An infestation of the imagination, in a bark beetle lab

Trucker trades the open road for beetle research

  • The beetles hibernate, and then, once they're removed from the fridge, come to life for tests in the lab.

    Tom Brownold
  • Reagan McGuire stores slices of pine tree, some studded with beetles, in a Northern Arizona University laboratory fridge.

    Tom Brownold
 

Name Reagan McGuire
Hometown Flagstaff, Arizona
Vocation Research assistant at Northern Arizona University
On his to-do list

  • Reduce automobile drag by harnessing the wind.
  • Attempt to generate electricity from rubber tires.

What his lab's recorded bark beetle "calls" sound like Fingernails grating across a window screen.
He says Each of Arizona's bark beetles has its own quirks. "I call Ips the trailer trash of beetles. They’ll live in anything."

Halfway through 7th grade, Reagan McGuire quit school and became a pool shark. His father and grandfather were boxers, and McGuire, who inherited their taste for fisticuffs, turned to the tables to stay out of trouble. But he continued to learn, browsing voraciously through the public library, and 40 years later, while taking his son to enroll in Flagstaff's Northern Arizona University, the Pennsylvania native discovered that even a trucker without a diploma could go to college. He signed up.

Now a 56-year-old junior, McGuire's applying what he learned on the green felt -- discipline, focus and a touch of swagger -- to a different game: battling bark beetles. Under the guidance of NAU Professor Richard Hofstetter, McGuire's spent almost five years trying to use sound to disrupt these insects' devastating march through Western forests. The hope is that the beetles' "stridulations" -- the romantic clicks and territorial ticks created by their cricket-y leg-rubbings --might be the key to a less expensive and less toxic form of control than today's ubiquitous chemical strategies.

Shortly into his first semester, McGuire ran across an article about beetle kill in the Southwest, which hosts 30 different bark beetle varieties, 10 of which are particularly unkind to trees. Since 2000, roughly 80 million lodgepole, ponderosa and piñon pines have succumbed to beetles in Arizona and New Mexico. It's not a coincidence that NAU is a center for beetle studies. So McGuire dropped in on Hofstetter, then a new research professor in the School of Forestry, who listened gamely as the freshman overflowed: Could you use militaristic "torture techniques" to control bark beetles? What about "sonic bullets"? McGuire knew little about bark beetles, says Hofstetter, who specializes in them, but he invited the passionate, and garrulous, student to work as a volunteer in his lab.

First, they experimented with ultrasound, lugging infested pine rounds north to the University of Washington Medical School. But the waves penetrated only a few centimeters into a tree. Next, they used miniature speakers to broadcast Rush Limbaugh, backwards. (McGuire says he couldn't stand playing it forwards.) Hofstetter explains that some bugs are disturbed by the human voice and that Limbaugh's emphatic intonation is"easy to replicate." They also blared Guns N' Roses, hypothesizing that some '80s heavy-metal cacophony might discombobulate the critters.

Neither had any effect on the bugs. But when, with the help of the innovative composer David Dunn, they played back slightly manipulated recordings of the beetles' own sounds, the insects went nuts. McGuire and Hofstetter can only guess what, precisely, in the recordings knocks the bugs off-kilter, but it's clear that "acoustic stress" makes them debilitatingly aggressive, or distracted."You can't anthropomorphize them," says McGuire, "but I've seen one male block another male from getting to a female for hours, until finally the male did an end run and the other went off and sulked. It was a cock blocking, like guys in a bar." Some southern and western pine beetle males cannibalized their mates ("He rounded the corner, and just stood there," says McGuire, with gusto. "Then, he attacked.") Some beetles tunneled in circles, instead of their usual straight line. One female Mexican beetle bored through the plexiglass of an observational diorama that McGuire, inspired by his ant-farm days, helped design. She then rested her abdomen on the earbud of a headphone, as if to copulate. For an entire week.

A self-described "tree hugger," McGuire has a husky voice, a bleached mustache and an ever-present ball cap, worn even in the lab. If thousands of hours ogling beetles on a microscope-fed monitor are any indication, he's not easily sidetracked. At the same time, he sallies from one fascination to the next. As a young man, McGuire spent five years living in 19 different European countries. Now, enthralled with Asian culture and religion, he's studying Thai. At NAU, McGuire is majoring in anthropology, with a minor in theater. "I tend to frustrate the shit out of professors," says McGuire, who is always raising his hand. "And some kids call me the ‘answer guy.' " But he's not after a degree, really, and is currently on sabbatical from his other, "leisurely" studies.

McGuire says the lab has devised a "secret weapon," which he can't discuss in detail because it's still in patent review. It's essentially a speaker, strapped to a tree, which blares infinite variations of recorded beetle buzz. As a result, the bugs can't tune it out. Hofstetter believes the technology has a fifty-fifty shot of working. The real challenge, then, will be to make acoustic deterrence practical on a larger scale, in the forest, erecting a tonal fence the beetles won't cross. The researchers also have to ensure that their "sonic bullets" affect bark beetles -- all varieties of them, it is hoped -- but not other animals. The aim isn't eradication, either: Bark beetles are keystone critters. "Without them," McGuire says, "about 30 other species don't exist."

Before enrolling at NAU and "plugging into the neural stream" of beetles, McGuire hauled freight for Martin Trucking Co., driving big rigs throughout the Lower 48. He relished traveling and spent hours dreaming up screenplays in the truck's cab. But "creativity is an organic process," he says, and it's only so compatible with the road. Now, he's reluctant to return to that life: His hands are arthritic from years of shooting pool, and driving "beats you up." But if long-term funding -- and a dependable stipend -- don't appear soon, he may just have to.

So far, Hofstetter's funded their sonic trials through wildfire- and logging-related grants. But Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., recently called the lab, worried about the lodgepoles around Mount Rushmore. Montana ranchers and landowners elsewhere have also shown interest in the studies. At the moment, the researchers have enough funding to get through the summer, which they'll likely spend doing fieldwork in northern Colorado. But even the optimistic McGuire acknowledges that it would take about $250,000 a year, for at least two years, to see their vision to fruition.

Should stable funding materialize, or the "secret weapon" pan out, McGuire's dream of an NAU laboratory devoted to insect acoustics might be realized. (Beetles represent 40 percent of all bugs, yet we know little about their chirrs.) Then maybe he'll be able to tackle some of the innumerable other projects he has in mind, like working with Hofstetter to slow the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle ravaging Eastern trees. Or he might finish a screenplay he's been revising for years, in which the protagonist embraces the idea of a longevity "treatment" in a grove of towering 2,000-year-old redwoods.

Meanwhile, there's so much to do to stymie bark beetles. So much to do, in general. McGuire hopes to retire, eventually, to Thailand, but asked if he's a practicing Buddhist, he replies, "Ha! I don't practice anything." He quickly clarifies: "I practice living in the moment."

Then, later, he confesses: "I used to do tai chi with a big tree every day."

Audio

Sound of a Western male pine beetle courting a female. With slight sonic manipulation, this drove the beetles wild.

 

Sound of a Southern pine beetle courting a female. Acoustic stress caused by manipulating the beetle's own sound made beetles aggressive or distracted.

 

Sound of Rush Limbaugh backwards. The emphatic intonations didn't phase the beetles.

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