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Wizard Sticks 

click to enlarge Various beetle galleries on driftwood.

Photo by Mike Kelly

Various beetle galleries on driftwood.

Like all wizards, my old friend Merdalf carried a long wooden staff. It was covered in markings that looked like ancient runes and mysterious maps. He found it washed up on the beach.

Unfortunately, Merdalf the Wizard violated some unwritten rule of wizardry and fell into a magic bottomless pit. On calm nights, you can still hear his screams.

These "wizard staffs" are marked by the galleries made by various insects as they chew their way under the bark of living trees. Some galleries look like tangles of spaghetti, while others form more symmetrical patterns. Of these wood-boring insects, the most notorious are the bark beetles within the same family as weevils.

Bark beetles of the genus Scolytus make distinctive galleries that look like oblong starbursts. After boring through the bark, the adult female turns to chew a line along the length of the trunk or branch while laying evenly spaced eggs. The grubs hatch and eat their way out from the original line until they are ready to emerge through the bark as adults. The grubs closer to the middle travel perpendicular to the original line. The grubs nearer the ends travel in progressive curves away from the other grubs, which creates the radiating pattern.

For fun, I beachcombed a wizard staff like Merdalf's. Among its various galleries were several rune-like ones that resembled letters of the alphabet. I examined them in case they spelled out wizardly instructions. The first was an F, the next a U, the next a C — "Hey, wait a sec," I said.

Most bark beetles are cylindrical and blunt at both ends. And though the beetles are shorter than a grain of rice, enough galleries can kill a tree. This is because the galleries damage the under-bark structures — xylem and phloem — that transport water and nutrients through the tree. Additionally, a fungus imported by the female to help feed the grubs worsens the effect.

I was practicing poses in front of the mirror with my staff, wide-brimmed pointy hat, and my star-printed robe. Then I absentmindedly wished I had a burrito. And BOOM, a deluxe burrito appeared! Then I confirmed my wizardliness by wishing for a sexy woman of loose moral character. And BOOM, my wife walked in. She said, "Hey, where'd you get that burrito?" I conjured up a burrito for her and explained the magic galleries.

There are thousands of species of bark beetles worldwide, including at least 200 native to California. Higher average annual temperatures have increased bark beetle populations and allowed different species to expand ranges. Higher temperatures trigger more generations of some beetles to be produced in a single season, which can create population explosions. These infestations are more likely to kill trees already weakened by drought, for example. But even healthy trees may be killed during population explosions. And various bark beetles have killed more than 100 million trees in California in recent years. Large swaths of yellowed conifers indicate a severe outbreak.

So, the bark beetles are considered forest villains. However, if the forests weren't weakened, and the beetles fortified, by conditions caused by climate change, the beetles would just play their normal roles as components of a heathy forest ecosystem. The real villains have two legs, not six.

Anyway, I named myself Ganlin the Wizard. But I went too far by trying to conjure myself a luxury yacht. That caused a magic bottomless pit to open beneath me.

I've lost track of how long I've been falling. Luckily, however, I can still conjure burritos. But have you ever tried to eat a deluxe burrito at terminal velocity?

Biologist Mike Kelly (he/him) is also the author of the book Tigerfish: Traditional and Sport Fishing on the Niger River, Mali, West Africa. It's available at Amazon or everywhere e-books are sold.

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