Dropping Love's Call Drives Beetles Away

The pine bark beetle has an appetite for destruction; it's responsible for the largest-known insect infestation in North American history. Host Scott Simon speaks to Richard Hofstetter, an entomologist at Northern Arizona University who's experimenting with driving away large populations of the pests by scrambling their sounds to disrupt mating patterns.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

While the house ant parties in the city, the pine bark beetle has its own appetite for destruction out west. The beetle is responsible for the largest- known insect infestation in North American history. And one researcher thinks that the bugs may be driven batty by this.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Loud noise. Our apologies to Guns 'n' Roses.

Rich Hofstetter is an entomologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Thanks so much for being with us.

RICH HOFSTETTER: Thank you.

SIMON: So what should this noise do?

HOFSTETTER: Well, we hope that it in some way it can impact the beetle's ability to reproduce, maybe reduce their ability to survive and behave normally, which would be to attack trees. And so we're hoping that sound potentially could be used to minimize tree mortality and reduce beetle population abundance.

SIMON: So you hope the music will inhibit their ability to reproduce. So that's why you play Guns 'n' Roses and not Sinatra?

HOFSTETTER: I guess so. Yeah. You know, the music in terms of rock music and (unintelligible) isn't working very well. And we've moved on to sort of more advanced sounds, sounds that are more relevant to the insect.

SIMON: Like?

HOFSTETTER: We've been testing a lot of their own chirps and sounds that they make against them and play back to them. And it can influence them in interesting ways. They change the way they may tunnel if we play certain sounds. Or they may become aggressive toward each other. They may also not function in the normal way they would.

SIMON: So you're kind of backing off the loud music and trying to use their own sounds against them?

HOFSTETTER: Correct. And really what we're focusing on is individual tree protection. Right now we're really nowhere near using this as a large-scale approach. And so we think we can potentially use this to protect high value trees on private property, public lands, but on a very small scale.

SIMON: And Mr. Hofstetter, as an entomologist, let me ask you the - I guess even in your world amounts to the moral hazard question, as they say in economics. So if you drive these beetles out, do they just go on somebody else's tree?

HOFSTETTER: Most bark beetles fly, you know, they have about a kilometer of distance. So they have a limited amount of energy. And the more they attempt and travel and fly between trees, the more likely they will not survive. So if we can keep them moving, eventually they will likely fail.

SIMON: Oh, from Flagstaff they won't even be able to reach Tucson.

HOFSTETTER: Correct.

SIMON: Richard Hofstetter, an entomologist at Northern Arizona University, thanks so much for being with us. Good hunting.

HOFSTETTER: Thank you.

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