‘Tar sand beetles’ will help restore Alberta’s burnt boreal forest

Monochamus scutellatus oregonensis

Despite the massive wildfire that whipped through Fort McMurray last week, leading to the evacuation of approximately 80,000 residents, there are still creatures living among the ash-covered landscape.

There are actually bugs that thrive in these conditions, and according to a report by CBC, they could save Alberta’s now-charred boreal forest.

Although there are multiple species of bugs attracted to dead and dying trees, particularly post-burn, the most well-known of these insects is the white-spotted long-horn beetle, which feeds on dead conifers like spruce, pine, and fur.

“It’s really spooky if you ever go to a burn after it’s gone out,” Peter Huele, an insect expert with Edmonton’s Royal Alberta Museum, told CBC News. “Every step you take, there is just ash and soot, and you see these little beetles shimmering like jewels on these black burned trees, laying their eggs and doing their thing.”

The beetle can be found in various regions of North America, including Fort McMurray, where it’s often referred to as the “tar sand beetle.”

According to the Royal Alberta Museum, it might be the nearby oil sands that attracted these bugs to the region in the first place. The beetles tend to swarm around areas where the bitumen is exposed, because it gives off terpineols, which is the same substance given off by recently damaged trees. And as Huele notes, “the smell of the oil sands is much stronger than any smell that’s coming off any single tree.”

In the past, the beetles were regarded as nothing more than a nuisance, known to crawl into workers pant legs for warmth. But now that there’s a forest for them to recycle, they’ll play a critical role in rejuvenating the more than 200,000 hectares of forest that’s been reduced to cinders and ash.

By chewing through the blackened logs, the beetles expedite the natural cycle, turning the dead wood back into soil. Previous research has shown that without these creatures, a blackened landscape will remain that way for far longer.

There’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done when it comes to rebuilding the community, but thanks in part to these beetles, Huele says we don’t need to worry about the region’s natural landscape.

“It’s just part of the renewal process.”