Beetle waging war on pretty purple weed

/ Source: The Associated Press

They burned it, mowed it, sprayed it and flooded it.  But nothing killed the purple loosestrife weed, which has become a regional plague, until officials at the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge set a European beetle loose on it.

Deborah Melvin, a wildlife biologist at the Newburyport refuge, said the once ubiquitous loosestrife was all but gone five years after the beetles were introduced.

"It works great," she said. "We know it takes time."

State scientists are hoping the beetles, called Galerucella, do the same at a dozen different sites across Massachusetts where the insect has been released on the invasive weed as part of a pilot project.

The beetle's progress will be examined in a state report, scheduled for release this fall.

The purple loosestrife, native to Europe and Asia, was introduced to North America in the late 1800s in ship ballast, imported wool and by people who used it for its supposed healing properties, according to biologists.

The weed has no regional enemies and rapidly takes hold of wetland areas, choking out indigenous plants and affecting animal and marine life.

An area overrun by the weed is a striking swath of purple blooms. But apart from its beauty and the testimony of beekeepers — who like the honey produced by bees that pollinate the plant — it has no documented benefit, said Tim Smith, a wetlands scientist at the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management.

The weed-eating beetle, native to the same regions as the loosestrife, has been tested extensively at Cornell University to determine whether introducing another foreign species would do more harm than good.

Smith said years of research showed the beetles only ate other plants as an incidental snack and did not reproduce on other plants. The beetle is also more hardy than other insects, proving it can survive a New England winter.

A minimum of two or three years, with 5,000 to 15,000 beetles released annually, are needed for the beetle to establish a sustainable population and make a dent in the loosestrife population, Smith said.

The beetles have been introduced to various regions around the country as part of a cooperative effort between Cornell and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife service.

The state pilot program began in 2000 at Turner's Pond in Walpole, where researchers now report an 80 percent drop in the loosestrife.

The beetle feeds on the loosestrife's leaves, putting severe stress on the plant until it cannot grow or bloom.

Scientists do not want to eradicate the weed, however, because the beetles would also die without their food source, allowing the weed to re-establish itself. The long-term goal, Smith said, is "a small amount of loosestrife consumed by a small amount of beetles."

Early progress, as well as reports from other states, indicate the beetle may be one of the most effective biological solutions in the fight against an invasive species.

"From what we know, there's no downside," Smith said.