The blackened landscape around Fort McMurray is far from a dead zone, despite a wildfire that has reduced more than 229,000 of hectares of boreal forest to cinders and ashes.
Amid the charred skeletons of spruce and still smouldering muskeg, Alberta’s fire-loving insects are on the move.
“Its really spooky if you ever go to a burn after it’s gone out,” said Peter Heule, an insect expert with Edmonton’s Royal Alberta Museum.
“Every step you take, there is just ash and soot, and you see these little beetles shimmering like little jewels on these black-burned trees, laying their eggs and doing their thing.”
Some bugs thrive in burned landscapes, and Heule said these pyrophilus creatures are critical to rejuvenating the boreal forest. The most famous of these fire-loving insects is the white-spotted long-horn beetle.
The pitch-black, long-antennaed critters feed on conifers like spruce, pine and fir trees in forests across North America.
“These guys are attracted to dead and dying trees, especially post-burn,” said Heule.
“They even love the smell of the smoke, because they lay their eggs on those trees, and their youngsters recycle all that stuff.”
“They lay their eggs on burned logs, while they are still hot. They want barbecued wood.”
Better known as the tar-sand beetle, they are a common sight in Fort McMurray and are much maligned for their tendency to crawl into the warmth of mine-workers pant legs, and latch on.
There’s a reason they are so populous in the region.
“The smell of the oilsands is much stronger than any smell that’s coming off any single tree, so that’s how they were getting attracted up there,” said Heule.
“And now there is actually going to be forest for them to recycle.”
The ranks of ash-obsessed insects also includes the black fire beetle, which has tiny abdomen sensors that allows it to pinpoint the heat of nearby forest fires, so it can find a nicely charred spot to lay eggs.
Heule said the bugs help turn deadwood back into soil, allowing seedlings to return to the landscape in a matter of months. Research shows that if the insects aren’t there to chew their way through the blackened logs, the burned landscape remains stagnant for much longer.
“Obviously, the wildfire is an absolute tragedy for the communities that are affected, but the boreal forest will certainly grow back and it’s just part of that renewal process,” said Heule.
“And the bugs will have their part to play.”