Imported 'Bio-Beetles' Attack Invasive Saltcedar

Foreign ally is conquering a pesky, water-robbing invader plant through biological control to help West Texas' rivers, streams and reservoirs.

Published on: Sep 14, 2012

Sometimes it takes a foreign ally to conquer a foreign invader.

Such is the case with saltcedar, says a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service entomologist.

Since 2006, a steadily growing army of tiny beetles from the invasive trees' homelands of Crete and Tunisia have been providing biological control of the brushy pest by eating their way through saltcedar thickets to slowly weaken the foe, says Dr. Allen Knutson, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service entomologist, Dallas.

"Most Texans who spend time along West Texas' rivers, streams, and reservoirs recognize saltcedar," Knutson says. "It was introduced into the U.S. as an ornamental plant in the early 1800s, but unfortunately it escaped to become an invasive species. Today, dense thickets of saltcedar choke out desirable vegetation, use large amounts of groundwater, and increase the risk of flooding as trees narrow the river channel."

GO BEETLES. Saltcedar leaf beetle species from Tunisia are a natural enemy of the invasive and water-robbing saltcedar trees.
GO BEETLES. Saltcedar leaf beetle species from Tunisia are a natural enemy of the invasive and water-robbing saltcedar trees.

Saltcedar infests some 500,000 acres in Texas, Knutson says. He added that herbicides are effective but very costly.

The saltcedar arrived in the U.S. without its natural enemies, he laments. Biological control reunites the saltcedar with its natural enemies, at least limiting the invasive nature of the tree.

"We have been working to establish leaf beetles for biological control of saltcedar since 2006," Knutson says. "To date, we have collected and released over 800,000 beetles in 15 West Texas counties. This year, we are starting to see the area-wide impact of this effort as beetles have defoliated saltcedar thickets along miles of the Rio Grande, Pecos, Colorado, and Upper Brazos Rivers. Once established, these 'bio-beetles' should persist with the need for additional releases."

He notes the small beetles and their larvae eat saltcedar leaves. Without leaves, the trees slowly starve to death.

"Not many of these trees are 'graveyard dead' yet, but over time, our research and experience has shown canopies will die back and in some sites, trees will die as the beetles return each year and defoliate the trees," Knutson says.

In the meantime, Knutson and Dr. Mark Muegge, AgriLife Extension entomologist at Fort Stockton, say the defoliated saltcedar trees aren't using as much water or shading out desirable species. And the defoliated trees produce few or no seeds. The saltcedar beetles eat only saltcedar and athel, a closely related tree that grows in South Texas.

Knutson says the beetle project originated with work done by Jack DeLoach, USDA Agricultural Research Service entomologist at Temple. AgriLife soon joined the effort and has since led the beetle implementation program through educational programs, applied research and redistribution of the insects to establish them at new sites.

"The saltcedar biological control program has the potential to provide a low-cost, environmentally safe and sustainable approach to managing a widespread, invasive species that impacts ranching, agriculture, recreation and water issues across the state," Knutson concludes.

For more about saltcedar control, you can go online to http://bc4weeds.tamu.edu/.