Empire of the Beetle Chosen as a Globe & Mail 100 best book of the year in 2011 and published in partnership with the David Suzuki Foundation. Calgary-based journalist, Andrew Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly & a Tiny Bug are Killing North America’s Great Forests (Greystone Books, September 2011) is up for the 2012 Wilfred Eggleston Award for NonFiction at the upcoming Alberta Literary Awards on June 9, 2012, Exposing some startling connections between beetles and humans, one of North America’s foremost environmental writers investigates the continent’s massive forest die-off. burn away like a fire that can’t be put out. Drawing on first-hand accounts from entomologists, botanists, foresters, and rural residents, award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk investigates this unprecedented beetle plague, its startling implications, and the lessons it holds.

Beginning in the late 1980s, a series of pine beetle (also known as the bark beetle) outbreaks unsettled iconic forests and communities across western North America. An insect the size of a rice kernel eventually killed more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees from Alaska to New Mexico.

The pine beetle didn’t act alone. Misguided science, out-of-control logging, bad public policy, and a hundred years of fire suppression released the world’s oldest forest manager from all natural constraints. The beetles exploded wildly in North America and then crashed, leaving in their wake grieving landowners, humbled scientists, hungry animals, and altered watersheds. Although climate change triggered this complex event, human arrogance assuredly played a role. And despite the billions of public dollars spent on control efforts, the beetles burn away like a fire that can’t be put out.

National Post Review by Richard Sherbaniuk (September 16, 2012)

When renowned biologist J.B.S. Haldane was asked if his work had given him any universal insights, he replied that “God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles.” In fact, there are more beetle species — some 400,000 now, with many more waiting to be discovered — than any other animal on the planet. The total number of insects on Earth, including beetles, is estimated at 10 quintillion (10 followed by 18 zeros). They weigh 300 times more than the combined weight of the entire human population.And they will no doubt still be here when the human race is long gone.

Subtitled “How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests,” Empire of the Beetle is about the devastation wrought by the bark beetle, a voracious insect the size of a grain of rice that often swarms in masses larger than schools of killer whales. Beginning in the late 1980s, a series of unprecedented bark beetle outbreaks killed more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees from Alaska to New Mexico, resulting in the greatest tree die-off since the deforestation of Europe by peasants between the 11th and 13th centuries.

The key word here is “unprecedented.” Bark beetles have been around for hundreds of millions of years, playing a vital role in the regeneration of forests, and thus the world’s carbon cycle, by consuming dead trees. Why are they suddenly swarming out of control, even attacking healthy trees, and defying all efforts to contain, suppress or kill them?

Andrew Nikiforuk explains why, in what I am sure is the world’s only page-turner about beetles. Over the past two decades this award-winning Canadian journalist has tackled subjects ranging from education and economics to the environment, in the process winning a Governor General’s Award (for Saboteurs) and the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award (for Tar Sands). He has a clear, muscular style and a masterful command of simile, metaphor and analogy to illustrate otherwise dull or obscure scientific data. His research is awe-inspiring, his conclusions irrefutable, and the implications dismal.

The bark beetle has been released from its ancient natural constraints by two factors. The first is human activity: bad public policy, out-of-control logging, and the bad or misguided science that led a hundred years’ worth of forest managers to the mistaken conclusion that a key factor in habitat management is fire suppression, rather than the recognition that fire plays a vital role in long-term sustainable forest health. The second factor is climate change. Together these two factors set the stage for a swarming plague of bark beetles whose predations have cost untold billions of dollars and are a foreshadowing of many biological disasters to come.

It is impossible to even begin enumerating the wealth of astounding facts peppering this book, so I will simply note that Nikiforuk artfully breaks up his science with a social history of mankind’s age-old fascination with beetles, from Aesop to Darwin.

He also interviews an enchanting collection of beetle-mad scientists and eccentrics, including the University of Montana’s Diana Six, former biker and drug addict, now bodybuilder and world-renowned bug expert. Then there’s the collaboration between “the entomologist, the musician, and the pool hustler … on one of the craziest science experiments in insect history.” Suffice to say the experiment involved woody “phloem sandwiches” and a contraption made of a meat thermometer and a piezoelectric transducer from a Hallmark greeting card. This bizarre homemade device was deployed to record bark beetle singing, which is how they communicate apart from odour. The songs were then played back to living insects in the tree in the wrong order, thus driving them to crazy self-destructive behaviour, including cannibalism. Whoever thought that music rather than toxic clouds of insecticide might be the key to saving the world’s forests?

This fascinating and thought-provoking book about an ancient insect pest exposes the frailty of seemingly stable man-managed habitats and presages the climate-induced ordeals to come.


Richard Sherbaniuk is an environmental consultant, classical scholar, and historian. He specializes in analyzing geo-political crises and new technologies, and advises governments and corporations, domestic and international, on environmental protection issues. He collects antiques, paintings, and sculpture, and travels widely in Europe and the Middle East.


Globe & Mail Review by William Bryant Logan (Saturday, September 30, 2011)

Andrew Nikiforuk’s Empire of the Beetle is not just a primer on the life cycle, usefulness and recent rampages of the tribe of bark beetles that have killed more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees in Canada and the American West. It is not just a virtual gathering of the dozens of scientists, artists and philosophers who have grappled with the sudden beetle onslaught that has wiped out whole forests. It is not simply another tome that blames all hell on climate change. And it is not only an indictment of politicians and industry leaders who disdainfully refer to the mountain pine beetle as “an insect no bigger than a mouse turd.”

Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug are Killing North America’s Great Forests, by Andrew Nikiforuk, GreyStone, 230 pages, $19.95It is at its best a principled reflection on what ecologist Crawford Holling has called “the pathology of resource management.” The never-before-seen complete virulence of the bark beetles in the conifer forests – with a few aspen forests thrown in for good measure – is not just the result of some wrong turn in forest policy. It is a result of the mistaken notion that any forest policy is better than learning from nature and following nature’s ways.

Nikiforuk shows frankly that bark beetle outbreaks are nothing new. He cites characters in native tales that represent the bark beetle. He records outbreaks revealed in the distant past by dendrochronology, and more recent ones of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. In each, the tiny beetles use extraordinary means – pheromones, commensal fungi, associated mites – to gather in huge numbers to overcome mature pines and kill them.

Unlike many pests, who weaken but do not kill their hosts, the bark beetles specifically and intentionally destroy the trees they attack. When they are done, they move on to new trees. And so forth and so on. For a hundred million years, the family of the scolytids have served to remove from the landscape over-mature trees that could not defend themselves from the mass attack.

Indeed, the response of a healthy young pine to the first bark beetle to arrive is often to eject it bodily from the tree or entomb it in a stream of gooey resin. The oldest bark beetle fossils are preserved in amber, and were certainly victims of an ancient pine’s defences. If the first few beetles cannot gain a foothold, they do not call their fellows with pheromone cues, and a mass attack does not occur. They move on to other, weaker trees.

So why have the attacks of the past two decades been so much more virulent than any previous attacks that we know of?

Quite simply, the reasons are the arrogance and stupidity of management. We have created a world in which far too many beetles survive and propagate. The denser the populations, the more beetles to attack each tree, the more that even a healthy young tree may be overcome by sheer numbers. And the more the beetle is successful, the more beetles it makes for the next wave.

Climate change is one, but only one, of the causes. When northern and mountain winters warm, only a small fraction of the usual winter kill of beetles occurs. There are thus orders of magnitudes more to expand the killing front, come spring.

Just as important to the rampage of the beetle is long-term misguided policy that regards forest fires as an evil to be eradicated. Motivated by the desire to protect private property and valuable timber, the Smokey the Bear ethos has done more damage than any raging fire. Until the policy-makers decided to stop the fires, the conifer forests had lived by fire for millennia of millennia, renewing themselves by burning.

When fire removes a forest of old trees, the food for the beetle is significantly diminished and the beetle population itself is depleted. In the aftermath, the beetle population in the area crashes, giving a renewing pine forest a new lease on life.

If you prevent forest fires, large numbers of aging trees remain in the forest. The older they are, the more chance they have to be weakened by pathogens or simply by years of standing out in the weather. They are ripe for beetle attack. If the scolytids get them instead of fire, who can blame the beetle? They are simply doing the job that fire was meant to do.

To make matters exponentially worse, the policy-makers then go the beetle one better. If the bark beetles are killing whole forests, why not beat them to it by clear-cutting dying, dead and healthy trees? The last of these make a windfall for the forest products industry, while the first two are the foundation of new industrial opportunities, for example, in pellets for wood stoves. Doubtless, the wood pellet idea has already been given the badge name of “innovation” by some enterprising Babbitt.

This does not stop the beetles, but it gives a good shot in the arm to industry. Unfortunately, it also leads to massive erosion, destruction of the mycorrhizal communities upon which the trees depend, and other changes that make forest regeneration difficult, if not impossible.

Most books of this kind leave one feeling powerless. If these forces are so big and so wrong, what can I do, little me? Perhaps I would be better to sit in a corner and cry. But Nikiforuk neither recommends this nor leaves us in the dark. Among the fine portraits in the book are several of artists who respond to the beetle. One carves massive eyeless watchers with his chainsaw and scatters them about the landscape. Another begins to make furniture of the blue-stained wood.

But you don’t have to be an artist to respond. Again, he cites Holling on the inherent unpredictability of the future. No policy can encompass it. In this world, individuals and small groups make all the difference. What will become of the empire of the beetle will not be decided in Ottawa or Washington, nor by some “grassroots” movement, but by the individuals, families and communities on the land.


William Bryant Logan is an arborist in Brooklyn, N.Y., and the author of, among others, Oak: The Frame of Civilization and Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth.


Amazon Review:

WOW, I was absolutely blown away with this book, so impeccably researched, so beautifully written; I can see why this author has won the Rachel Carson award! I am going to look up more of his titles. I can’t believe the scientific facts in this book, and the human interest in the characters the author has dredged up while researching these destructive little creatures. The devastation of our forests affects everyone from the casual week-end hiker, the forestry worker and everyone who has ever admired the simple beauty of a tree.

Read more and perhaps buy the book at Greystone Publishers or any good bookstore in Alberta.

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