Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Beetle May Save African Crops

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Beetle May Save African Crops

Article excerpt

An invasive weed poses a serious and frightening threat to farming families in Ethiopia, but scientists from a Virginia Tech--led program have unleashed a new weapon in the fight against hunger: a tiny, speckled beetle.

The weed, called Parthenium, is so destructive that farmers in the east African nation have despairingly nicknamed it faramsissa in Amharic, which, translated, means "sign your land away." Farmers have doused the weed with pesticides and ripped it out with their hands, but it has only continued to spread.

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After a decade-long effort, scientists from the Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab released a Parthenium-eating beetle called Zygogramma bicolorata.

"Extensive research has shown us that the beetle eats and breeds only on Parthenium leaves," said Muni Muniappan, director of the lab program funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. "It's been tested in Australia, India, South Africa, and Mexico with similar results."

Parthenium is native to the Americas, where a suite of natural enemies that includes the Zygogramma beetle keeps the weed in check. But in the early 1970s, Parthenium traveled to Ethiopia in shipments of food aid from the United States. With no serious competitors, the plant flourished.

In the past three decades, Parthenium has become the second most common weed in Ethiopia, suppressing the growth of all other plants and wreaking havoc in the fields and gardens of smallholder farmers.

"The plant is an aggressive invader. A single plant can produce 25,000 seeds and completes its life cycle in six to eight weeks," said Wondi Mersie, a Virginia State University professor and principal investigator of the project. "It displaces native species, affects human health, and negatively impacts quality of life. …

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