By Hannah Moody
In 2013, The Master’s College Department of Biological and Physical Sciences received a $30,000 grant from the Shamrock Foundation to study pine bark beetle infestations in the western United States. The grant has been renewed for a second year and TMC professor Dr. Joe Francis is continuing to research and gain insight into why this insect no bigger than a grain of rice is wreaking havoc in western forests.
While the pine bark beetle’s main function seems to be killing pine trees across the United States by cutting off the nutrients the tree receives from its leaves, the faculty of the Biological and Physical Sciences Department also believe that as a creature created by God, the bark beetle has a purpose other than destruction.
Last year was a year of data gathering. This year Francis has narrowed the research down to answer two questions.
The first question Francis is asking is why the bark beetles choose to attack some forests and not others. The bark beetles have affected tens of thousands of trees in Colorado, but in California the infestation is occurring on a much smaller scale.
Francis hopes to answer this question by gaining a better understanding of the type of pheromone the beetle is attracted to, and if there is difference in the type produced in the trees that have been attacked and the trees left unharmed. A graduate of the college has just been hired to look further into this area.
The second area of research is the under-bark environment of the trees themselves. The parts of California forests the beetles attack are in a high desert environment and the water is scarce. The under-bark environment, however, is a different one altogether.
“Under that bark, you have a tropical rainforest ... it’s probably supporting the desert more than we know,” Francis said.
Because the pine bark beetle helps to create this environment, it is possible that one of its purposes is to help nurture an environment that provides water to the desert.
Francis hopes to find the answer to both these questions in this next year and is excited for the opportunity to shed light on the greater purpose of what is otherwise considered a blight.
Hannah Moody is a senior communication major.