Researchers at the University of Alberta are aiming to learn more about how the mountain pine beetle flies, in hopes of stopping the spread of the insect that has devastated forests in British Columbia and Alberta.

“Flight is a really important aspect of their life cycle because when they come out of the tree they have to fly to find a different host,” said Maya Evenden, an associate professor of biological sciences.

“They can't stay where they grew up in that same tree because of those resources are gone.”

The beetle has caused widespread damage to pine forests in western Canada since the current outbreak began in the 1990s. The insects, which drill into the bark of the trees, often carry fungus that is able to infect the wood. Alberta has devoted significant resources to trying to stop the spread of the beetle, mainly by removing infected trees.

Evenden says knowing more about how the beetles get around is crucial to keep them from destroying more forests.

The research team carefully glues small tethers to the backs of beetles, before attaching them to a flying mill, which turns as the beetle flies. Researchers then measure how many rotations the beetle makes.

“That gives us information on how fast they're flying, how far they're flying and what duration in the period of the day they're flying,” she said.

She says the insect is able to fly up to five kilometres a day.

Evenden hopes the information could be used to help forest managers predict where the beetles will spread next and better plan how to slow them down.