David and Goliath – a story of bark beetles

Bark beetles (Scolytinae) are small beetles a few millimeters in size. Their larva develop under tree bark eating the phloem, xylem, and cambium layers. Certain species cause extensive forest damage by killing healthy trees, while others only impact weakened individuals. The eating patterns (called galleries) and the trees’ defensive reactions cause disturbances in the nutrient and water cycling within the trunks. The trees literally dry to death.

Bark beetles can be detected by the gallery patterns they leave on tree trunks. These patterns are species-specific, and often very beautiful. The patterns can be used to recognize infestations and begin warding off the worst damage. Then again, the gallery patterns cannot be seen until the tree bark falls off.

Bark beetles also have a secret weapon: wood-staining fungi. This group of fungi includes several species that damage wood or cause serious diseases to trees. Bark beetles and wood-staining fungi have developed various relationships such as the ambrosia beetles that spread certain fungi species into their galleries to farm them for food. Wood-staining fungi benefit from the bark beetles transporting them to new trees, and have developed exceptionally sticky spores that attach to adult beetles as they are preparing to disperse. Bark beetles also benefit: the fungi weaken new tree individuals, giving adult bark beetles the opportunity to infest and lay their eggs in these trees.

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A possible wood-staining fungus is spreading beneath the bark of a birch infested by the birch bark beetle. ©Stella Thompson

It’s hard to believe that tiny beetles and even more minuscule fungi can kill gigantic trees. Situations where a bark beetle or fungi spreads to a new geographical region among lumber are particularly devastating. The new host trees have no immunity or defense mechanisms against this new organism and the alien species spreads like wildfire.

Dutch elm disease is a prime example of this. Ophiostoma ulmi, a fungus killing elm shoots spread from Asia initially to Europe and then, fueled by the post-World War I reconstruction boom, from Europe to North America in lumber. European elm species coped with the disease slightly better than their North American cousins. European elms also died, but the spread of the disease around Europe took several decades and finally the outbreak waned. 10–40% of the elms died, depending on the country in question. The situation was very different in North America. The American elm (Ulmus americana), a very popular urban and ornamental tree, formed large forests in the eastern areas of the continent. It narrowly escaped extinction through active eradication and education measures such as campaigns forbidding the transportation of firewood outside infected states. Unfortunately, a new, much more virulent fungus (Ophiostoma nova-ulmi) causing Dutch elm disease spread to Europe and North America during the 1940s. This fungus has caused the near annihilation of elms from several European countries. As of yet Finland has mostly been spared by the disease, but this may change with a warming climate that allows beetles belonging to the Scolytus genus that carry Dutch elm disease to overwinter in more northern regions. These beetles are already found on the northern coast of Estonia and in the Stockholm area of Sweden. The birch bark beetle (Scolytus ratzeburgi), commonly found in Finland, does not spread Dutch elm disease as it has specialized in solely utilizing birch trees.

However, the birch bark beetle spreads the Ophiostoma karelicum -fungus. Trappings

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The presence of birch bark beetles can be detected by their unique eating patterns. ©Stella Thompson

conducted during 2008 and 2009 for a study carried out in Norway, Finland, and Russia revealed the prevalence of O. karelicum: every single birch bark beetle individual carried the fungus, which was also found in each of the beetle’s galleries that were searched. The life cycle and ecology of O. karelicum is very similar to the fungi spreading Dutch elm disease, and the commonness of the fungus and the birch bark beetle means a very high risk of the disease spreading to e.g. North America. The birch species native to North America would most probably have no resistance to the disease.

On the other hand, pitch canker (Gibberella circinata) is a fungus spread by bark beetles, originating in North America, which has now spread to Europe where it causes pine mortality. The Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), native to e.g. Finland, is especially susceptible, but the disease has not spread as far north as Scandinavia yet.

To make these dynamics even more complicated, several mite species have also been shown to transport or act as the primary hosts of wood-staining fungi. These mites are in turn spread by bark beetles. The relationships and interactions between these three organisms are still poorly understood.

The disease resistance of tree species can be increased through cultivation. American elm cultivars more resistant to Dutch elm disease have been found, and their disease resistance has been further enhanced through cultivation. These cultivars are most probably the reason that elm forests still exist today in North America, although the age and size composition of these forests has changed considerably with the death of the old and large trees. Biological and chemical disease control is also a possibility: fungicides can be injected into live trees to stop the spread of specific diseases. Six fungicides combating Dutch elm disease are currently on the market in the US.

Similar control measures can most probably be developed against O. karelicum. However, widespread injection campaigns are difficult to implement. In the US, Dutch elm disease is mainly controlled by injecting individual ornamental or urban trees. Injection control as an effective eradication measure requires more development before it becomes a feasible tool for preventing damage caused by alien species.

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