Australian Bug Imported to Fight Pesky Plant in U.S. Everglades

Robert P. King
Cox News Service
September 24, 2001

A stubby Australian beetle is taking a bite out of one of Florida's most noxious pest plants, just as federal scientists hoped when they released the bug into the Everglades more than four years ago.

Now they're preparing to unleash a second insect from Australia, with the same goal: reining in the fast-breeding, water-guzzling melaleuca tree.

The first insect, the melaleuca snout beetle, is doing even better than researchers had expected in nibbling the tree's buds and new leaves, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The new arrival, called a psyllid, is an aphid-like insect with toxic saliva whose larvae cover the tree with tufts of cottony wax. Researchers hope to start releasing the psyllids in January.

By themselves, the insects will probably not eradicate the melaleuca, another Australian native that has swarmed over 400,000 acres since people brought it to Florida in the late 1800s. But researchers hope the pair will slow the melaleuca's growth after crews whack the trees with blades and poisons.

"That's what we're trying to do, to suppress the ability of the melaleuca to move back to areas where it's been cleared," said Ted Center, research leader at the USDA's Invasive Plant Research Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale.

Introducing a Predator

Already, some small melaleuca trees are dying after the beetles ate their leaves and stopped them from flowering.

Researchers released 8,000 beetles initially, then later harvested 200,000 from the wild and spread them to 150 sites around the state, Center said.

They plan to start a major redistribution effort next month in Palm Beach County, Florida, which is crawling with melaleuca trees but is still relatively beetle-poor, said USDA researcher Paul Pratt.

Both of the imported insects are intended to give the tree what it never had in Florida: a natural predator.

A handful of native Florida beetles, aphids, and worms nibble on the melaleuca, but few can withstand the oils secreted by its leaves. And other threats—such as fire, poison, or attempts to chop it down—prompt a melaleuca tree to drop its tens of millions of seeds.

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