A swarm of tiny insects with a voracious appetite has invaded Louisiana, and is eating all of the vegetation that helps keep the state’s coastal wetlands from further dissolving into the sea.
Scientists and farmers are teaming up to stop the parasites from destroying the crucial Roseau cane, but they’re beset by a major problem. They don’t know what the bug is, so they don’t know how to deal with it, and all of their ideas so far, which include fire, pesticides, and the release of predators to feed on the bug, can end up with nasty side effects for the environment they’re trying to protect.
Louisiana State University entomologist Rodrigo Diaz said researchers only recently discovered the foreign family of insects to which the invasive species belongs, called Aclerdidae, which is native to Japan and China. But the lab tests that identified it couldn’t reveal how it arrived — on a ship, attached to a migrating bird or even on the wind.
What’s certain is that last year a team of surveyors checking the cane, which comes in various shades of green, found stalks bent in water, brown and dead in the mouth of the Mississippi River. That’s when they began to notice significant die-offs of four varieties of cane and more open water in the hundreds of acres the cane once occupied. Two to three years before, there was a thick, unrelenting wall of marsh.
“They are feeding on it,” said J. Andrew Nyman, a professor at the School of Renewable Natural Resources at LSU. “The bugs suck the sap out. The leaves are trying to send sugar to the roots, and they suck out so much that the plant can’t function. It dies.”
The mealy bug, it’s more common name, adds to the many invasive insects that have made their way to the United States from Asia and Europe. Between ruining plants and crops, and even invading homes, creatures like the brown marmorated stink bug, the kudzu bug, the emerald ash borer, and aphids that are threatening Florida’s citrus industry by destroying orange groves are all unwelcome guests.
Unfortunately, the insects don’t wait for human transport, and hop aboard grackles and red winged blackbirds that flock into crops are a ready means of transportation from city to city, or even state to state, and will likely need to care of a professional to be properly removed.