Flea Beetles

Pat - Twin Bridges, Montana
Entered on July 28, 2008
Age Group: 65+
Themes: nature

I am a brooder my nature, and the older I get, the gloomier I get. It drives my family crazy. Maybe, it is age, but then it may be there is more cause for gloom today. Whatever. I fret about the earth and the wild creatures on it probably more than is good for me. So, my kids let out a collective sigh of relief on the morning I turn on the computer and an email from Todd Breitenfeldt pops up. Todd has bolstered the struggling biological weed control project in Whitehall, Montana for a number of years now. His once-a-year email announces it is time to come and pick up a supply of flea beetles. This is the moment gloom lifts and sunlight floods in.

You may have to be a Montanan to understand the significance of flea beetles, though Dakotans probably qualify and perhaps country people in Idaho and Washington. The situation is this. An invasive plant, leafy spurge, accidentally introduced from Eurasia in the 1800’s, is a scourge of the arid West. Pioneer women longing for a spot of color in a dismal landscape took a fancy to the bright green stalks covered with yellowish-green bracts. They planted it in gardens to cheer themselves up. Once let loose, leafy spurge ran rampant. It spread unwanted in pastures, meadows, and along irrigation canals out-competing hay and native grasses. Cattle avoid it like the plague. Cattle ranchers hate it.

I’m not a rancher so my particular problem with leafy spurge takes a slightly different and somewhat gloomier slant. Ranchers spray it with a powerful herbicide which kills everything it touches. Good enough for cattle. Not so good for bees or butterflies,warblers or hummingbirds. This drives me crazy and makes me think the end is near.

Enter the flea beetle. Flea beetles are welcome immigrants from Eurasia. They eat leafy spurge. They fly around happy as they can be gorging themselves on the slender leaves. When their life’s work is done and the spurge bends bare and helpless, the tiny, shiny black insects die, spent. Before that though, they lay larvae which buries down into the leafy spurge roots. Next year, more flea beetles.

I believe in these flea beetles. The first time Todd handed me a small, round cardboard container holding 10,000 crawling flea beetles, I was offended. I was to reach my hand in, grab a leafy spurge spray to which they were clinging and distribute the beetles over the yellow-green umbils? Not likely. I shuddered, did as I was told, watched and waited as the weeks went by, and then the years. Sure enough. The spurge slowly disappeared. A Darwinian miracle.

Now, the sunniest day of my country year is the day I release the flea beetles onto a patch of leafy spurge. No poison. Just a few of nature’s loveliest creatures. For a moment I stop brooding. The end is not as near as I thought.