Saturday, June 19, 2010

Tiny insect fixing big plant problem

By Michele Dobin

A microscopic bug is being used to solve a massive problem.

Lake Alice contained an influx of Alligator Weed. The Alligator Weed Flea Beetle, a predator to the Alligator Weed, has controlled the growth.

Many plants and animals are being introduced into the environment that are harmful to native species in the area. Yet, as shown through Lake Alice, there are methods to manage those species and to protect the natural environment.

“The question became ‘how do you manage something that is out of control?’” courtesy associate professor Mike Netherland stated.

There are three main methods of controlling the invasive species. There is the chemical method, the biological method, and the mechanical method. But what is the best method for controlling the invasive species?

The answer to this question is not as clear cut as one may think. All three methods involve killing the invasive species, but the cost to the rest of the environment must also be taken into consideration.

A disadvantage of the chemical method is that the certified applicators that are dumping artificial chemicals into the environment. As an expert in the area, Netherland says the key to controlling invasive species with herbicides is to read product labels carefully. “Specimen labels say ‘you can use this here’.” He explained. Improper use of the twelve registered chemical agents can result in fines and jail time, as well as a dead ecosystem.

But the chemical method also has major drawbacks. In addition to the fact that misuse may cause the death of an ecosystem, the cost of the chemicals is exorbitant. Many plants require applications before they die and each application uses a lot of chemical. Glyphosate, a chemical used to kill Alligator Weed, costs about $110.00 for a 1.67 gallon container. Also, many chemicals may not be used in potable water due to the fact that they make the water no longer drinkable.

What about other methods? Biological control has been used widely across the world in order to contain invasive species by introducing natural predators. In Lake Alice’s case, the Alligator Weed Flea Beetle controlled the population of the Alligator Weed successfully with no side effect.

But many other examples prove that the lack of research can lead to detrimental loss of habitat for some species. According to Steve Johnson, an assistant professor of Ecology at the University of Florida, Cane Toads were brought in to the United States in order to control the population of sugar cane beetles.

But that is not all they did. The toads ate everything else as well, and started to avoid the sugar cane beetles for a tastier snack elsewhere. Johnson says that this has happened with other species as well, where a species was brought in to control an invasive species, but not enough research was done on the control species, which allowed for it to stray from the task it was imported to do.

Even the mechanical control method, which is seemingly effective due to the physical removal of the invasive species from a location has its drawbacks. Each mechanical harvester, used to remove plants from lakes, costs about $45,000 and many other steps are used in the process, each being extremely expensive. Also, many plants just grow back, causing many people to view the mechanical control method as useless because it needs to be repeated constantly.

“If you cut hydrilla off at sixty inches, it can be back in thirty days,” Bill Hailer, acting director of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Science, said.

In the end, every method has something good and something bad about it. The benefits of each method are apparent, but so are the drawbacks, making no one method be ‘the best’ method.

“Prevention is the best method,” Johnson said, “Don’t let [the invasive species] here in the first place.”

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