Beetle mania: Volcano students contribute to rapid ohia death research

  • Photo by Kalmia Cayir Fifth-graders Lenx Neves and Diesel Kaleohano inspect ambrosia beetles Friday using battery-powered microscopes.
  • Kenneth Puliafico, volunteer with the U.S. Forest Service
  • Diesel Kaleohano, 11
  • Kalea Smith, 10
  • Photo by Kalmia Cayir Kealoha Kinney, research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, helps first-graders Keaka Wintersteen and Caleb Kirk inspect the contents of their beetle traps Friday morning.

VOLCANO — Scientists are teaming up with students at the Volcano School of Arts and Sciences to better study ambrosia beetles, a potential vector of rapid ohia death.

Students at the Volcano public charter school collected beetles at home during the past week using homemade “beetle traps” — constructed with empty soda bottles filled with hand sanitizer.

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On Friday, students brought the contents of their traps back to school.

With the help of volunteers and scientists from the USDA Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry, they studied the contents under a microscope — helping researchers to get a “quick snapshot” of which of the 52 ambrosia beetle species in Hawaii occur in which parts of the island, said Kenneth Puliafico, a volunteer with the U.S. Forest Service.

The Volcano School of Arts and Sciences students hail from a wide geographic area spanning from “Discovery Harbor to lower Puna to everywhere in between,” Puliafico said. Samples collected at their homes give scientists “an opportunity to get a more systematic coverage of the area.”

The project is an example of citizen science, or “getting the general public to help us collect data,” he said. He said it’s also an opportunity to teach the students about a conservation issue present in their own backyard.

“There are so many other species, we’d like to get a sense of the distribution of the beetles throughout the islands,” Puliafico said. “For us as scientists, this is a great opportunity to get a sample in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do without hiring 60 people to put out traps ourselves. This way, we can teach the kids about some insects — and give them a hands-on look at what we are trying to do — and also help them collect some data for us about where the insects occur and how many.”

The beetles themselves don’t carry ROD but researchers think they might be spreading the fungus via windborne sawdust created when they drill in dead and dying trees. Puliafico said about six ambrosia beetle species have been linked to the dead and dying ohia trees.

ROD was islandwide as of September, when it was detected on a private ranch in North Kohala.

ROD hasn’t been reported on any other island, but the Kohala detection prompted worry it could spread through wind-borne fungus to other parts of the state including Maui, only 40 miles away from the infected Kohala site.

“The problems we are dealing with are larger than any agency on the island,” said Kealoha Kinney, research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry.

“So we really need to work with our communities here and work together to really make things better.”

Fifth-grader Kalea Smith, 10, said she was most surprised to observe “more beetles (were collected in the trap) when it was sunnier.” She said she hung her trap in an ohia tree in her yard and said her favorite part was “having the responsibility of having to scoop out the trap every day.”

Fifth-grader Diesel Kaleohano, 11, said he hung his trap on a tangerine tree at home. He said he wasn’t sure if he’d trapped any ambrosia beetles but noticed he’d collected many gnats.

Diesel said the coolest part was discovering “that (the beetles) are really tiny” and “there are more than just one” species.

Researchers eventually hope to post data online for other scientists to observe where certain ambrosia beetle species are occurring. They also want to expand the project to other schools on the island.

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“Because not all the ROD associated beetles occur everywhere,” Puliafico said. “So we want to collect this information to help improve our management of the disease or another disease associated with these (beetles). So it’s been really cool to get the kids to work with us on this.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at kjohnson@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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