Invasive species wreak havoc
By Neil Rhines
Herald Times Reporter
Published May 23, 2004
VALDERS — Some accountants are bean counters; Terri Lyon
is a beetle counter.
Lyon, an accountant at the Vollrath Co. in Sheboygan,
has become known by many as “The Beetle Lady.” She doesn’t
mind the unusual name.
Lyon has a bug collection of a type that is growing in
popularity as more and more people take the matter of
controlling purple loosestrife into their own hands.
Purple loosestrife was imported into Wisconsin both accidentally
and on purpose. It is believed to have hitchhiked in ship
ballast in the 1800s, and landscapers used to pay good
money for the plant, billed as a desirable, winter-hardy,
water-loving perennial with bright purple flowers.
“If you don’t know how it is in terms of ecology, you
might want to have it in your backyard,” said Laura England,
spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, during
a recent presentation on controlling purple loosestrife,
held at Manitowoc Lincoln High School.
What many didn’t realize, however, is that this Eurasian
outsider has no natural enemies in America, and seas of
purple flowers soon began to choke out plants like cattails,
lily pads and other natives. That, in turn, evicted traditional
residents like muskrats, waterfowl, marsh wrens and bitterns.
So, when the plant showed up on Sy Lake in the town of
Schleswig, where Terri Lyon and her husband now live,
they were quick to examine their options in eradicating
the pervasive intruder.
Chemical applications were “all the rave” at the time,
but Terri and the others in the Sy Lake branch of the
Manitowoc County Lakes Association didn’t want to risk
the damage that could be done by whatever else the chemicals
affected, she said.
Hand pulling was tried, and was effective until the plants
simply became too large to pull. Cutting the six- to eight-foot
plants wasn’t an attractive option, either, as they’d
just come back thicker or, if cut while in bloom, release
up to 10,000 seeds per stalk.
Biological control was deemed to be the best alternative,
and the quest began to find the perfect beetle.
In Eurasia, where purple loosestrife grows as a native
plant, it isn’t a nuisance because hundreds of little
critters feast upon the roots, flowers, leaves and stalk.
Nearly 100 insects that dine on a single purple loosestrife
plant were tested during the last decade at various universities,
including Cornell and many around the Midwest, including
the University of Wisconsin. Two beetles emerged as the
Eventually, in walked Galerucella, munching contentedly.
Unlike the infamous, multicolored ladybeetles (Asian
ladybugs), which were imported many years ago into the
southern United States to eat aphids (of which they do
a great job), Galerucella, better known as “cella” beetles,
were found to eat purple loosestrife, and only purple
loosestrife. However, many native insects and spiders,
birds, amphibians, and just about everything else that
lives in wetlands seems to find the diminutive cella beetles
a very tasty snack.
Lyon and others decided to try the beetles anyway, paid
$1 each for them, set up miniature ecosystems to raise
them so they would reproduce, and transplanted them to
the infested site at Sy Lake. They did the same thing
the next year, and last year, the fourth year into the
release, the loosestrife plants didn’t flower, which means
they didn’t produce seeds, she said.
“And that is exciting,” she said.
Lyon said she expects fewer of the plants this year,
and in coming years, but the loosestrife will never fully
go away. Seeds of purple loosestrife can lay dormant in
the mud for seven years. Anyone taking a walk through
an area infested with purple loosestrife while in bloom
has probably spread the plant on the bottom of their shoes,
and the wind can carry the seeds a very long way. Also,
the plant spreads more ways that just its seeds. If this
exotic is broken up, or pulled up and left lying, it can
easy sprout into several new plants, and the situation
And the beetle goes on
Last year, Lyon and others raised more than 10,000 cella
beetles, and planted them on private property on the other
side of Rusch Road from the Viking Bow & Gun Club.
This was the biggest crop of beetles she ever raised,
and it also helped to raise interest in the project.
Lyon’s efforts are now being greatly supported by local
conservation clubs, and agencies like the Department of
Natural Resources and the Wisconsin Wetlands Association.
Where beetles used to cost people $1 each, awareness
of the problem of purple loosestrife and efforts to curb
it have helped the growth of local insectaries, where
people spread the beetles, which have grown to numbers
sufficient to transplant a few to other sites.
Several other county residents have begun insectaries
in addition to Lyons, and she hopes the interest and efforts
can spread faster than the invasion of purple loosestrife.
The beetles are spread to other areas, beginning in April,
in wetlands infested with the exotic. Volunteers tramp
through the muck and gather (after acquiring permits from
the DNR) rootstock from the plant.
These are cleaned to remove any other insects that might
prey on the cella beetles, and planted in pots full of
fertilized soil. The pots are then placed in children-sized
pools filled with water, and covered by mesh netting to
keep other critters out.
Then, every spring, collection efforts begin at sites
with healthy populations of beetles. About 10 beetles
are placed on each plant, and the miracle of the insects
getting busy takes place. In late July, the beetles are
released to their new home, and they begin munching.
Curiosity might be the drawing factor for many people
at Viking Bow & Gun, who see the plants and wonder
what Lyon is up to, but again, she doesn’t mind.
She and others hosted an education workshop on raising
beetles in April, which was attended by more than 30 people,
included officials from the town of Liberty, the 4-H Go
Getters Club, school groups and many others.
Education is the key to helping people understand how
damaging these plants are to the native landscape, she
Some people still use the plants in their gardens, either
not knowing or not caring how it might affect wetland
areas. Lyon understands that landowners might argue they
have a right to grow whatever kinds of plant on their
property they choose, but people must be conscientious
of the fact that their actions are affecting others around
And, without a DNR permit, anyone possessing purple loosestrife
is subject to a fine of $100 per plant.
“Well, they may have the right, but they’re doing it
against the law,” Lyon said.