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Utah moves against invasive insect population

Efforts to contain the Japanese beetle could save the state millions of dollars.

(Courtesy Utah Department of Agriculture and Food) The Japanese beetle may be small but can be massively destructive to crops and turf. The insect can be recognized by its distinctive, iridescent green coloring and white tufts of hair on their sides.

Utah’s Department of Agriculture and Food is launching an offensive against an invasive insect species.

In coming weeks, the department will administer pesticides to areas at risk of infestation by the Japanese beetle, which an agency news release identifies as a “destructive, invasive pest that feeds on the foliage of over 300 different plants, including many popular and economically important fruit, vegetable and ornamental plants.”

These pesticide treatments were used to great effect last year, when the department detected over 100 beetles in the state. This year, the state plans to treat nearly 300 acres where the species has been found. Treatment locations are determined based on beetle detections and trap yields.

“This is surveillance-based treatment,” said state survey entomologist Joey Caputo in an informational open house March 25. “This is not a guess. We know where these are.”

Japanese beetles made their first appearance in Utah around 2006 in Orem. Aggressive trapping and quarantine tactics mitigated the infestation, but 2020 saw the highest number of Japanese beetle detections in the state in the last decade.

Though the numbers aren’t yet close to what they were in 2006 and 2007, agriculture department experts said they’re trying to cut this invasion off early.

Utah insect program manager and state entomologist Kristopher Watson told The Tribune that last year’s 105 beetle detections might not seem like very many, but they could have a multimillion-dollar impact.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture “estimates that efforts to control the larval and adult stages cost more than $460 million each year,” according to the state agriculture department’s website. “Losses attributable to the larval stage alone have been estimated at $234 million per year — $78 million for control costs and an additional $156 million for replacement of damaged turf.”

A study done by two Westminster College students indicated if the state were to stop action against the beetles, in 2027 damages to corn could amount to over $2 million, and damages to turf could top $345 million.

“Our forecasted projections suggest the accumulated costs of maintaining the quarantine is less than 1% of the potential losses to Utah Agriculture,” the study says.

With such high economic stakes, Watson said even one beetle is too many, and 105 beetles are “extremely alarming.”

“The idea is early detection and rapid response,” he said.

Quick action will also benefit the environment alongside the economy.

The department website promises the pest control company chosen to administer the treatment will be trained extensively in pollinator protections, and state officials assured the pesticide, Acelepryn, doesn’t pose any threat to humans, native wildlife, or helpful insects like bees and earthworms.

“This specificity of the active ingredient allows for control of several orders of chewing insects while sparing those beneficial insects that are in the area during an application,” said USU pesticide safety professor Michael Wierda at the open house.

Amanda Barth, rare insect conservation coordinator with Utah’s Wildlife Resources Division, said overuse of pesticides can still harm insect species not specifically targeted by the product. This makes it imperative to minimize pesticide use by eradicating the Japanese beetle early while the populations are still relatively small.

“Because Japanese beetles are so tricky to get rid of, it’s vital to tackle this now and try to minimize the collateral damage to any native and vulnerable species and really isolate the impacts to target species,” she said at the open house.

Utahns can recognize the beetles by their distinctive, iridescent green coloring and white tufts of hair on their sides. Anyone who has seen one of these beetles should contact the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food.

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