Skunkvine control agent evaluated

A foreign flea beetle could hold the key to controlling skunk vine, a weedy vine that is a serious problem in central Florida and Hawaii.

Agricultural Research Service scientists found the beetle and other possible bio-control candidates in Japan and Nepal, where the beetle helps control skunk vine in the plant's native habitat.

Skunk vine (Paederia foetida) has invaded parts of the Southeastern United States and is expected to spread elsewhere. In addition to its foul, sulfur-like stench, skunk vine grows densely over trees, ornamentals and cash crops.

ARS entomologists Robert W. Pemberton and Paul D. Pratt of the Invasive Plant Research Laboratory in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., lead a skunk vine combat team. In the summer of 2002, they searched the plant's native territory in Japan and Nepal for possible insect biological control agents against the vine.

The scientists consider the flea beetle, Trachyaphthona sordida, a high-priority candidate for biological control of the pest. They also brought back a lace bug worth evaluating, along with other natural skunk vine enemies discovered during the surveys.

During two weeks of intense work, they captured three batches of 200 flea beetles and shipped them to a quarantine laboratory at the Hawaiian Department of Agriculture in Honolulu. Testing will be done at that lab to determine what plants the insects tend to feed on and assess any potential risk from their use as bio-controls.

This flea beetle has been recorded as feeding only on skunk vine, and scientists doubt that it would pose a risk to agriculture or to native ecosystems in the United States.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

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