Pine beetles 

Shell serum shows promise

Liquefied shrimp and crab shells shipped from Iceland could help thwart the pine beetles killing millions of trees across Montana and the West.

Colorado researchers have developed a serum that contains chitosan, a substance primarily composed of the exoskeletons of crustaceans. Chitosan appears to increase a pine tree's secretion of sap, which then impedes the beetles' ability to eat into the tree's inner bark, where they reproduce and spread fungal pathogens. The researchers prefer shells from Iceland for the serum because they're mercury-free.

AgriHouse, the Berthoud, Colo.-based agri-biotechnology company that holds a patent on the product, hopes its chitosan will be used by the U.S. Forest Service as it fights the pine-beetle epidemic across the West.

Richard Stoner, president and CEO of AgriHouse, says a 2008 Forest Service study, conducted in Louisiana, demonstrated that the application of chitosan stimulates a 40 percent increase in pine resin secretion, but the agency stopped short of recommending the substance for widespread use.

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"In discussions with other researchers, including my science advisory board, we all realize that if you're going to treat vast areas of acreage, you're going to have to spray it," Stoner says. "So that's where the Forest Service is saying more testing needs to be done. And that's just the nature of the beast."

But it doesn't appear much chitosan testing is being done. The agency isn't testing it in Colorado, though it reportedly might start this summer in Idaho. Forest Service officials in Montana say they're unaware of any testing happening here.

Dave Tippets of the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station, for one, expresses skepticism, wondering how often chitosan would have to be applied, and how much the process and the labor would cost.

"It's one thing if you've got six high-valued trees around your summer home up by Seeley Lake and you want to save them," Tippets says. "It's another thing if you've got millions of acres infested."

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