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Asian Longhorn Beetle, or Not

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During a recent camping trip, I saw my first Asian longhorn beetle. Or at least I thought I did.

We had driven through Idaho’s Clearwater National Forest on Highway 12, and along the way we passed stand after stand of dying conifers, swaths of past forest fires, and miles of smolder floating over the river and through otherwise green forest.

Dying trees & Smolder in Clearwater Forest

Smolder rising from a swath of dying, damaged Clearwater National Forest

The cycle of beetle-then-burn is well known among forest lovers. The beetles infest and damage the trees, leaving stands of tinder-ready snags ripe for ignition in the heat of summer when lightening strikes or irresponsible humans introduce burning materials. Or, it goes the other way ’round: fire happens, followed by insects. It’s a vicious cycle, and one beetle that gets much of media spotlight for decimating trees: the Non-native Asian longhorn beetle.

On a sunny, late August morning, we set out on our first hike. Our destination: Jerry Johnson Hot Springs. It wasn’t far from our campground, and the hike in to the hot springs was more of a stroll along an elysian river in the woods.

Jerry Johnson Hot Springs River

A view of the river we followed heading to the Jerry Johnson Hot Springs

After about a mile on the well groomed trail, hot springs began appearing. The first spring we passed was shooting out of the hillside into the river below. The second, in an open field of river rock, was filled with a happy group of campers. And, the third became our destination. As we exited a small stand of trees not far from the field of river rock, we looked upon a pristine pool about three feet deep, created from its source by piles of boulders and nurselog falls.

Jerry Johnson Hot Spring

Pristine hot spring in a wildflower meadow in the Jerry Johnson Hot Spring area

And, the view surrounding the pool? A warm, sunny meadow colored with purple blooming asters, liatris and colorful, feeding butterflies.

Wildflowers & Butterflies

Wildflowers & butterflies in the meadows surrounding Jerry Johnson Hot Springs in Idaho

It truly was a slice of heaven.

After enjoying quite a while soaking in the rejuvenating waters, I decided to dry off and capture some of the beauty with my camera. That was when I met The Beetle. He? She? Okay, It was scrambling across the nurselog where I had hung my towel.

Asian Long Horn Beetle Lookalike

Invasive & destructive Asian longhorn beetle?
More likely: beneficial spotted pine sawyer

Thinking, “Ah-ha! This is the f-er who’s destroying this forest”, I grabbed my camera and began his photo shoot. I was already thinking through the story I would write when I got home. I would tell the tale I’ve shared above and illustrate it with photos of the beetle that’s killing trees, which become fodder for the awful forest fires raging through the wild, and not-so-wild, parts of the west this summer.

But, when I began to research the beetle to fully identify it, I quickly realized it probably wasn’t the notorious Asian longhorn beetle and guessed it might be a beneficial insect instead. But, I wasn’t confident in my assessment, and after finding his Wood Borer Insects article online, I reached out to Tom Eckberg, Forestry Health Specialist with the Idaho Department of Lands for help. Tom responded to my email, which included a photo of the creature in question, quickly:

“I’m 99% positive that it is the spotted pine sawyer. This is a very common longhorned beetle that occurs from Northeastern North America all the way to the West Coast and Alaska. It is a general feeder, infesting many conifer species. The good news is that this species does not generally attack healthy, living trees, preferring dead or dying ones. They are actually beneficial in that they help to recycle nutrients. They can be especially plentiful in forested areas that have burned.”

Tom went on to share how he knew this was the spotted pine sawyer, “Look for that white spot at the base of the wing covers, where they meet the thorax.”

White Spotted Pine Sawyer

Note the white spot that identifies the white spotted pine sawyer.

Well, that makes sense. This critter was crawling around on dead wood in an area with many charred falls; he wasn’t inspecting or damaging a living tree. And, thank goodness they’re in this burned up forest to clean up what’s left behind. Otherwise, it’s mostly kindling for another wildfire says my friend Greg, a helicopter mechanic on the front lines of wildfires across the U.S.

Everyone on our crew that I’ve asked agrees (sic), without a doubt, that (trees) the beetle kill is a huge problem. The stuff goes up like a candle, ” says Greg.

Currently, Greg is working on the King Fire outside Sacramento, California where water is becoming ever-more scarce. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years now, the most glaring change in that time has been the season…it doesn’t really end. Especially in southern CA where the drought is beyond bad, 4 or 5 months (of burn season) has turned into year round.

Do we blame climate change for terrible drought, longer burn seasons, and more invasive insects causing more damage?

It’s hard not to when you read articles like the US EPA’s Climate Impacts on Forests, which states “Climate change could alter the frequency and intensity of forest disturbances such as insect outbreaks, invasive species, wildfires, and storms. These disturbances can reduce forest productivity and change the distribution of tree species. In some cases, forests can recover from a disturbance. In other cases, existing species may shift their range or die out. In these cases, the new species of vegetation that colonize the area create a new type of forest.”

New life arising from charred forest nurse log

Dead, charred, fallen logs give life to new trees and beneficial insects & other flora & fauna

So, is this what we’re in for?

Will native flora and fauna overcome changing obstacles to their survival?

Will this spotted pine sawyer, which I initially mis-identified in my excitement, continue to thrive and clean up the falls before more fires, drought, and invasive species overtake them and recreate the heavenly fields, forests, rivers, and springs I found tucked just off Highway 12 in the beautiful forests of Idaho?

To help give our forests and native species a hand, do your part when you’re in the wild.

  • Use fire wisely and only in designated areas that are not under burn bans. And, put your fires out completely!
  • Do not import firewood. Buy it where you burn it! Learn more via “Don’t Move Firewood” website
  • Learn to ID insects, take pictures & report what you find – even if you only think it’s an invasive pest – to help map migrations & infestations.
  • Resist killing the insects you see; if I’d killed what I thought was an “Asian longhorn beetle,” I would have actually killed a beneficial insect.
  • Pack out what you pack in to keep our forests clean

And, yes, the same pests and beneficial insects that show up in the forest can also end up in our home gardens, so don’t take souvenir or firewood home from your forest adventures. Rather, take photos, which in this case tell a story of around 1200 words.

Additional reading:

Idaho Forestry Forums: Current Insect & Disease Reports

Don’t Move

Asian Longhorned beetle USDA Tracking & Information

White spotted pine sawyer USDA Forest Service Information

Many thanks to Tom Eckberg and Emily Callihan of the Idaho Department of Lands, Greg my helicopter-firefighter friend, and Katy Bigelow, Certified Arborist for your input and help with this article. – Robin


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