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UC Riverside researchers turn to 3-D printers to help battle invasive beetle

An invasive beetle called the polyphagous shot hole borer has spread across Southern California, killing trees along the way.

This flying bug is smaller than a sesame seed and is known to infest more than 200 different types of trees in the region, including sycamore, oak, avocado, cottonwood and box elder, possibly putting hundreds of thousands of trees at risk.

There’s no known way to stop the bug, but a new device might help change that.

It's a trap designed by a team at UC Riverside, with the help of the Huntington Botanical Gardens and Pasadena-based 3-D printing company Deezmaker.

Scientists have been testing various mixes of insecticides and fungicides to see if they can stop the beetle and the fungus it brings with it.

The problem is, scientists don't know what happens to the bugs once they enter the treated trees. Do they slow down? Do they die? Do they reproduce and do just fine? Scientists say that information is crucial in developing an effective method to eradicate them. 

The new traps will help answer those questions, says UC Riverside professor Richard Stouthamer.

The device clips on to a tree and allows researchers to insert a bug and later catch it when it — or its offspring — crawl out.

Video: 3-D beetle traps

The traps also measure how much boring the bug does by collecting discarded sawdust and how much water the tree loses through leakage from bug's tunnels.

"It really makes studying the effect of these pesticides on these beetles possible otherwise you got to cut down the whole tree to find out what happens to the beetles," Stouthamer noted.

He says 3-D-printers have been a huge boon to his work.

"It allows you to design traps that is exactly what you want... as long as you have someone who knows how to program the bloody thing," he said, laughing.

UC Riverside bought it's own 3D printer for the project at a cost of about $1,300, and each trap costs between between sixty cents and a dollar thirty to print, depending on the style.

Stouthamer hopes the traps will help scientists figure out what treatments are best when it comes to stopping the shot hole borer.

The bug is native to Southeast Asia and started showing up in Southern California three years ago. Since then, it's spread to parks, yards, avocado farms and the campus of UC Irvine.

On Wednesday, UCI and the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources are co-hosting a regional workshop on how to deal with the growing beetle problem.