Fire-chasing Beetles Make an Appearance

bay-nature-emily-moskal-fire-beetle
Firefighters after mopping up, the process of extinguishing hotspots after a hot fire when large swaths of charcoal beetles are encountered. (USDA photo)

 

Fire-chasing Beetles Make an Appearance
Bay Nature, January 2014

At Cal football games in the 1940s, when smoking was still permitted, as many as 20,000 simultaneous cigarettes would create a hazy cloud that hung over Memorial Stadium. That, says James Agee in Fire Ecology of the Pacific Northwest Forests, is when the beetles would show up. Masses of dark-bodied large insects would descend out of the sky, “alighting on the clothing or even biting” spectators. The phenomena, Agree writes, appeared “more disturbing to fans than a Stanford touchdown.”

The beetles were charcoal beetles, programmed by evolution to seek out forest fires for laying their eggs, and confused by human artifice into choosing the wrong spot. There was at least a scientific upside. The genus Melanophila was largely unknown to entomologists until complaints from people at stadiums or oil fires prompted study into their fire-chasing and swarming behavior.

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