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Great Lakes Article:

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 antidote.

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 quickly escalates.

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.

Harvesting beetles

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 said.

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 them.

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.


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