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Beetles are Supercool! Understanding the Life Cycle of Mountain Pine Beetles

This article is from Issue Olympic Winter Games - Vol. 2 No. 2.

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Mountain pine beetles are important to the Western United States. They have a very special life cycle, that includes staying “supercool,” or dormant, for most of their life. The scientists in this study want to know how this important life cycle could be affected by our changing climate.

Welcome to the Olympic Winter Games edition

Note to Educators

Education Standards Correlations

Meet the scientists that contributed to this article:

"Science Topics" covered in this article:
  • Earth Science
  • Life Science

"Environmental Topics" covered in this article:
  • Protecting Trees and Other Plants (Students)
  • The Value of Forests and Grasslands (Educators)
  • Using Forests (Students)
  • Vegetation Protection (Fire, Insects, Endangered Species) (Educators)

Regions covered in this article:
  • Rocky Mountain

"Thinking About Science Themes" covered in this article:
Many plants and animals live in annual cycles. They respond to seasonal temperature changes and changes in the length of the day. Some scientists are interested in studying the effect of these seasonal changes on the life cycle of plants and animals. The science that investigates these effects is called phenology . The science of phenology also investigates the influence of climate on the life cycle of plants and animals. This is important, because many scientists now believe that our climate is changing. In this study, the scientists were interested in understanding how a change in climate might affect the life cycle of a particular species of beetle. Because they could not wait a hundred or more years for the climate to change, the scientists used a computer program to predict what might happen.
Specific "Thinking About Science" Themes:
  • Scientific Topics

"Thinking About Environmental Themes" covered in this article:
Mountain pine beetles (Dendroctonus ponderosae Hopkins) are sometimes supercool! This is what scientists call the beetles'ability to 'chill out' during the cold winter months, during their larva stage (Figure 1). During the winter, the beetle larvae live in the interior of pine trees. Because mountain pine beetles are composed partly of water, they must have made adaptations to keep from freezing in the cold of winter. When water freezes, it forms six-sided crystals. The crystals have sharp edges that could damage the other structures inside of the beetle. Mountain pine larvae have found a way to metabolize carbohydrates, which contain water, into glycerol during the winter months. Glycerol is a form of alcohol, and therefore will not freeze '" it is insect antifreeze! When the temperatures turn warm again, the larvae turn the glycerol back into carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are a source of energy for the beetles. Mountain pine beetles have adapted to cold conditions, and this allows them to survive.
Specific "Thinking About the Environment" Themes:
  • Adaptation

NSE Standards covered in this article:
  • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry (A)
  • Diversity and adaptations of organisms (C)
  • Natural hazards (F)
  • Nature of science (G)
  • Populations and ecosystems (C)
  • Regulation and behavior (C)
  • Reproduction and heredity (C)
  • Science and technology in society (F)
  • Science as a human endeavor (G)
  • Structure of the earth system (D)
  • Understandings about science and technology (E)
  • Understandings about scientific inquiry (A)

Science Benchmarks covered in this article:
  • Common Themes: Constancy and Change
  • Habits of Mind: Communication Skils
  • Habits of Mind: Critical-Response Skills
  • Historic Perspectives: Explaining the Diversity of Life
  • The Living Environment: Diversity of Life
  • The Nature of Science: Scientific Inquiry
  • The Nature of Science: The Scientific Enterprise
  • The Nature of Technology: Issues in Technology
  • The Nature of Technology: Technology and Science
  • The Physical Setting: The Earth