NSF grant awarded to CSU researcher to study tree risk factors, predisposition to bark beetle attacks 

Seth Davis knows bugs. After a decade working in the fields of forest, agriculture and disease entomology, the assistant professor in the Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship will take his research even further with a $1 million CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation.  

Davis will analyze the evidence that some trees are predisposed to bark beetle attacks, one of the largest contributors of forest mortality in recent years. Environmental conditions such as water stress and drought may be a primary cause of trees being susceptible to bark beetle attacks, although it is still unclear why. 

Seth Davis
Seth Davis, Assistant Professor of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship, Warner College of Natural Resources, Colorado State University, August 23, 2021

“The question that I’m really trying to address is: Why are droughtstressed trees more susceptible to bark beetles, and what’s the water stress doing to the physiology of the tree that’s causing it to actually become susceptible?,” Davis said. “Understanding the basic cellular mechanisms that drive susceptibility would be informative not just for knowing how forest systems work, but to also learn more about plants that have to contend with herbivores anywhere.”  

To analyze these molecular patterns in trees, the project will utilize spectrometrychromatography and genetics analysis. 

“This technology allows us to determine the chemical composition of trees,” Davis said. “Our interest is in hormone concentrations in the vascular system; interactions between certain plant hormones are what we think are driving the ability to respond to bark beetle attacks or other biotic threats.” 

Although preliminary research on this topic exists, Davis’ efforts will be the first to ask a new set of questions that address the molecular level and morphology present in spruce trees and North American spruce bark beetles, including high-elevation forest ecosystems.   

“One of the things that I see coming out of the project from an applied perspective would be if we were able to determine a genetic component to shared hormone receptors,” Davis said. “With that information we would be able 

to determine some of the mechanisms that cause trees to be resistant; and that would be useful for forestry, and ecosystem management all over the world.” 

Applying research to education and outreach 

The project is estimated to be complete in May 2026, but components of outreach and education will begin as early as fall 2021. Davis will lead curriculum development for a new class on insect ecology, delving into the important ecological processes involving bark beetles and other insects.  

“Bark beetles are a part of the natural system and part of the cycle of disturbances,” Davis said. “Helping people understand the ecology of bark beetles is important because we need to shift away from the paradigm that disturbance is always a negative force on ecosystems. It would benefit people to have the view that this is an important component of the health of forest systems overall.” 

To provide more accessible knowledge about bark beetles and the systematic components of forest entomology, Davis will also oversee development of a K-12 module-based learning program, with an eye toward reaching students with diverse backgrounds and generating more interest in STEM topics. 

He will partner with the Poudre School District and the CSU Bug Zoo on the K-12 education components. Davis and his team will also create high school research internships to boost the impact of the project and regional educational programs.   

The award number for this project is 2046109. For more background information on the award, visit the NSF website