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04/01/2013

Will the pine beetle destroy Canada's pine forests?

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A pine beetle feasts on a tree in a B.C. forest. (Courtesy Government of British Columbia)

Will an insect smaller than a grain of rice decimate Canadian pine forests?

It is a likely scenario, says The Beetles Are Coming, a documentary by award-winning Toronto filmmaker David York.

The documentary tells the story of how the mountain pine beetle has devastated B.C.’s pine forests in the past 15 years, and how the insect is making its way through Alberta and has now even shown up in Saskatchewan. Inevitably, says the documentary, the beetle will continue east to the Atlantic, killing giant pine forests as it goes.

The insect is unhindered by natural enemies or man-made deterrents.

There is a distinct climate change angle to the pine beetle story.

According to the documentary, the beetle has always infested and killed Lodgepole Pines in B.C.

“The pine beetle has been a critical actor in the natural cycle of forest regeneration," the documentary states.

Every 25 years or so, during periods of mild winters and warm summers, the beetle population would spike and they would attack and take out over-mature trees, making way for younger trees. These outbreaks would last a couple of years, then the normal weather patterns would prevail that would bring the beetle population back under control.

That changed a dozen years ago when global warming brought in milder-than-usual winters. Instead of being killed, beetles survived, multiplied and infested more forests. It became a plague, destroyed 18 million hectares of Lodgepole Pines.

The result is a huge impact on the eco-system because of dead forests, including flooding and disappearance of animal species.

The documentary is based on Calgary’s Andrew Nikiforuk’s book Empire of the Beetle.

The Beetles Are Coming airs on CBC’s Nature of Things of April 4 at 8 p.m.

Raveena Aulakh is the Star's environment reporter. She is intrigued by climate change and its impact, now and long-term. Follow her on Twitter @raveenaaulakh

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