What Does a Bark Beetle Look Like?

Bark beetles are small insects that play a significant role in forest ecosystems. Their presence can influence the health of forests and impact human communities.

For forest managers, identifying bark beetles is essential. These beetles can cause widespread tree mortality, alter habitats, and affect timber resources.

Homeowners, especially those near forests, should also be aware. A single infested tree can lead to an outbreak that threatens an entire community.

Identifying bark beetles is vital for timely interventions. Early recognition can save forests and protect properties.

In this article, we’ll detail the physical characteristics of bark beetles. We’ll also discuss the signs of infestation and specific species of concern

What Does a Bark Beetle Look Like
Bark Gnawing Beetle

What Does a Bark Beetle Look Like?

Here are the key characteristics that can aid in their identification.

  • Size: Bark beetles are small, often compared to the size of a grain of rice.
  • Color: Their coloration varies, but most species exhibit shades of dark red, brown, or black.
  • Body Structure: They possess a cylindrical and hard-bodied form, making them robust despite their small size.
  • Antennae: A distinguishing feature of bark beetles is their antennae. They are elbowed, and the outer segments are noticeably enlarged, taking on a clublike appearance.
  • Head: When viewed from above, their head is either partly or completely obscured by the pronotum, which is the top part of the body situated right behind the head.
  • Mandibles: Equipped with strong mandibles, bark beetles are adept at chewing, a necessary trait for their lifestyle of burrowing into tree bark.

Specific Bark Beetle Species and Their Appearance

Bark beetles encompass a variety of species, each with its own unique appearance and behavior. Understanding these differences is crucial for accurate identification and management.

Spruce Beetle

This beetle is characterized by its dark brown to black coloration, complemented by reddish-brown wing covers. These beetles are particularly known for infesting spruce trees.

Red Turpentine Beetle

Standing out due to its size, the Red Turpentine Beetle is larger than most bark beetles. It boasts a reddish-brown hue and a distinct rounded tip to its abdomen. This beetle is commonly found attacking the base of pine trees.

Engraver Beetles

Recognizable by their dark brown color, these beetles have a cylindrical shape. A unique feature is the scoop-like depression at the end of their abdomen, which is lined with stout spines. They are notorious for their engraving patterns on infested trees.

Western Pine Beetle

While their appearance is similar to other bark beetles, their behavior is a distinguishing factor. They primarily attack the trunk of ponderosa and Coulter pines, creating long, winding galleries in the phloem.

Elm Bark Beetles

These beetles have a significant impact on elm trees. They not only feed on the phloem of elms but are also carriers of the fungus responsible for Dutch elm disease.

Pine Beetle and Pine Bark Beetles

Often used interchangeably, these beetles primarily infest pine trees. Their appearance varies, but they typically have a cylindrical shape and range in color from reddish-brown to black.

Southern Pine Beetle

This beetle species is smaller than many other bark beetles and has a reddish-brown to black hue. They are known for their aggressive nature and can cause significant damage to pine forests.

Mountain Pine Beetle

Similar in appearance to the Southern Pine Beetle, the Mountain Pine Beetle is known for its infestations in higher altitudes, particularly in mountainous regions.

Elm Bark Beetles

As the name suggests, these beetles are primarily associated with elm trees. They are carriers of the Dutch elm disease fungus and play a significant role in the spread of this disease. 

Their appearance is typical of bark beetles, with a hard, cylindrical body and dark coloration.

Elm bark beetle gallery. Source: User:SB_JohnnyCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bark Beetle Larvae

The larvae of the bark beetle are distinct from the adult beetles. They are off-white in color, giving them a stark contrast against the dark bark of trees. 

Their bodies are robust and grublike, lacking the hard exoskeleton seen in adults. 

A distinguishing feature of these larvae is their dark brown head, which stands out against their lighter body. 

This stage of the beetle’s life cycle is crucial, as the larvae feed on the inner bark of trees, often causing more damage than the adults.

Identifying Bark Beetles by Damage and Signs

Bark beetles leave behind distinct signs and patterns of damage on trees, which can be crucial for their identification and subsequent management.

Location of Damage: The specific part of a tree that a bark beetle attacks can often hint at the species responsible. 

For instance, engraver beetles typically target trees near the top, while red turpentine beetles focus on the lower portion of the trunk.

Emergence Holes: One of the most visible signs of a bark beetle infestation is the presence of emergence holes. 

These appear as a buckshot pattern of holes on the bark surface, marking the spots where new adults have emerged from the tree.

Frass: As bark beetles bore into trees, they produce a sawdust-like substance known as frass. 

This boring dust is often pushed out onto the bark surface, creating visible piles that can be used to identify an infestation.

Pitch Tubes: Particularly in pine trees, the activity of bark beetles can trigger a flow of sap. This sap, when mixed with the beetle’s boring dust, forms pitch tubes

These tubes range in color from pinkish brown to white and are a clear indication of the beetle’s presence and activity.

Bark Beetle Galleries

Bark beetles create distinctive galleries, or tunnels, under the bark of trees as they feed and reproduce. 

These galleries vary in appearance depending on the species of bark beetle involved. Here are descriptions of the galleries created by different species:

  • Engraver Beetles: Engraver beetles often make wishbone-shaped tunnels under the bark of trees. These galleries typically consist of multiple branches emerging from a central open cell. Engraver beetle larvae feed individually within these tunnels.
  • Red Turpentine Beetle: The galleries created by red turpentine beetles are distinctive in that they are relatively wide and cavelike. The larvae of these beetles feed as a group, moving in generally the same direction as the gallery. Their galleries progress down along the stem.
  • Western Pine Beetle: Western pine beetles create galleries that have a long, winding pattern, resembling a piece of spaghetti. Unlike red turpentine beetles, the larvae of western pine beetles feed individually in mines that lead away from the adult gallery.
  • Spruce Beetle: While not mentioned in the previous sections, the galleries of spruce beetles are important to note. These beetles create galleries that are associated with dead and dying spruce trees. The galleries are typically long and winding, crossing the grain of the sapwood.

Understanding these gallery patterns can provide valuable clues for identifying the species of bark beetle responsible for an infestation and assessing the extent of the damage to a tree.

The Role of Environment in Bark Beetle Appearance and Behavior

The appearance and behavior of bark beetles are significantly influenced by environmental factors, including drought, disease, and other stressors. 

Understanding how these factors impact bark beetle activity is crucial for effective management. Here’s an overview of how the environment affects bark beetles:

Drought

Drought conditions have a profound effect on bark beetles. When trees experience water stress due to prolonged drought, they become more susceptible to bark beetle attacks. 

Drought-weakened trees are unable to produce sufficient resin, a natural defense mechanism, which makes it easier for beetles to bore into the bark and lay their eggs. 

Consequently, bark beetle populations tend to increase during drought periods.

Disease

Trees that are already infected with diseases or pathogens are more attractive to bark beetles. 

In some cases, the fungus carried by bark beetles can interact with preexisting tree diseases, leading to more severe damage. 

For example, the elm bark beetle spreads the fungus responsible for Dutch elm disease, causing further harm to infected elm trees.

Other Stressors

Trees subjected to various stressors, such as injuries, soil compaction, and improper care, are more vulnerable to bark beetle attacks. 

Stressors weaken a tree’s natural defenses, making it an easier target for beetles.

Temperature and Climate

Temperature and climate play a role in the distribution and behavior of bark beetle species. 

Warmer temperatures can extend the growing season for these insects, potentially leading to more generations per year in certain areas. 

Changes in climate can also influence the geographic range of bark beetle species, affecting which tree species they target.

Tree Species and Age

Different tree species exhibit varying levels of susceptibility to specific bark beetle species. 

For instance, some bark beetles may preferentially attack pine trees, while others target spruce or fir. 

Additionally, the age and condition of a tree can impact its attractiveness to bark beetles.

Natural Enemies

Bark beetles have natural enemies, such as predators and parasites, which can help regulate their populations. 

Environmental conditions can affect the abundance and effectiveness of these natural enemies.

Fire

In some cases, wildfires can indirectly influence bark beetle populations. 

While fire can kill mature trees, it can also create favorable conditions for certain bark beetle species by providing ample breeding material in the form of dead and dying trees.

Conclusion

Recognizing and understanding the appearance of bark beetles is of utmost importance for both forest management professionals and homeowners. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Identification Matters: Knowing what bark beetles look like and being able to differentiate them from other insects is essential. Their small size, dark coloration, and distinct body structures are characteristic features to look for.
  • Species Variation: Bark beetles come in various species, each with its unique appearance and preferred tree hosts. Recognizing the specific species involved in an infestation can aid in targeted management efforts.
  • Larval Stage: Bark beetle larvae, while less conspicuous than adults, also have distinctive characteristics, such as their off-white color and robust, grublike appearance with a dark brown head.
  • Damage and Signs: Identifying the signs of bark beetle infestations, including emergence holes, frass, and pitch tubes, can help assess the extent of the problem and guide management decisions.
  • Environmental Factors: Understanding how environmental factors like drought, disease, and stressors influence bark beetle behavior and appearance is crucial for effective management.
  • Control and Management: Once bark beetles are detected, measures can be taken to control and manage their populations. These may include cultural practices to improve tree vigor, preventive sprays, and, in some cases, the use of insecticides.

In summary, being informed about bark beetles and their appearance empowers individuals and professionals to take proactive measures to protect trees and forests from infestations. 

Early intervention and sound forest management practices are essential in mitigating the damage caused by these tiny but destructive insects. 

By recognizing the signs of bark beetle presence and understanding their behavior, we can work towards preserving our valuable tree resources.

Reader Emails

Over the years, our website, whatsthatbug.com has received hundreds of letters and some interesting images asking us about these insects. Scroll down to have a look at some of them.

Letter 1 – Flat Red Bark Beetle

 

What’s This Bug? Location: NE Ohio November 4, 2010 6:15 pm My friend found this in his home and I tried to identify it for him, but nothing similar is in my insect guide. Any idea? Signature: Thanks, Derek
Flat Red Bark Beetle
Hi Derek, It is a flat, red beetle and it has the common name Flat Red Bark Beetle, Cucujus clavipes, because, according to BugGuide, it is:  “Found under the bark of ash and poplar, especially recently felled trees” where it is “presumably predaceous on other arthropods.

Letter 2 – Red-Shouldered Bostricthid not Bark Beetle

 

Humped-back beetle Sat, Nov 1, 2008 at 1:12 PM I’ve spent months trying to figure this one out. It was seen in a suburban backyard garden. This l’il critter is so unique. Besides the hump, the textured posterior and color pattern are particularly attractive. I would be very grateful for any hints as to the identity of my mystery beetle (no rush). You folks are great – I love the site. WayneO Brunswick, Frederick County, Maryland
Bark Beetle
Bark Beetle
Hi Wayne, We believe this is a Bark Beetle in the tribe Scolytini which may be viewed on BugGuide. The elytra or wing covers resemble the genus Ips, but there seem to be structural differences, including the antennae. We will check with Eric Eaton to get confirmation. Yes, I do have an opinion on the “bark beetle.” It is actually a specimen of the red-shouldered bostricthid, Xylobiops basilaris. Bostrichidae are often mistaken for bark beetles, so you are in good company. Eric

Letter 3 – Bark Gnawing Beetle from Australia

 

Subject:  Beetle with tree bark camoflauge Geographic location of the bug:  Near Lake Burrendong in NSW Australia Date: 03/29/2018 Time: 10:03 AM EDT Your letter to the bugman:  Hello, On the 28h of March, in the location specified, a beetle with an interesting camoflauge that looked rather like tree bark landed on my green t-shirt. I was curious as to what kind of beetle it was so I managed to take a few photos before it flew away. It stayed on my t-shirt without moving very much for quite a while, maybe 10-20 minutes before it flew away. I knew it was a beetle of some sort since it had wing covers, which I saw when it took flight. It also had six legs, which I observed while it walked across my t-shirt. It would be great if this beetle could be identified, thanks. How you want your letter signed:  A 16 year old, Alvin Yao
Bark Gnawing Beetle
Dear Alvin, The best clue we have based on your image as we embark upon trying to provide you with an identification are the beaded or moniliform (see BugGuide) antennae.  We searched the Brisbane Insect site for Darkling Beetles, but found nothing similar.  We just took a guess at the family.  We will post your images as unidentified and continue to research your request.  Perhaps one of our readers will write in with an identification.
Bark Gnawing Beetle
Update:  Thanks to a comment from frequent contributor Karl, we agree that this is a Bark Gnawing Beetle which is depicted on Life Unseen.

Authors

    by
  • Bugman

    Bugman aka Daniel Marlos has been identifying bugs since 1999. whatsthatbug.com is his passion project and it has helped millions of readers identify the bug that has been bugging them for over two decades. You can reach out to him through our Contact Page.

  • Piyushi Dhir

    Piyushi is a nature lover, blogger and traveler at heart. She lives in beautiful Canada with her family. Piyushi is an animal lover and loves to write about all creatures.

10 thoughts on “What Does a Bark Beetle Look Like?”

  1. I had one crawling around my arm In Columbus Ohio the web sit that id him stated he was a local to Canada and Alaska. Not sue why there here the seem harmless enough.

    Reply
  2. we came upon a nest of little red beetles coming out of a gopher hole; all sizes spreading out along the path. Some attached to other ones by their hind area, moving along. Big ant size.
    when we came back down the same path a half hour later there was no sign of them or the nest.
    They seemed to have been leaving the nest if I could guess, heading into the grass.
    Now we feel like we witnessed some special event.
    I didn’t have a camera unfortunately. Any ideas? We’re in Los Angeles.

    Reply
  3. we came upon a nest of little red beetles coming out of a gopher hole; all sizes spreading out along the path. Some attached to other ones by their hind area, moving along. Big ant size.
    when we came back down the same path a half hour later there was no sign of them or the nest.
    They seemed to have been leaving the nest if I could guess, heading into the grass.
    Now we feel like we witnessed some special event.
    I didn’t have a camera unfortunately. Any ideas? We’re in Los Angeles.

    Reply

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