Unveiling the mysteries of bark beetles through HiPerGator

Unveiling the mysteries of bark beetles through HiPerGator

By Lindsey Gamble, UFIT Communications Specialist

UF researchers are studying one of the most prolific insect species and its impact on the environment, economy, and people. Led by Jiri Hulcr, associate professor, School of Forest Resources and Conservation, the UF Forest Entomology lab is addressing the mysteries of bark and ambrosia beetles and how their presence is leading to forest degradation. With over 17 million acres of forests in Florida, the timber industry brings in more than $25 billion annually.

Professor Hulcr and his team use HiPerGator, the university’s supercomputer for research, to analyze and store their research. UF’s Forest Entomology Lab employs HiPerGator to understand the complexities of the species and anticipate impact on Florida’s economy. As one of 350 Principal Investigators from 141 disciplines using HiPerGator this year, Hulcr said that their research demands a tremendous amount of computing power. Luckily, UF researchers have access to 46,000 cores, 3 petabytes of storage, and up to 1,100 teraflops (equivalent to the speed of 600 PlayStation 4 and 840 Xbox One gaming consoles) with HiPerGator. Since enlisting the supercomputer, Hulcr has noted a significant increase in productivity and envisioned new research endeavors. Director of Research Computing Erik Deumens says

“Researchers from any field have something that HiPerGator can help them with.”

Hindering the Pine Industry

Although several species of bark beetles are native to the United States and satisfy important ecological roles, some beetles attack and kill trees. They often live and breed in weakened or diseased trees, but under certain conditions, including climatic stress, species can feed on living trees as well. Hulcr’s team works with researchers across the globe to understand how climate change has led to an explosion of bark beetle outbreaks. With rising temperatures, forests in northern latitudes become the perfect breeding ground for bark beetles that feed on pine trees. Hulcr says that these outbreaks have an enormous economic impact across the country:

“The plant species that brings in the most cash in Florida is not citrus or tomatoes or strawberries or sugar cane. It’s pine. Our forestry in this state actually brings in more money and creates more jobs than all the other fruits and vegetables combined. This is why it’s important to track pests of our trees.”

Florida’s industry has benefitted from outbreaks so far, as timber companies suffering losses in northern states and Canadian mills make larger investments in our state. However, researchers are uncertain of what will happen to the balance between beetles and trees in Florida as climate disturbances continue to increase.

Bark beetle outbreaks are a constant threat to Florida’s forests. In fact, they’re one of the most common causes of pine deaths. Common species, including Ips pine engraver beetles (Ips beetles) and black turpentine beetles (BTB), feed and burrow in the inner layers of pine trees, disrupting the flow of nutrients and killing the tree. With additional stressors, tree species become vulnerable, and the forestry industry experiences a shortage.

Another potential cause of bark beetle outbreaks is hurricanes. In the aftermath of hurricanes, trees are stressed and damaged. Distressed trees release chemical odors that attract bark beetles. Several trees that might not have shown any physical damage immediately after a hurricane may still be damaged by bark beetles six months later. Part of the lab’s research includes using satellite images to determine how hurricanes might lead the way for an increase in bark beetle outbreaks.

“Our forests are incredibly productive, and they’re also our only defense against climate change,” Hulcr notes. “We need to plant more of them, and we need to keep them resilient in the face of increasing pressures. This is why monitoring threats to these forests is doubly important now.”

Classifying Invaders

To better understand these beetles, Demian Gomez, a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation, uses HiPerGator to uncover cryptic species, or groups that are morphologically identical but belong to different species. Some of the most economically damaging and notoriously invasive pests are ambrosia beetles in the tribe Xyleborini. Their complex breeding pattern, small size, and their relationship with fungi make this group one of the most pervasive invaders in the United States. With the productivity from HiPerGator’s high-performance computing environment, Gomez delivered practical, evidence-based guidance for cryptic species identification.

“For me, HiPerGator is a major productivity tool. I receive results in a couple hours versus days on a normal computer.”

Gomez sought training and consulting support and frequently refers to the resources on the Research Computing website, including information about available trainings and the latest updates.

In the future, the lab hopes to use HiPerGator to identify species of beetles that are unknown to science in an effort to preserve the ecological balance of beetles, fungi, and trees.

“Modern Forest Entomology is less about looking at bugs,” Hulcr added. “It’s more about crunching numbers and DNA sequencing.”

This story originally appeared on UF Research Computing.