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If you'd visited Mark Anderson's house in Milton last week, you would have seen something strange in his front yard. Behind a picket fence rimmed with American flags were two plastic kiddie pools. And in those pools were 20 tall, leafy plants covered in netting. It looked like a miniature swamp, and it raised eyebrows among his neighbors.
"When we first put the pools out it wasn't a problem," Anderson says. "Once the netting went up and the bugs were in there, then they said, 'Oh, there's something going on over there.' One neighbor's like, 'You're growing pot in the front yard!' "
No, he wasn't growing marijuana. And, yes, he did say "bugs." He means the Galerucella beetle. It's a light brown insect about the size of a pencil eraser. Anderson was breeding them in those kiddie pools as part of a volunteer project to raise beetles. He says he thought it would be a fun way to do outdoor volunteer work with his family. But it wasn't an easy sell to his wife and 17-year-old daughter.
"The first reaction you get is 'Bugs? I'm going to have to do bugs?' " Anderson says. "And I said, 'Well, you're not actually going to have to do anything. Once we get them and we put them in the plants you're pretty much done until we let them go.' So initially it was sort of, 'Oh, brother, this is another one of these crackpot ideas that Dad came up with.' "
Actually, it's a scientific experiment organized by the state conservation department and the Neponset River Watershed Association. Volunteers, called beetle ranchers, raise the insects on their own. The beetles' favorite food is purple loosestrife, the flowering weed that looks beautiful but destroys wildlife habitat.
The goal is for the beetles to be released to the wild so they'll control the spread of the weed.
"This little bug right here at the top, caught in the fold — that's a Galerucella beetle," Anderson says, pointing to a drab beetle crawling on a purple loosestrife plant encased in all that netting.
The kiddie pool is full of murky water that's meant to simulate a wetland. His beetles are just days away from being released in the Blue Hills, where they're a key part of five-year-long wetland restoration.
"I'm sure I told my wife, but she said I didn't, that this is a five-year project," Anderson adds, "so I had to do things to make up for that. So my wife has a new Jeep. You know, you do what you have to, to get the project done."
Okay, so Anderson had to sweeten the deal to get his family involved. But some of the beetle ranchers are so enthusiastic they almost think of their insects as pets.
Meet Sue Emery and her 16-year-old daughter Kate D'Orazio. They raised their beetles on a tennis court at their house in Canton.
"I remember the first day we brought them back and we were so protective over them," says D'Orazio. "I mean, I think we checked on them like five times the first day."
"It's kind of having a newborn," adds Emery. "Is the baby crying? Are they okay? Are they still there?"
"She got up in the middle of the night just to go to check to make sure they hadn't fallen over or anything," D'Orazio recalls.
If this whole beetle ranching thing sounds strange to you, get this: So many people offered to raise beetles that about 100 volunteer groups had to be turned away. Fifty were chosen, including families, schools and scout troops. They started raising the beetles in the spring.
Carly Rocklen heads the beetle ranching project for the Neponset River Watershed Association. She says the project's goofy name is part of its appeal.
"You get joking around about needing lassos and brands for the beetles, and herding them and spurs and horses," Rocklen says. "It brings, definitely, a comic touch to the whole project."
Rocklen says the idea of using a natural predator like a leaf-eating beetle to fight an invasive plant is known as biological control. "It's using one organism to control another organism, so we're using Galerucella to control purple loosestrife," Rocklen says.
Recruiting volunteer beetle ranchers is a huge money-saver. Last year, the watershed association also released beetles in the Blue Hills. But it had to buy the insects — 80,000 of them — from a New Jersey laboratory at 11 cents apiece. This year, the watershed association only bought 7,500 beetles. The rest were raised by volunteers.
Last weekend in the Blue Hills, volunteers pushed wheelbarrows loaded with bug-filled plants from their cars to the edge of the wetlands. Then volunteers and conservation workers in knee-high boots and hip waders carried the plants into the marshes.
Jessica Leach, a college student from Braintree, was one of the people tromping through the muddy waters. "We have a couple of people running back and forth taking the plants to the locations, where we take off the nets and release the beetles," Leach says. "That way, if we release it near some living purple loosestrife, they'll leave their pots and enter the environment."
By Saturday, about a quarter-million Galerucella beetles will have been released in parts of the Blue Hills in Milton, Canton and Hyde Park.
You might wonder whether the beetles could eventually run amok and become their own type of invasive species. Well, conservation officials say beetle ranching has been tried successfully elsewhere in the state. They say once the beetles have eaten most of the purple loosestrife, they lose their food source and die off.
And then nature is back in balance, thanks to all those backyard ranchers.
This is the second in a two-part series on invasive species in Massachusetts. Click to listen to the first report, on mile-a-minute vine.
This program aired on July 17, 2009.
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