A Family of Beetle Ranchers

IMG_1609(Photo by Robert Barossi)

by Robert Barossi

Today, I’m posting another chapter from my upcoming eBook. Now that I’m putting the finishing touches on it, I hope to have it published and widely available soon. Until then, here’s another chapter, about a mother-daughter team of volunteers who raised beetles as part of a local effort to eliminate the invasive purple loosestrife.

The Family Way: Elizabeth and Samantha Emhardt

Amber waves of grain. Kentucky blue grass. California Redwoods. Unique and iconic plants can identify us, define us and inspire us. They can also deceive us. Driving through many parts of the country, a brightly colored plant can often be seen dominating the landscape, filling the open space with an unmistakably bright purple. Though it may be a beautiful shade of that color, the plant is unfriendly and unwanted. Purple loosestrife is an invasive species that has spread to most of the country and is frequently listed as an invasive or nuisance species. Exploring my home state of Massachusetts, I have encountered it numerous times, causing meadows, fields and wetlands to flame with purple light.

In the small town of Canton, a group of volunteers have joined the struggle to keep that flame from spreading even farther. Elizabeth Emhardt and her daughter Samantha are just two of those volunteers, introduced to the invasive plant by the Neponset River Watershed Association (NepRWA). The watershed association has teamed with a number of other organizations to wage war with the invasive plant, a war that employs a fascinating weapon: a beetle. To this end, volunteers like Elizabeth and Samantha perform an important role by becoming ranchers…beetle ranchers. For Elizabeth, a teacher and mother of two, this was an opportunity to volunteer and get involved, something she says she does as often as possible. For her daughter Samantha, a member of her high school science club and former member of Women in Natural Sciences, it was an exciting chance to engage her lifelong love of science.

 

“We always did fun thing in science, like experiments, and it was always really cool to find out how things worked,” Samantha says.

“Science rocks,” her mother agrees, with a smile. While she didn’t know the dangers of the plant prior to this project, Elizabeth says she did have some experience with purple loosestrife. “I remember driving by wetlands and seeing them solid purple.”

“It’s like an alien plant,” Samantha explains. “It’s not native, it has no natural predators here, so it will choke out all the native plants and wildlife and that’s bad.”

When they began the beetle ranching process, one of Elizabeth’s first questions was about the beetle and its natural predator. “If we are introducing all these beetles into the environment,” she had asked, “What happens with them, do we have to release something else to get these beetles?” The answer had been no, the beetles follow the plant and when the food source dies down, they die down with the food source.

“They only eat that one plant, that’s the only plant they eat,” Samantha adds, before going into an explanation of the beetle ranching process. “So, the first thing we do is we go out into the wetlands and actually dig up root balls of the purple loosestrife and we pot them and we put dirt and fertilizer in and we take eight. You can take eight or sixteen, so we take eight and then when you get home, you put them in a little kiddie swimming pool and fill it with water. You actually grow the purple loosestrife in a little homemade swamp. Then later they get beetles imported from Germany and they have beetle sorting day, which I haven’t been to. You’ll go and pick up ten beetles and they’ll be refrigerated so they are asleep and you put nets over the purple loosestrife so the beetles don’t escape, and you put two beetles, or a couple of beetles, with each plant, and then they have lots of babies, so you end up with way more beetles.”

“When did we release them?” Samantha asks.

“I thought it was kind of early that we released them this year,” her mother answers. “It was late July. You take the whole pot, plant, and there are stakes to help hold the nets up, and the nets also keep the predators out, from eating the beetles. So you take the whole mess, pot, net, stakes, back into the wetlands, take the nets off, pick off any larvae or little beetles and you put the plants back in the wetlands and the beetles just have at it.”

When the three of us spoke, Elizabeth and Samantha had completed the second and final time that they would participate in the beetle ranching program, which had been funded for five years. But both say they would gladly do it again, with Elizabeth commenting that during their most recent experience, the rest of the family got in on the fun.

“This past year, my husband and our thirteen year old son, I asked them if they would come with us and harvest the root balls. It’s really messy, you’re in those swampy wetlands, you’re digging these root balls and they are heavy, dirty clumps and you have to carry them out of the swamp and into a place where you can process them. So I asked my husband and my son to come and help us this year and they said yes, and it’s funny cause now my husband is like, ‘I see that purple loosestrife everywhere.’ So, he’s on board too.”

Samantha agrees that it was fun to share the experience as a family. “I think it’s really cool that we all go out there and harvest the root balls and everyone is doing it and then when we have the nets and the beetle set-up you can just go out and check on them, see how they are doing.”

Having a small swamp in their backyard, Elizabeth says, provided lots of opportunity for conversation and sharing the experience with family and friends. “We have a swimming pool in our backyard; we like to entertain a lot. We had this thing in our backyard, it’s a big kiddie pool with eight five gallon pots in it in your backyard with stakes and nets and sometimes it gets a little smelly cause in a sense you’re making a swamp in your backyard. It’s gotta be in a real sunny spot cause the purple loosestrife grows in the wetlands where there’s no trees or shade or anything. I mean, you can’t miss this thing in your backyard, so it gave us a lot of opportunities to talk about what we were doing, what this plant is and what the goal was, how we were ranching beetles.”

Since the project ended, Elizabeth says she has seen tangible evidence of success. “I have gone back and seen less purpose loosestrife. I noticed a spot in Canton that a couple of years ago I drove by and it was all purple and I thought it was beautiful and now I drive by and it’s not solid purple anymore. The beetles migrate where the food is and I’ve seen that because the purple loosestrife is not where it was five years ago and to my knowledge no beetles were released there.”

While beetle ranching may be over, there are other projects with the Neponset River Watershed Association and other opportunities to volunteer. Elizabeth mentions an upcoming river cleanup, “pulling tires and shopping carts and things like that out of the actual river.” She adds that she’d like her husband to go with her but she doesn’t sound sure that he will. “Well, you’re working full time, you have two kids, and the house always needs work done. You know, the lawn, he’s involved in boy scouts, he just moved from the finance committee to school committee. So, we do a lot of things besides work.”

Why then, I ask, did they decide to commit to the beetle ranching project? They both enthusiastically agree that it sounded very cool and interesting, with Samantha adding an excited “Beetles growing in our backyard!”

“It sounded really cool and the biggest time commitment was the day of harvesting, that’s a big commitment,” Elizabeth says. “A lot of people that do the volunteering are people with a lot of time on their hands. People who have a lot of time on their hands are retired people, they can’t physically do this stuff, they can’t go out into the swamps and dig out these root balls. You aren’t just digging out your own eight root balls; we dug out two hundred, over two hundred, root balls. It takes hours, you’re out there and it’s hot and it’s buggy but that’s the big chunk and the rest of it, it’s in your back yard, it’s a lot more manageable.”

In addition, they both felt that they were doing something good for the environment.

“It was kind of fun to help the natural wildlife come back and be restored,” Samantha says, adding, “I might do some more environmental volunteering, it was really cool.”

That environmental interest is something she clearly shares with her mother, who says, “I’m a big time gardener. I love to garden and be outside and spend time outside. I plant plants that I know will purposely draw hummingbirds to my yard. I have a bird bath. I have thistle seed for the goldfinch and house finches and feed for the nuthatch and the tufted titmice. I’ve always enjoyed nature so this whole process appealed to me because there’s a lot of things, the world just shrinks and shrinks, and there’s lot of things invading our environment that don’t belong. There’s a new thing I’m learning about, the Mile-a-Minute vine that’s taking over. The Asian longhorn beetle are destroying trees. It’s just sometimes you feel like…you know, yeah, we’ve got three kids, I’ve got a part time job and am a full time mom, still the major chauffeur in the house. Even though you’re busy with commitments like work and scouts and religious ed. and things of that nature, sometimes I just feel like you gotta help the planet a little bit.”

“Yeah,” Samantha chimes in, “just the little things you can do like recycle everything you can, try to save paper, stuff like that.”

While she does what she can, Samantha also admits that it’s difficult to find time to get outside and enjoy nature. “Sometimes we’ll go for hikes. I don’t know, it’s really busy so it’s kind of hard to get outside, with sports and clubs and homework. I don’t play any sports but a lot of my friends do. I take band so we do a lot of that before and after school. I play the alto saxophone.”

“I think if it was close and easy and convenient it would be a lot easier and more people would get involved,” Samantha says when asked about what might help get more people her age involved in environmental volunteering. Being able to see a tangible result or achievement would also help a lot, she adds, “that would be really cool, like she said, you’re seeing a lot less purple loosestrife.”

Their beetle ranching careers may have ended, but Elizabeth says she will always seek out opportunities to learn about nature and pass that on to her kids. “Not that I’m any natural expert or anything like that but when we are out, if I see something I recognize or know about I’ll always take the opportunity to tell them about it. It’s like, ‘Allright, look, here’s something that you should probably pay attention to.’” While she has learned a lot as an environmental volunteer, much of the knowledge she shares, Elizabeth says, is from when she went camping as a child.

The family continues to camp, she adds. “It’s so relaxing, we have a canoe, once in a while we drag it out, it’s a giant heavy old aluminum canoe, but it will fit all four of us and we paddle around. I get all freaked out and happy when I see a hummingbird moth in our back yard, which is a really funky looking moth-hummingbird thing. I’ll run in the house and say, ‘you guys all have to come out and see this,’ and they just shake their head at me and they’ll come out of the house and we look at this and it’s really cool. Or if it’s raining and the sun is shining and I’ll say, ‘come on we have to go see if there’s a rainbow.’”

That kind of enthusiasm for the natural world has definitely rubbed off on Samantha, who says, “It’s cool, though. I’ve seen so many rainbows.”

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