ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — In a war, it’s always better to coordinate forces.
That’s the strategy of a center at the University of Minnesota — a single place to research ways to fight against invasive plants and insects in the state.
The Minnesota Invasive Terrestrial Plants and Pest Center announced on Nov. 21 it was spending $3.8 million for 12 research projects. The center aims to fight the state’s worst invaders, from emerald ash borer beetles to buckthorn.
The center was formed in 2014 to coordinate the U of M’s research into invasive insects and land-based plants. It has a $17 million budget for five years, according to director Rob Venette.
The Pest Center is distinct from the Minnesota Invasive Species Advisory Council, which coordinates activities of state agencies. That group focuses on all invasives, including animals like the Asian carp and zebra mussel, and aquatic plants such as milfoil, the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported.
THE INVASIVE YET TO ARRIVE
Venette said that for invasive species, a warmer climate is like an engraved invitation.
What worries him the most is an insect that hasn’t even arrived yet — the mountain pine beetle.
That bug has wiped out millions of acres of pine trees, mostly on the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. and Canada. Recently it jumped over the Continental Divide and is moving slowly eastward.
“The devastation is incredible. You can see whole mountainsides where the pines are all bright red,” said Venette. “It’s the worst insect in all of North America.”
Now they are on the border between Alberta and Saskatchewan, north of Montana. A belt of jack pines stretches from there into Minnesota — a green highway.
“That is too close for comfort,” said Venette.
The center is trying to detect the beetles as soon as they arrive. What the experts do not know is how Minnesota’s pine trees will react and whether their natural defenses will be enough to fight them off.
Other examples of invasives are already well established:
— Emerald ash borer. The beetle arrived in Minnesota in 2009 and has been spotted throughout the metro area. The insect has already destroyed about 100 million trees in the Midwest and Northeast U.S. and Canada. It is spread primarily by hitchhiking on transported firewood.
— Eastern larch beetle, which attacks tamarack trees.
— Asian jumping worm. It looks like an earthworm and can reproduce without mating. Unlike burrowing earthworms which benefit the soil, these worms stay on the surface of the ground. The worms writhe and jump when disturbed.
— Palmer amaranth. The weed was first spotted in Minnesota three years ago. “A single plant produces half-million seeds per season,” said Venette. Most herbicides can’t hurt it. “Corn and soybean farmers are very nervous about this. The losses in Iowa are 60 to 80 percent,” said Venette.
— Agricultural pests, such as the soybean aphid or the brown marmorated stink bug, which damages vegetable, nut and fruit plants.
— Dutch elm disease, a fungus which destroyed the nation’s elm trees in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. It is carried from tree to tree by bark beetles.
— Wild parsnips. The noxious plants exude a toxic oil that causes chemical burns.
Climate change, however, isn’t welcoming to all invaders.
Warmer temperatures are driving out some invasive plants, according to David Moeller, associate professor of Plant and Microbial Biology.
One example is the common tansy, which is toxic to grazing animals and is moving to Canada in search of colder temperatures.
There are certainly going to be other invasives driven northward, said Moeller.
“I think southern Canada is going to have to have a whole slew of new things to manage,” he said.
Meanwhile, researchers are testing a new tactic against one of state’s most stubborn invasive species: buckthorn.
The program, called “Cover It Up,” recommends depriving buckthorn of sunlight by planting other plants around it.
In the past, experts have recommended cutting down buckthorn and spraying herbicide on the stumps. Even then, the buckthorn quickly returns because seedlings grow faster than native plants, said Venette.
But those new seedlings need lots of sunlight. So buckthorn can be combated if native species are planted around it and shade out the buckthorn.
The Pest Center is looking for volunteers to help research this new approach. Anyone interested may find more information at coveritup.umn.edu/timeline-activities .