Bugs Enlisted in Battle against Water Hyacinths; Students Get Their Feet Wet Helping Release the Weed-Eating Insects

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Byline: STEVE PATTERSON

ORANGE MILLS - More than a century after water hyacinths started choking the St. Johns River, scientists have made North Florida the proving ground for their latest weapon against the relentless South American weed.

They're bringing in weed-eating South American bugs.

After speeches and a procession by a high school military color guard, spectators lined a levee at a retention pond east of the river Tuesday to watch vials of aphid-sized insects, a species called Megamelus scutellaris, being poured out onto acres of water hyacinth.

"Tap them out. Just tap them. They can take it," Phil Tipping, an entomologist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, advised Interlachen High School students who waded into the water to free the tiny, hopping bugs.

Occasionally, the scientific fieldwork got a little messy.

"I have a leech on me. Get it off," Interlachen sophomore Courtney Keck told friends, who peeled the creature off her ankle. The 16-year-old said she was still glad she was there, and was excited to be part of a science project.

Tipping will spread thousands more Megamelus this week in a water storage area near the farm fields around the Putnam-St. Johns county line. Additional thousands of bugs will probably be added within weeks while researchers test the insects' usefulness, and within a month the first ones could be breeding.

"You're going to need billions of these," he said.

Most of the bugs are expected to die off when they've eaten the water hyacinth, said Tipping. He said most plant-eating insects can only consume a few closely related plant varieties, and pose no risk to anything else.

More than four years of study at Tipping's lab in Broward County preceded the insects' arrival in Putnam County.

Testing to prove foreign insects won't upset native ecosystems can take up to 10 years, and federal importation licenses can't be approved without that work.

But the lab, which specializes in managing invasive plants, put extra effort into completing the research faster, said Don Schmitz, a research program manager at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

State and federal agencies have spent more than $1 million getting ready to introduce the bugs. …