Volume 13, Issue 33 ~ August 18 - 24, 2005

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Earth Journal
by Maureen Miller

My Nemesis Comes from a Long Line of Destroyers
by Maureen Miller

I first encountered this beauty five years ago. Its iridescent body lay half hidden in a rose, a stark contrast to the soft petals. Its hard shell of metallic green, overlaid with copper-brown wings, shimmered in the sunlight.

A beetle, I summarized. A true beauty.

Soon I discovered this beauty was only skin — or exoskeleton — deep. The creature came from a long line of destroyers. In pursuit of survival, the species attack plants on two fronts. The adult beetles feed above ground, swiftly turning leaves into lace and petals and fruit into nothing; the young grubs in the soil below chew on tender plant roots.

Where did such a creature originate?

Japan, I learned. Apparently, my beauty’s ancestors arrived in the United States in the early 1900s. Smuggling themselves in as grubs, curled up in the root balls of iris imported from Japan, they settled in New Jersey and lived quietly.

In 1917, H.S. Barber of the U.S. National Museum identified them as the pest popillia japonica: Japanese beetle. Only one-tenth of all insect species are classified as pests. The federal government became concerned and allocated $5,000 for further study.

Far from home, these insects had no natural predators on American soil. Initially, the battle plan centered on control and eradication. To this end, arsenate of lead, sodium cyanide and carbon bisulphite were used. Light stations were established to attract the beetles to pans of kerosene. Farmers were encouraged to hand pick the beetles or destroy infested crops and sod.

By 1920, eradication proved hopeless and the new aim became retardation. Quarantines were put into effect along with inspections and certification. Infected crops areas were heavily cyanided and sprayed with commercial lime-sulphur plus hydrate lime. New Jersey children were paid for each quart of dead beetles they delivered. It was full-fledged war, but the beetles were winning. They occupied 50 square miles of New Jersey and had invaded Pennsylvania. By 1925, the federal government was spending $241,000 and New Jersey $45,000 on the beetle.

In 100 years, the enemy continues to gain ground, spreading east of Cincinnati and Cleveland and south to Alabama and Georgia. More foot soldiers have been drawn in: food farmers, fruit growers, sod farmers, nursery and golf course owners and homeowners. Our arsenal continues to grow, but the strategy is now control: cultural, biological, mechanical and chemical.

So my beauty has become my nemesis. Unwittingly, I nurtured a yard with tons of their favorite foods; flowering crabapple, cherry, birch, beans and, of course, roses. Thus I became a foot soldier. In the process I, like the government, ran up quite a deficit trying weapons like milky spore, nematodes, traps and habitat modification — all with no noticable effect.

So I’ve reverted to the cheapest, tried and true weapon: a bucket of soapy water. Circling the yard on summer mornings, I shake branches and stems, dislodging the pests and catching them in the bucket. This gives my roses another day to bloom and, with each pair of beetles trapped, 40 to 60 fewer to hatch next year.

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