to these forests. When a tree sustains an injury, it loses its strength and becomes an attractive home to us.

Under normal circumstances, even weakened Norway Spruce is relatively resilient and can defend itself against the attack from the outside. But the increasing temperatures and decreasing water reserves limit the trees’ abilities to produce enough oleoresin (sap – one of the most effective defense mechanisms of a tree against the bark beetle).

Despite many of us dying, when populating a tree, the conditions are in the end more favorable for us. Trees in the drought state of the soil simply run out of water to create more sap. That’s why it is so easy for us to populate entire forests at once.

Why not to fell dead trees?

“I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party…”

But the Norway Spruce may no longer be the most suitable tree to grow in Central Europe. Especially not for generating profit through timber. The Norwegian wood, climate change and bark beetle outbreak, as well as extreme weather conditions simply do not allow for a smooth, cost-effective way of producing wood.

We get the blame for killing the forests. But the forests are not dead, only the trees are. The forests die when they are trampled by the 20+ tonnes heavy felling machinery removing the dead trees.

There is not much profit in felling the affected forests for timber anyways. Sorry, but we have irreversibly damaged your timber. And the timber prices are plummeting rapidly leaving the forest owners hopeless. To them, salvaging what’s left of the forests may seem as the most rational thing to do.

But the wood is losing its economic value. And I have a suspicion that by leaving the forests the way we left them, gives nature a chance to recover naturally. Moreover, the value for biodiversity for the long-run is much higher than the short-term economic focus. There is larger value for our forests through decaying wood and revitalizing ecosystems than through the few hundred bucks cashed in by the forest owners.

We get the blame for killing the forests. But the forests are not dead, only the trees are. The forests die when they are trampled by the 20+ tonnes heavy felling machinery removing the dead trees.

Too much Monkey Business

The damage all bark beetles caused didn’t exactly earn them the most positive PR. They are seen as something fundamentally negative and harmful. We are an outbreak that has to be dealt with. Yes, to an extent I agree. Especially when I think of my kids, having to deal with more and more neighbors and then their kids. Our summer seasons are getting more crowded than the beaches of Mallorca.

But what I see as a potentially more dangerous outbreak than us, is the outbreak of ‘harvestors*’ (*harvestor = investor in harvesting machinery). These guys come with limited knowledge of ecology to ‘manage’ our forests.

Climate change and bark beetles get the blame for killing the forests. But the forests are not dead, only the trees are. The forests die when they are trampled by the 20+ tonnes heavy felling machinery removing the dead trees.

These harvestors only seem to cease a lucrative business opportunity – harvest the Norwegian wood and enjoy effects of climate change. All the while forest owners are desperate to squeeze out at least a bit of money out of their dead timber. So, clearing the space for growing new fast-growing trees is in high demand.

This and the prolonged bureaucratic journey of issuing a tender for clear cutting an infested forest only results in late measures. To issue a tender for an area takes over a month time.

By the time the heavy machinery gets to the dead trees, we are no longer there. We might have moved beyond the official felling zone – right outside of the area, for which they issued the tender.

History of bark beetles’ outbreaks.

‘Here, There and Everywhere’

Despite our bad PR, believe it or not, we are part of a healthy forest. We have our function in the ecosystem and that is to produce food for other microorganisms that feed on decaying wood. This decaying wood then creates new fertile soils and favorable conditions for vegetation and fauna to come.

I might not be an expert on forestry, but I live in the forest. So, I can perhaps offer a different perspective.

After all, we don’t come out of nowhere. The bark beetle has been around the Norway Spruce and other trees ever since. Perhaps not in such quantities, but bark beetle outbreaks are nothing unusual. In fact, there was a large outbreak in the times of Maria Theresia. This was documented in the 1700s by the Royal Society of Sciences at Göttingen, Germany. And even since then there were smaller local outbreaks, although never seen on a scale as the Czech forests are currently experiencing.

What to do with a dead forest?

‘Let it Be’

I might not be an expert on forestry, but I live in the forest. So, I can perhaps offer a different perspective. Why don’t you explore a shift of focus from ‘economy of salvaging the dead timber to ecology of what is to happen to our lands tomorrow? The dead wood is better off left alone. It finishes its ecological cycle of enriching the soil and feeding the ecosystem out of crises.

Yes, it may take a few years, but so will planting new trees in already devastated soils and stressed ecosystems. To reduce the bark beetle population, we need to focus the energy on places where it is actually needed. Only this may bring the forest and media a lot closer to end this beetlemania once again.

“The Long and Winding Road” of Sustainability and Bark Beetles

We need to rethink the often-avoided question of the age of sustainability of “what are we actually trying to sustain?” once and for all.

If it is the short-term profit from timber and lumber industry, by all means, let us beetles take over again. Bark beetles may create value for harvestors and temporarily stimulate the economic growth of the lumber industry. But this is short-term and as far as it concerns the Czech forests and experts, sustainable only for the upcoming seven years the most.

If it is biodiversity and forests that we are to sustain, let’s re-think the methods;

Let’s set priority to swift reactions to reported outbreaks and leave behind what is not to be saved anymore. Yes, we may sacrifice the quick profit cashed out by the harvestors but we sustain the steady profits of the forest owners. This will also give nature a helping hand in staying healthy in the rough times caused by climate change and bark beetles.

Benefits of shifting focus from felling dead trees

“Do you want to know a secret?”

The recreational value of forests is not to be forgotten either. National parks in Central Europe that sustained damage from the Ips outbreaks have learnt that too. Expectations of tourists visiting a forest area are hardly met when presented with devastated landscapes. But when action is taken in the right time and place, considerable amounts of forests can be saved. And with that said, the recreational value sustained.

Researchers also found that processed wood in a form of logs has a lower recreational value than dead wood. The dead wood simply provides more natural and aesthetic value anyways.

Concentrating the felling power at places where it is needed as opposed to where it is already too late, is therefore beneficial for:

  • sustaining healthy forests,
  • meeting expectations of recreationists and,
  • (to an extent, and perhaps in a healthy ratio) profit from felling the forests.

“Act Naturally”

It is indeed a long and winding road of creating new legislation and convincing political leaders to act. Moreover, communicating the layered issues that in fact caused the bark beetle outbreak is what may help restoring the lush green forests.

The forests will recover and the dying trees can still be saved!

But the lack of environmental communication and funding for saving the Czech forests only naturally opens up the door to the private sector. Companies lacking the focus in ecology then take the issue into their own hands. But this lack of ecological expertise in the private sector only deepens the ecological instability and further threatens our biodiversity.

Understanding and learning about the bark beetles and issues that caused the outbreak is perhaps key to overcoming the crisis. After all, no one wants to lose the precious forests. By being able to learn from the bark beetles and the environmental issues causing their outbreaks, is what can lead you – policy makers and lumber industry practitioners – to take informed sustainable decision.

The forests will recover and the dying trees can still be saved!

This is a sad story of my tribe, climate change and the bark beetles. Story of how those determined to pursue their lucrative business idea overshadows the needs of ecology.  Therefore, quicker action from political leaders, and perhaps economic leaders too, as well as scientists and forest managers would be more than appreciated not only by us bark beetles (still can’t stand my neighbors’ kids), the local communities (human) but also future generations to come! 

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