Mountain pine beetle mortality: it’s cold outside – but is it cold enough?


Mountain pine beetles are vulnerable to the cold – but not as vulnerable as other insects, thanks to a special adaptation.

When it comes to winter weather, the equation is simple for most Albertans: the hotter, the better – and the past few weeks have certainly been hotter than most. Unfortunately, all good things must end, and in most parts of the province, our unseasonably warm weather has been replaced by the usual deep-freeze…at least for now.

But the cold (like many unpleasant things) has fringe benefits. Conditions are great for skiing, and there’s no longer a (long) line for the 7-11 Slurpee machine. And if you’ve lived in Alberta for long enough, you might have heard another one: cold weather, while bad for us, is even worse for the scourge of our forests: the mountain pine beetle.

Insects aren’t known for being able to thrive in sub-zero temperatures, so it might make sense that the colder it gets, the worse it will be on the beetle. But the truth is a little more complicated than that.

 The curious case of the antifreeze beetle

Most insects die in the cold because the water in their bodies freezes – but mountain pine beetles are cunning little critters. Rather than just waiting to be wiped out by sub-zero temperatures, they protect themselves from the cold by producing their own antifreeze – a chemical called glycerol – and stock-piling it in their bodies. The glycerol in their bodies helps keep the beetles from freezing.

The beetles start producing ‘anti-freeze’ in the late fall, and reach their full tolerance to the cold by January. Once this happens, they can still be killed by cold temperatures, but things have got to get really frosty – with sustained temperatures of -40 C or lower for at least two full days.

It’s much easier for cold weather to impact beetles when it happens in one of two specific ways:

1. When we get unseasonably cold weather early, before the beetles have had a chance to produce glycerol for the winter – in November, or even before that.

2. When there are extreme fluctuations in winter temperatures – we go from cold to unseasonably warm (like the past two weeks) back to below freezing. Once it gets warmer again, glycerol deposits start to break down and beetles start to lose their cold tolerance. When the mercury drops again, they’re more vulnerable to cold.

(It’s worth noting that this only applies to ambient temperatures – that is, how cold it is without taking wind chill into account. Unfortunately, wind chill doesn’t make the trees the beetles are in any colder.)

 So – what does this mean for Alberta’s fight with the mountain pine beetle?

We’re still working to better understand exactly how changes in temperature can affect mountain pine beetle survival. That’s why we’re supporting research by Dr. Kathy Bleiker over at the Canadian Forest Service’s Pacific Forestry Centre.

The goal of this research is to tell us more about how cold severity, duration, and fluctuation impact the mountain pine beetle, how it becomes cold-tolerant, and how it loses that tolerance. The research will use special environmental chambers to expose eggs, larvae, pupae, and adult beetles to different conditions. Hopefully, what we learn about the beetle through this research will allow us to better plan our next plan of attack.

Want more info about the mountain pine beetle, why it’s bad, and how we’re fighting infestations? Head to And in the meantime, as we swing back into colder weather, just remember: if you’re hating it, mountain pine beetles are hating it more.

Understanding how beetles adapt to the cold helps us make sure our plan of attack is as proactive as possible. (Say that 10 times fast.)

Understanding how beetles adapt to the cold helps us make sure our plan of attack is as proactive as possible. (Say that 10 times fast.)

The coolest news you won’t see anywhere else: over 70 million trees were planted last year in Alberta

Do you know what week it is? Guess! No, seriously, guess.

It’s National Forestry Week – but we’ll forgive you if it hasn’t occurred to you to celebrate. Like the forests it celebrates, this holiday is important – but it’s also a bit unsung.

Although we all know how important our forests are – for ecosystem health and for the health of Albertans – we often don’t give them as much attention as they deserve. If our trees were to suddenly disappear, our ingratitude would likely change in a hurry – but fortunately, Alberta has a system in place to ensure that never happens.

Photo of a coniferous forest in Alberta.

60% of Alberta is forested – and we plan to keep it that way.

In previous posts, we’ve told you about Alberta’s reforestation program and our cement-walled seed bunker. Although our extensive seed collection program has many uses – some research-related and some practical – one of its biggest jobs is to supply the trees needed to re-plant harvested areas after logging operations.

Although it’s at times overshadowed by our biggest export – oil – trees are big business for Alberta. About 60 per cent (!) of the province is forested, and each year, approximately 75 000 hectares are harvested – making us the fourth largest forestry province in Canada.

With thousands of hectares harvested each year, you might wonder why how Alberta’s forests continue to thrive. The answer is simple: the province requires reforestation of all harvested areas within two years. The practical result of this? Anywhere from 70 – 80 million trees are planted each year – and the result is a landscape that stays green and healthy.

So how do you conjure a lush green oasis from nothing in just two years – magic? Although these trees might appear to spring up overnight, they are actually the end product of a lot of meticulous work and planning.

Prior to harvest, companies survey and collect the seed that will be required to re-plant the area. That seed is stored in Alberta’s very own reforestation seed bunker in a stable, climate controlled environment until they are needed to be sown and then planted. And, since about 15% of planting is done with genetically improved seeds (more on that in our next post), we can help the next generation of trees grow up stronger, taller, and more resistant to disease – helping ensure that our mighty forests remain for generations to come.

The seeds of something great: inside Alberta’s Reforestation Seed Bunker

Photo of the Alberta Reforestation Seed Bunker

Concrete bunkers: not just for criminal masterminds anymore.

This is the second post in our four-post series about how we work to support re-forestation in Alberta. Take a look at the first post here.

Deep in a nest of trees about 15 minutes outside the town of Smoky Lake sits a large concrete bunker, built into the hillside. With 16-inch walls and no windows, it looks foreboding – passerby would be forgiven for assuming that it housed high-tech weapons or state secrets. But in fact, something less tantalizing lurks behind those walls – unless you’re a squirrel, in which case the bunker might as well be Fort Knox.

Housed inside the bunker, in freezer compartments held at -18°C, is 53,000 kilograms of tree, shrub, and grass seed. Like any  bunker, it is locked down tight and has a top-notch security system – monitored 24/7 by the Alberta Government Protection Services for temperature changes, mechanical failure, fire, intruders, and anything else that might disturb the safety of the precious cargo stored within.

Photo of lodgepole pinecones on the tree.

Protecting little seeds and cones is a surprisingly big job. These are from a lodgepole pine. Photo credit: Walter Siegmund.

This might seem like overkill – but in fact, this high-tech security is protecting a serious asset. Almost 32,000 kilograms of the seed housed in the bunker belongs to logging, oil sands, and mining companies – and will ultimately be used to turn public land impacted by industry back into lush, green forest.

Little seeds with a big purpose

By law, public land that is clear-cut for logging must be reclaimed – replanted with native vegetation – within two years, and many other industrial operations are required to reclaim disturbed areas with native vegetation as well. Successful reforestation and reclamation requires that companies properly harvest and store enough tree, shrub, and grass seeds to meet their land’s reforestation needs, and that those seeds are native to the region and ecosystem being reclaimed.

To make things even more challenging, the process also requires genetic diversity – meaning that companies can’t just harvest hundreds of seeds from a single tree before it’s cut down and use them to re-plant an entire forest. Re-planting requires a representative sample of seeds, from a diverse number of plants, to ensure forest health.

The Alberta Tree Improvement and Seed Centre (ATISC) – which operates the bunker – doesn’t do this work themselves; that’s the responsibility of industry. But they do enforce standards that ensure seed used for reforestation is harvested appropriately, stored properly, and – finally – planted successfully. Few of us are aware of the work they do – but we’ve probably all seen the results. In just a couple of years, reclamation can turn a completely clear-cut area into an oasis – stay tuned to see exactly what this looks like.

Clones, bunkers, and banks: the complex science behind preserving Alberta’s forests

This is the first post in a four-post series about how we work to support re-forestation in Alberta. Take a look at the second post, about the Alberta’s Reforestation Seed Bunker, here

 If a tree falls and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? We’ve all been asked this little hypothetical gem before. But let me ask you another question: if no one is around to plant a new tree, does one still grow?

The answer isn’t surprising: of course it does. But it might surprise you to know that since the 1970s, Alberta’s forests have been regenerating with a little help from their friends – specifically, the staff of the Alberta Tree Improvement & Seed Centre (ATISC).

To understand the benefits of ATISC’s work, consider the forest lifecycle. Although these majestic green canopies might seem unchanging and eternal, they’re actually changing constantly – from human activity, but also from the effects of competition, fire, insects, and disease.

Photo of a forest and wetland near Fort McMurray, Alberta

Alberta’s forests may look eternal – but really, they’re eternally changing

This process might seem destructive – and sometimes it is. But it can also actually be a positive opportunity for the forest to grow back healthier than before – and the stronger, taller, and more disease-resistant the trees, the greater the long-term benefit to both people and ecosystems.

While natural re-growth provides an opportunity for stronger, healthier trees to grow, there’s no guarantee that this will happen. That’s where ATISC comes in – developing tools and resources to help strengthen new forests while ensuring they remain region and ecosystem appropriate. While some of these tools are pretty conventional, others might surprise you. Did you know, for example…

  • …that there’s a bunker with 16-inch deep concrete walls in the county of Smoky Lake storing over 53,000 kilograms of
    Photo of the Alberta Reforestation Seed Bunker

    Concrete bunkers: not just for criminal masterminds anymore

    tree, shrub and grass seed native to Alberta?

  • …that if you’ve traveled across Alberta, there’s a good chance you’ve driven by fields of clones and not even realized it?
  • …that ATISC staff must not only harvest the seeds of certain trees by helicopter, but must also install temporary ‘cages’ around the seeds to win a war with wildlife?

Over the next two weeks, we’ll take you inside Alberta’s Reforestation Seed Bunker, to lush forests now growing in areas leveled by logging and forest fires – and many other places. Stay tuned.

Crews survey pine beetle winter survival


Alberta takes a two-pronged approach in the fight against the mountain pine beetle.

The first is slowing further spread into the eastern slopes and boreal forest by removing infested trees, which you can read about in a previous blog post.

The second is surveying where beetles are and how well their offspring survive each winter.

Photo of ESRD staff drilling a core sample in a tree

Forest health officer, Dale Thomas drills a core sample from an infested tree

Every June, survey crews visit nearly 300 sites across the province to take core samples from infested trees.

This tells us the proportion of dead versus live beetle larvae and if their populations have the potential to increase spread to other trees.

The findings, combined with summer aerial and ground surveys to locate newly-infested trees, help us determine where we need to focus our control efforts to manage spread of beetle attacks.

Widespread infestations can threaten social, economic, and environmental values – including watershed health, fish and wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, community sustainability, and the province’s forest industry.

We are committed to protecting our resources. This past year, $40 million was spent to support detection, survey, control, prevention and rehabilitation programs, including $10 million towards reforestation.

Strong action at this time is our most effective tool to control the spread of pine beetles in our forests.

2013 mortality survey results will be posted online in July.

For more information on Alberta’s actions, and to see survey results from previous years, visit

Alberta vs. Mountain Pine Beetle

Beetle found beneath tree bark

Beetle found beneath tree bark

Alberta’s battle against the ravaging effects of the mountain pine beetle continues.

Despite its tiny size – less than 7.5mm – the mountain pine beetle is the most damaging pine tree pest in North America. In only a few short months, the foliage of an infested tree will change colour from green to yellow, followed by bright red, brown and eventually grey, indicating tree death. This can have a devastating affect on our economy, forests and ecosystems.

Photo of a control crew member removing a mountain pine beetle infested tree

Identified trees are cut down

This winter, mountain pine beetle control crews roamed some of the most vulnerable forests near Grande Prairie, Hinton, and Slave Lake to remove individual infested trees. After cutting them down, they’re burned or mulched to kill the beetles living under the bark. This ensures larvae cannot develop and fly on to infest other trees in the summer.

Removing one infested tree can prevent as many as five more from being attacked.  So far, more than 90,000 infested trees have been removed this year.

Six million hectares of Alberta’s pine forests are at risk of infestation. Single-tree removals are one part of Alberta’s strategy to prevent beetles from spreading eastward into the boreal forest and further into the foothills.

Photo of crews burning infested logs

Logs are burned to ensure beetles and larvae do not survive

Other strategies include working with the forestry industry to harvest stands of at-risk and infested pine trees, and the long-term replacement of over-mature pine stands with younger forests.

Later this spring, we’ll switch our focus to survey how well the developing beetle larvae survived the winter and how many healthy pine trees have been infested. These overwintering survival surveys will help determine our strategies for battling the mountain pine beetle again next year.

Learn more about Alberta’s action against the mountain pine beetle and actions you can do to prevent the spread.

View our gallery for more photos.

Roadmap directs future of forestry

Photo of Minister McQueen speaking at the podium.

Minister McQueen gives opening remarks.

Alberta is changing the way forestry does business in North America.

At the Growing the North economic conference in Grande Prairie last month, Minister Diana McQueen spoke of the success of Alberta’s Forest Products Roadmap – and the impact it is already making to postively reshape our forestry sector.

The Roadmap – launched in 2011 – is a collaborative effort between government and the forestry industry to take action on environmental performance, social acceptance and leadership in economic competitiveness.

Growth, diversification, and a commitment to being Alberta’s greenest manufacturing industry are key factors that will ensure our forestry sector remains resilient and forward-thinking to adapt to changing markets.

Photo of Dave Cook, Minister McQueen, Anne Giardini and Craig Armstrong.

(l-r) Panel moderator Dave Cook with Minister Diana McQueen, Anne
Giardini of Weyerhaeuser, and
Craig Armstrong of Millar Western.

Using extensive research – including tapping into Alberta’s applied research and innovation community – we are seizing opportunities by:

  • diversifying global markets;
  • maintaining healthy, sustainable forests;
  • managing mountain pine beetle infestations;
  • investing in innovation, including projects to convert waste products from biogas;
  • developing new products and services to meet demand for green products; and
  • creating partnerships to address labour challenges.

“The strength of the Roadmap is the spirit of co-operation that has all parties in agreement on strategies and outcomes,” said McQueen at the conference. “Everyone is committed to working together to make this successful.”

You can learn more about the Alberta Forest Products Roadmap and action plans by visiting

The fight against mountain pine beetle

It’s been almost 10 years since mountain pine beetle infestations started in south-western Alberta, killing pine trees, turning them red.  If you’ve ever flown over western Alberta, you may have noticed the tell-tale scattering of red trees – or even some dense red areas – scattered among the vast green pine forests.

Infestation of south-western Alberta began in 2002, after the insects were assisted over the mountains from British Columbia by the wind.  By 2006, infestations had spread to west-central Alberta.

Without intervention, the mountain pine beetle infestation threatening Alberta’s pine supply could result in an estimated potential negative economic impact of between $420 million and $600 million per year. This infestation also leaves our forests susceptible to fire and could result in a significantly increased wildfire risk and increased costs to fight fires

The province has launched an aggressive campaign to control the spread of the destructive mountain pine beetle – investing millions of dollars for survey and control field work, research and to reforest areas affected by infestations.

To date, nearly one million infested trees have been cut down – removing the risk of the beetles in those trees multiplying and infesting new trees. The forest industry has also joined the fight; removing infested trees through their harvesting operations.

Minister McQueen on Mountain Pine Beetle tour

Minister McQueen and media getting briefed on mountain pine beetle situation.

Today, Minister Diana McQueen and a group of ESRD forest health experts took media on a tour over areas southwest of Grande Prairie to demonstrate the value of fighting this forest pest.  We saw first-hand the summer and fall aerial survey work being done to identify trees that were attacked last year and locate areas where new populations have spread.  This information helps crews determine where to focus their control work over the winter.

We also flew over contrasting areas of the region. Areas where the risk of spread is low, areas with the greatest infestations, and areas where aggressive control strategies are being used.

Departing from Graham Base, located approximately 30 kilometres southwest of Grande Prairie, we first flew over pine forests with limited patchy red areas.  The scattered pine population makes it difficult for beetles to fly to other trees to infest so no control work is done in these areas because of the low risk level and poor connectivity of pine.

Aerial view of MPB infestation

Aerial view of mountain pine beetle infestation

Next we continued towards Pinto forestry fire lookout tower and various other ridges. This area has many dense red areas. Infestation have been active in these areas since 2006 and was hit once again in 2009 from an in-flight from British Columbia.

Our last stop on the tour took us to an area with continuous lush green pine stands. This area runs east to Hinton, Edson and Whitecourt and continues south to Rocky Mountain House and further south through Kananaskis country. Aggressive control work is done in this high risk area – tactics such as single tree removal and cut and burns are helping minimize the threat of spread.

It was a great opportunity to see the difference between areas with no active management and where control work is most aggressive.

Interesting fact: Last year 32,000 individual infested trees were cut and burned in the Smoky area. In total, 125,000 trees in the area have been cut and burned since 2007.

In the video below, Erica Samis, a forest health officer with ESRD, explain how mountain pine beetles attack and the tactics used to fight them.