Flagstaff, AZ – Over the last two decades bark beetles have trashed millions of acres of forests from Alaska to southern California. But Northern Arizona University researchers believe they have found a way to stop bark beetles from devastating forests: by driving them crazy. For Arizona Public Radio Laurel Morales has the story.
Reagan McGuire is a 56-year-old college student at Northern Arizona University. He made his living driving trucks cross country and hustling pool along the way. But now he works as a research assistant with an unorthodox way of thinking compared with other scientists.
MCGUIRE: A lot of them are locked in on specific ways of thinking. I come along and I'm not burdened by that box. I don't know. So that gives me the freedom to look to explore.
And explore he did. After doing some reading an idea struck him: To chase the bark beetles out of the trees why not use a military crowd-control technique, one that emits powerful pulses of sound? He persuaded Richard Hofstetter to help him research the idea. Hofstetter is a beetle expert at NAU.
HOFSTETTER: Most of the knowledge we had for bark beetles and their control was a use of chemicals. And it got me thinking that we're only looking at one of the many senses they have.
With the go ahead from Hofstetter, McGuire started with the most intense and annoying sounds he could imagine. For him that was Rush Limbaugh backwards.
McGuire also tried blasting music from Guns and Roses, but none of it had an effect.
So then they tried playing sounds of other bark beetles.
BEETLES: click click chirp chirp
After six years of listening and observing, the researchers discovered if they tweaked the volume and pitch of the sound they could incite a reaction. The breakthrough came when they played the manipulated sound of an aggressive male clicking for a pair of beetles that were about to mate. The sound of the third beetle upset the male beetle.
HOFSTETTER: The male is pushing up against the back of the female making a squeaking noise while the female clicks. And they typically do this for a few seconds before they mate. In this situation the male is continuing to be aggressive and eventually chews through the female ... So he no longer thinks of her as a mate but as an intruder.
In another experiment the team placed a beetle on a thin slice of pine sandwiched between Plexiglas. Inside they inserted a tiny sound device, the same technology used in a greeting card to play music. The beetle, upset by the sounds, burrowed a hole through the Plexiglas to escape.
Hofstetter and McGuire see a lot of potential in their discoveries. They just need to decide on the effect they wish to have.
HOFSTETTER: It depends on what we want to affect. We could reduce theirability to lay eggs. We could create an environment they want to escape. We could have them chew each other. So all of the sounds we do we're still debating what would work best.
The researchers are trying to secure funding so they can go out into the field and test their research on large stands of trees. If it's effective, they hope to eventually use this technology to chase termites out of homes.
For Marketplace I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff, Arizona.
TAIL: GUNS AND ROSES: Welcome to the jungle!