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Free insects available to help control noxious weed

Flea beetle feeding on leafy spurge.

Pictured here is a flea beetle feeding on leafy spurge.

The Whitehall Biological Weed Control Project will be accepting phone and email requests on Thursday for insects to help control leafy spurge infestations.

Weed control participants collected the insects, leafy spurge flea beetles (Aphthona spp.) on Tuesday and Wednesday in the Grass Range area.

Weed control project coordinator Todd Breitenfeldt can be reached at 406-498-5236 during normal business hours or outside of those hours by email at tbreit@whitehallmt.org any time to arrange for a release of the insects. Bryce Murphy, assistant coordinator for the project, can be reached by phone at 406-533-5672.

The insects will be given out on a first come, first served basis, so those interested in receiving them are encouraged to contact the weed control project during normal business hours.

Those who will receive the insects will need a small cooler with an ice pack and some packing to separate the insect container from the ice to transport the insects.

These releases will usually contain several species of flea beetles, both the black and brown colored types, according to a news release from Breitenfeldt.

They all are host specific – they eat only leafy spurge – and work about the same.

“The insects lay their eggs in early summer (now) by dropping them onto the soil surface from above. The larvae soon hatch and burrow into the soil to begin eating the roots of leafy spurge. It is the minute larvae that do the most damage to the plant although the adults make small holes in the leaves,” Breitenfeld wrote in his news release.

“The larvae eat the roots all summer and fall. They overwinter in the soil and continue to munch on the roots the following spring. In late spring they pupate just under the surface of the soil and emerge as small adult beetles in early summer to do it all again.”

The weed control project recommends a release on about every quarter-section of land, which is every quarter mile.

These beetles release an attractant scent and tend to stay together at the release site that causes a circle of damaged spurge around the site the next year.

This area of dead and dying plants increases in size each year as the beetle population increases, the news release noted.

The flea beetles work best in dry, hot sites and less well in shady sites. They will not work along creeks and ditches, as standing water or saturated soil drowns the larvae.

Ideal sites for releases of the insects are those that are the hottest and those that will not flood. Also, do not release them within 10 yards of ant piles, as ants’ prey on the eggs and harass the adults.

Funding for the Whitehall Biological Weed Control Project comes primarily from the Montana Noxious Weed Trust Fund, the Montana Department of Transportation and land owner donations. Therefore, the insects provided for release are distributed free. However, project organizers hope that those who receive insects would be willing to provide a donation to help with the matching funds for the weed trust fund grant.

Breitenfeldt is a science teacher in Whitehall, and the project is based out of Whitehall High School, and hires WHS students.

Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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