Detecting Beetles That Kill Trees, Make Great Lumber

All across southern California there are tiny beetles eating their way into trees and burrowing into the wood. The holes made by these beetles are only about 1mm in diameter, making them nigh invisible on any tree with rough bark. Trees infested with these beetles will eventually die, making this one of the largest botanical catastrophes in the state.

Ambrosia maple, the result of these beetles boring into maple trees. Although ambrosia maple is arguable prettier, it is significantly cheaper than hard maple, making trees infested with beetles less valuable. Image source: [ironoakrva]
For [Joan]’s project for the 2016 Hackaday Prize, she’s working on a project to detect the polyphagous shothole borer, the beetle that drills into trees and eats them from the inside out. This is a surprisingly hard problem – you can’t look at the inside of a tree without cutting it down – so [Joan] has turned to other means of detecting the beetle, including listening for the beetle’s mastications with a stethoscope.

Although these ambrosia beetles will burrow into trees and kill them, there is another economic advantage to detecting these tiny, tiny beetles. The fungi deposited into these beetle bore holes make very pretty wood, but this wood is less valuable than lumber of the same species that isn’t infested with beetles. It’s a great project for the upcoming Citizen Science portion of the Hackaday Prize, as the best solution for detecting these beetles right now is sending a bunch of grade school students into the woods.

The HackadayPrize2016 is Sponsored by:

22 thoughts on “Detecting Beetles That Kill Trees, Make Great Lumber

  1. Here in PA, there’s some kind of grub that likes to eat fir trees… it looks like a regular japanese beetle larva, but these things get between the bark and and pulp wood of the tree and just skin it alive.

    What’s creepy about it is you can hear these things chewing on the tree. It sounds like dry wood squeeking. And if you talk too loud next to it. They all stop eating. Then after a minute or two, they start chewing again.

    I literally had to do a cold shake and walk away from it because it was making my skin crawl.

  2. The fungus pattern in the wood is called “spalted”. It is pretty, but noticeably weaker.
    Pine beetles are devastating trees in the Black Hills of South Dakota, as elsewhere.

  3. There is a Gene Autry movie, “Riders of the Whistling Pines”, in which he plays a forest ranger in California in the late 1940’s and they discover an infestation. They hop in their biplanes and pen in the region containing beetles with DDT. The villain is a mill owner who wants to stop them because he can get a permit to take the dying trees from a forest that is normally off limits. The DDT method of handling the problem is no longer available.

    1. That reminds me of todays lawn nuts. A few dandylions? Nuke it with pesticides. People wonder why the bees are dying and why their tap water taste bad. I wish people would let their front yard go crazy; I think it looks better than acres of flat green.
      I will look that film up.

      1. To be fair, you don’t kill dandelions with pesticides. You use 2-4-D or 2-5-D plus glyphosphate (Crossbow). Causes super accelerated growth in broad-leaf. No effect on pasture grasses or lawns. Breaks down rapidly – kind of like Roundup, which kills most plants in the same way and breaks down (oxidized + metabolized) in 24 hours. Neither hurt bees.

        What WILL clobber bees is getting any borax in water they drink. So basically, gray water from washing with borax within 3 miles of a hive can kill the hive. So check whatever you wash your car with. (Also get rid of ants indoors with a little sugar water with some borax).

          1. As my Jr. High band teacher, Archie Slusser, often said, “Anything almost right is wrong!” Plants that are pests are “weeds” in most state law in the U.S. or “noxious weeds” like buttercup. Though they do fall under the umbrella of pest management government agencies. But I’m going with the Slusser rule.

  4. We just lost our ash trees. With the population, container ships and airplanes we are going down. The fuss about not moving firewood was for naught. Stop moving everything might work, but it’s mostly too late. Unless there is worse fate, I don’t have to worry.

  5. You can get kind of a similar look from non-infested pine using a torch. Maybe it works with maple too, I haven’t tried it. Just pass the flame slowly across the wood. The light areas will darken easily but the darker areas do not. When you are done the formerly light areas are much darker than what had been the dark areas. The difference is enough that even though the wood is darker overall the areas that started out darker now look very light in comparison. You get a lot more contrast than what you started with.

    From the picture it looks like the beetle fungus is doing the same thing, it’s making the light areas darker. It does seem to have a bit of a bluish color to it though. That you will not get from fire.

  6. It’s actually not about the staining on the wood. The more serious problem is that a large fraction of the trees in Southern California might die, and there is no good way to stop it at the moment. The economic impact to some tree crops in the area is potentially enormous…. thanks for all those joining the project! We need all the help we can get.

    1. If we can’t see the holes in the bark, can they be seen with a magnified camera? If so, the a circular track with a camera which also slowly crawls up the tree should work with a little openCV code to find the symmetrical holes.

    2. Now I don’t know much about these beetles but I saw something about the human botfly, they lay a larva in a persons skin and it eats the flesh of the human, but it has to breath through a small hole in the skin, the way they are killed is to cover the hole so they can’t breathe. Ok, now assuming that these beetles get their air through the small holes they make in the trees, and trees breath through their leaves, why not just spray a thin coating of wax around the trunk of the tree and suffocate the beetles without hurting the most economically valuable part of the tree? Well that’s my idea anyway.

    3. You need some crop dusters and DDT. Just don’t tell anyone and it will be fine. The stuff was used all over the world for decades for malaria and yellow fever control – and apparently to stop beetles in California forests.

  7. Bit of a crashblossom in the title. Thought the title was saying that the beetles were killing trees, but they made great lumber, which is the exact opposite of what the article said.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.