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Work presented by US Forest Service scientists

A rusty brown bark beetle, as long as a grain of rice, lands on a ponderosa pine. Tiny insect legs make a clicking sound as the beetle climbs the tree. With antennae twitching, the miniature killer prepares to bore into the pine, often a death sentence for the tree.

This scene is from episode 3 Breaking point the Netflix documentary Our living worldwhich examines how climate change is turning nature on its head. US Forest Service scientists Chris Fettig, Danny Cluck and Leif Mortenson were among the film’s scientific advisors, sharing their knowledge and research on bark beetles and, in the case of Cluck and Mortenson, taking the camera crew into the forest to film.

“Even though the bark beetle scene only lasts four minutes (from about 33:00 to 37:00), it took several days of filming,” says Fettig.

The scientists carefully chose an area of ​​the Tahoe National Forest where tree mortality was already high. They were essentially signing the trees’ death certificate and therefore wanted to avoid having beetles attack healthy pines.

“We carefully considered where to attract the beetles and also made sure that the trees we used were not near settlements,” explained Cluck.

Cluck has worked as an entomologist for the Modoc, Lassen, Plumas and Tahoe national forests and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit for over 20 years. Capturing beetles for this documentary was not his first job.

“I took staff from NPR affiliate KQED in San Francisco into the California woods to film beetle infestations for their ‘science shorts.’ I believe those films helped catch the attention of the producers of Our Living World,” Cluck explained.

The filming process

The executive producer of UK-based Wild Space Productions first asked Fettig in 2019 if he would like to help with the documentary, and he answered with a resounding “yes!”

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to present our work to a public audience,” Fettig explained.

Five years later, in April 2024, the documentary was released. It features stunning footage that transports viewers to far-flung places, including the Tahoe National Forest. Aerial drone footage gives viewers a glimpse of flight from a beetle’s perspective. For this scene, the scientists summoned their inner beetles.

“Nobody really knows how beetles actually fly, but we made our best and most educated guess,” Mortenson said.

After filming beetles boring into pine trees, the documentary pans to a forest on fire. Although bark beetle infestations alter forest fuels by killing large numbers of trees, Fettig warns that they don’t always cause or worsen wildfires.

“Bark beetles are just one factor that affects wildfires. Dense forests due to previous fire suppression, the location of the fire, the weather during the fire and other factors also affect the severity of wildfires,” Fettig explained.

Ironically, after filming, a forest fire scorched part of the Tahoe National Forest, which is featured in the documentary.

“That was particularly sad,” Mortenson said.

Networked natural and human partnerships

The documentary begins with the quote “Realize that everything is connected to everything else,” attributed to Leonardo Da Vinci. Scientists see parallels between the documentary’s theme of the interconnectedness of nature and that of its interdependent partnerships.

“We rely heavily on our partners throughout the forest service and often work together as a team,” Fettig explained.

These partners include the Pacific Southwest Region, Forest Health Protection, the National Forest System, academia, and many more.

“Without the support of the Tahoe National Forest staff, we would never have received the permits to film the documentary. We are grateful for that,” added Cluck.

Reason for hope

In this spirit of teamwork, scientists are working together to make the forests of the future more resilient. And they have made great progress.

For example, Fettig and his colleagues have succeeded in driving beetles away from trees using a pheromone called verbenone and other repellents. Like a flashing “occupied” sign, verbenone signals to the beetles that “this tree is occupied and closed.”

“The documentary is powerful and has a valuable message. But we also want to convey to viewers that there is reason for hope in the fight against climate change,” explained Fettig.

Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of press releases submitted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert! system.

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