What is beetle probing?

16Dec07

This is the question I asked a month ago, and the interweb had no answer. Let now this knowledge be added to our collective memory:

 

Beetle probing is a seasonal occupation in the forestry industry that is a combination of surveying and pest control. It involves assessing which trees in a given area have been infested by the mountain pine beetle and is part of the ongoing effort to limit the extent of the beetle infestation (and the ecological and economic destruction it brings) in Western Canada.

To start, aircraft fly over pine forests and look for groups of red-needled trees of four or more. They mark GPS points for each of these sites. The job of the beetle prober is go to these sites (finding access via bush roads, pipelines, and walking) and set up a 50, 75 or 100 meter circle, then inspect every pine tree within this circle for signs of the beetle – stripped bark, red needles, and “pitch outs”, where sap has dripped out of the small holes left by beetles as they crawl into the pine bark.

Every infested tree must be marked with spray paint. Red-needled trees must be hatcheted into; if larvae are found, then it is marked as a “current” tree, to be cut down; if no larvae are found, then it is assumed the beetles have already left this tree.

This all done so that the infested trees can be cut down and burned (Although not every site will have its trees cut; this job is also serving as data collection, to assess which sites are worth sending loggers into and which aren’t). Probing is only done on the margins, since the point is to save money only cutting down the identified trees, instead of a full clear-cut, which is what happens in areas that are red for as far as the eye can see. Due to the fact that someone else will be coming to the sites that are probed, every step of the process is meticulously documented: The line in is marked with flagging, the infested trees are mapped out, and there is paperwork for everything.

As far as I can tell, probing is done exclusively by tree planting companies, who use summer staff for probing. The contracts are offered by lumber mills (like planting contracts) for their timber, but there is a lot of government funding as well. Numerous companies bid on the contract, and eventually the contract gets assigned. On the contract I am working, the terms are that my company gets paid on a per-site basis, but I’ve heard of other contracts where the mill pays the probing company on a per-employee-day rate.

The main difference between probing and planting is that workers are paid day-rate, whereas the defining characteristic of tree planting is its piece-work nature. This isn’t really out of the probing company’s trust in its workers; rather, it’s because it would be brutally injust to pay workers per site, because there is a massive degree of randomness in the amount of work required for a given site. The types of trees, the level of infestation, the length of the walk-in, the site terrain all vary widely, and are the most part, not known by anyone untill a prober arrives at the site. My most productive day (4 sites) was also my easiest day – some of my least productive days have also been when I worked the hardest.

Since the company gets paid per site, obviously there is a motivation gap between it and its day-rate workers. This is filled by a carrot and a stick. The stick is the kind of motivation that is familiar with tree planters: we need to do a good job, we need to meet certain production quotas, we promised certain production when we bid on this contract, the amount of work we will get is dependent upon production, etc. The carrot is an end-of-contract bonus for those workers whose average production meets a certain rate.

Like planting, there is strict quality control. You are allowed a 5% margin of error, in terms of missing infested trees on your site. If your site is checked by either a probing company checker, or a mill checker, and found to exceed this margin (so missing more than 1 tree for every 20 trees found), then you will have to go back to this site to fix it – an expensive process, given the time and money overheard per site. Like with planting, you are trying to find the sweet spot between quality and production.

The season is a rather short one, so it makes sense that beetle probers are seasonal workers. Last winter my company offered about three weeks of work; this season, a month for some and six weeks for others. Probing is done in the winter because of the life cycle of the beetle; it’s during this time fall-and-burn is most effective.

For this contract, we live in rented buildings at Wonowon, BC. Workers aren’t charged for housing, but are responsible for their own food (purchased in “town” on days off) and cooking. The housing is plusher than a planting camp, but cooking for myself is a drag.

Probing is certainly physically difficult work – mainly from the cold conditions and the long distances walked – but pails in comparison to the difficulty of tree planting. Stress levels, though, seem to be higher, mainly because of the combination of high production expectations with widespread inexperience. All in all, it has the same fundamental characteristics as planting: hard work over a short time for big money, soaked in the never-ending grind that comes from living with your co-workers.

In case anyone stumbles across this post looking for information on probing, here is the gear list I was given:

    Daily field gear

  • Parka and thinner waterproof jacket with a good hood to keep snow from going down neck.

  • Polypropylene long underwear

  • Fleece or wool sweaters (layers)

  • Warmer clothes for sledding – Balaclava, goggles, wind-jacket, helmet, thick mitts.

  • Field vest (Cruise vest)

  • Rain-pants (tough fabric)

  • Wool pants are good when its really cold

  • Good snowboots (eg. -40 Sorrels)

  • Thin liner gloves (+x-tras)

  • Thick over gloves or mitts (+x-tras) –wool is good esp good if fingers open

  • Small flashlight or headlamp

  • Whistle

  • Hatchet

  • Snowshoes

     

      Survival kit

  • space blanket

  • Fire starter

  • Matches (in water-proof container)

  • Pocket knife

  • Power bar, cup’o’soup etc

  • Some wire (2 feet)

  • Tin can container (old soup can – for melting snow over fire)

  • X-tra base layer (long underwear) of dry clothes

  • All in a ziplock bag

     

    Supplied gear

  • Field notebooks (1/crew)

  • Pencils and markers

  • Clinometer (1/crew)

  • Handheld radio

  • Compass

  • D-Tape

  • Flagging

  • Hip-chain

  • Tree Marking paint

I plan to partially cross-post this to Wikipedia.

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13 Responses to “What is beetle probing?”

  1. Interesting stuff!

    A few months ago, I happened upon a high resolution map (3 meg PDF) of the infestation in Western Canada. How is it progressing in general?

  2. 2 Anonymous

    well the mt. pine bettle is strong , I’ve been working ground control for the past 3 years and Alta better work fast and burn well. That’s all the bettle needs, the weather is with them and the timber type is too.

  3. 3 Éloi F.

    Doyou have any clues for me if i want to work as a beetle prober?

  4. 4 erik

    hi,

    thanks for posting this site. very informative. i was curious to know which planting companies are probing in bc. i am interested in working next fall/winter…and what kind of day rate can one expect? as well do you need a certification?

    cheers
    E

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