Lawrence, KS-Over the past decade, beetles have taken a major bite out of purple loosestrife, one of the world’s most aggressive weeds.
Featured on “the most noxious weeds” list in 33 states, purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is especially a problem in the Midwest where it clogs wetlands and waterways. In the early 1990s, researchers in Minnesota were among the first to try a biological-based approach for beating back the weed. They released two types of loosestrife beetles (Galerucella calmariensis and Galerucella pusilla) that love to munch on purple loosestrife foliage.
Just two years later, University of Minnesota weed scientists Drs. Jeanie Katovich and Roger Becker, and Dr. Luke Skinner of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources noted a significant reduction in purple loosestrife biomass and seed production. And by five years after the initial release of the beetles, they were finding a dramatic reduction in loosestrife stands.
The successful trial helped pave the way for beetles to be released across 13 Midwest and Northeast states. Small “starter kits” of caged beetles were provided to agricultural inspectors, department of transportation staffers, wildlife managers, school children and members of 4H and garden clubs, who helped to rear and distribute the insects in weed-infested areas.
To date, more than eight million beetles have been released in Minnesota alone. Similarly, Nebraska has released approximately 500,000 beetles per year since 1997 to tackle loosestrife infestations along the Niobrara and Missouri rivers and in the wetlands surrounding Lewis and Clark Lake.
“We’ve been able to reduce purple loosestrife infestations by about two-thirds in just eight years,” said Dennis Daum, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger who helped to rear and release 100,000 beetles a year in the fragile backwaters of Nebraska’s Lewis and Clark Lake. “Many of the plants that remain are severely stunted and aren’t vigorous enough to compete with native vegetation.”
Dr. Stevan Knezevic of the University of Nebraska says the beetles not only stunt loosestrife, but also cause a delay in the time of the invasive weed’s flowering by stripping away its canopy. That means there is much less time for loosestrife to produce seeds and spread. It also means that less herbicide is needed to control the weed. In Minnesota for example, annual expenditures for herbicide management of loosestrife decreased ten-fold from 1989 to 2003, mostly due to the success of the beetle program.
“Beetles are another weapon in our arsenal for combating loosestrife, especially when used in combination with other weed control methods,” said Lee Van Wychen, director of science policy for the Weed Science Society of America. “As a result, we’ve been able to make great strides in preserving our wetland habitats from one of the world’s most aggressive weeds.”
The Minnesota research that helped to establish the successful beetle biocontrol program was a cooperative effort involving scientists and managers from the University of Minnesota, Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, local park lands, Cornell University and CABI Bioscience of Delémont, Switzerland.
For more information about purple loosestrife and other invasive plants, contact Lee Van Wychen, director of science policy for the Weed Science Society of America, at 202-746-4686. Or visit www.wssa.net.