Weed whackers

Flea beetles feasting on non-native leafy spurge, helping contain weed

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— No larger than the head of a nail, the leafy spurge flea beetle doesn't appear capable of much.

Things change, however, when you release thousands of the tiny insect.

Routt County extension agent C.J. Mucklow has spent a decade unsuccessfully trying to contain and eradicate the non-native leafy spurge weed by using flea beetles.

"Leafy spurge crowds out the native plant community," Mucklow said, explaining why the plant needs to be destroyed. "It's not consumed by big game, so it destroys their environment. It also can be toxic for cattle. ... We want to contain it where it's bad and eradicate it where we find it. In West Routt we've got to contain it."

Early this month -- with the help of Routt County Weed Control workers and nearly 75,000 flea beetles that dine on leafy spurge -- progress was visible near Hayden.

"In the past, we've released a few hundred (flea beetles) at a time," Mucklow said. "This time, we did thousands."

Photos taken in June 2005 show an overgrowth of leafy spurge -- a tall weed with a bright yellow top. Photos taken in the same areas earlier this month indicate the weed has been all but destroyed.

Routt County Weed Control workers released 15,000 flea beetles west of Hayden on a stretch of the Yampa River that is on Colorado Division of Wildlife land. Workers literally threw the beetles onto the weeds, Mucklow said.

North of Hayden, where entire hillsides are overrun with leafy spurge, 60,000 flea beetles were released.

The flea beetles used at both sites were captured at Chatfield State Park near Denver, but Mucklow hopes the Hayden area can serve as a future breeding ground.

Of course, in Routt County, the word "beetle" has a negative connotation. An infestation of spruce and pine beetles is killing trees by the thousands. That leaves some to wonder whether an infestation of flea beetles could pose a danger to the environment.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted tests on the flea beetles' threat to the environment before using them to eradicate weeds was approved. The beetles were deemed safe.

"There's no guarantee, but there is no reason to suspect they will become another pest," Mucklow said.

To reach Melinda Mawdsley, call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com.

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