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Beetles Freed In North Texas Ecosystem To Battle Weed

NORTH TEXAS (CBSDFW.COM) - A South American plant found growing in the Dallas Floodway Extension could pose some serious problems. According to the US Army Corps of Engineers, the plant has no local predators and that means it threatens to take over the entire ecosystem.

Using a very tiny weapon the agency launched their own attack Thursday.

Most North Texans may hate bugs, but Julie Nachtrieb raises them.

"These are good bugs," she said. "They're not going to bite people. They're not going to be a pest."

At the Lewisville Aquatic Ecosystem Research Facility, Nachtrieb's focus is the alligator weed flea beetle.

"This is a mass rearing effort, because we're rearing large amounts of insects," she said.

On Thursday biologists headed to the Dallas Floodway Extension to put the insects to work, in the wild.

Biologists say the real villain is the invasive alligator weed that is growing out of control on the floodway -- threatening local plants, fish, and insects. They say the dense vegetation can clog the river.

"Throughout this wetland, there's a five foot fringe of just alligator weed," one biologist said pointing to the problem. "No other plant can really establish itself there."

But the scientists came locked and loaded, bringing a small flea beetle that feeds exclusively on the weed.

The natural predator to alligator weed will feast in an area and leave all the other plants untouched.

In the areas where the flea beetle has already been released there are only spaced-out patches of the weed, compared to thick, creeping, bunches in places that have no beetles.

Nachtrieb admits her job is an unusual one. "I think most people don't know what to ask, or what to say, once you say, 'I grow bugs for a living.'"

But she says she finds a bit of joy in turning pests into tiny heroes.

Workers with the US Army Corps of Engineers say decades of research show the beetles have no negative impact on the environment and because alligator weed is the only thing they can eat - as the plant dies off, so will they.

"This insect can only feed on this plant or it will die.  They've evolved together; they co-exist," Nachtrieb explained. "The insect depends on the plant.  It cannot feed on anything else."

Corp engineers say they plan to continue releasing the insects as long as necessary.

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