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A 'bad' weed disappears, and beekeepers worry

Eradication of purple loosestrife called threat to colonies

Hiroko Sato, Lowell Sun, April 2009

Light pierces through a glass h at the honey bottle as Rick Reault holds it up against windowpanes. Just by looking at the subtle tint in amber liquid, one can easily tell what plant it comes from, he says.

A reddish tone means Jappanese knotweed. Nectar from fruit flowers like blueberries have light red shades. And a green tint indicats purple losetrife

That green hue is becoming a rarity, though, says Reault, president of Middlesex County Beekeepers Association, who lives in Tyngsboro. That's because purple loosestrife is disappearing across the area thanks to galarucella species, or European beetles, that are known to gorge on the colorful plant. The insects didn't come here by accident. The state has been releasing millions of beetles into wetlands across the state in attempt to thin out the loosestrife, an invasive weed that's been growing out of control.

But the more the state's initiave proves effective, the more honeybees are starving to death because they can't find any major nectar sources other than purple loosestrife in the months of July and August, Reault says. That comes in the midst of honeybee population crisis in the U.S., which creates serious concerns for humans as honeybees are including food crops, he says.

"It just doesn't seem to me like a well thought-out plan," Reault said of the state initiative.

Area beekeepers are voicing their concerns about the state's project to kill purple loosestrife in wetlands. The invasive plant first came to the U.S. in the early 1800s along with ship ballast and raw wool.

With no natural nemisis here, teh weed has taken over wetlands across Northeastern U.S., destroying nearly all native plants around them, according to Georgeann Keer, project manager of the Wetlands Restoration Program at the Office of Coastal Zone Management. Invasive species can not only destroy biodiversity, but also cost the U.S. economy estimated $12 billion a year. And, the state launched the let-the-beetles-eat-loosestrife operation in 1996.

The state's goal is to "control," not "eradicate" purple loosestrife, according to Keer.

In reality, though, the beetles are wiping out loosestrife, says Reault, who runs New England Beekeeping Supplies and Bee-Cause Apiaries in Tyngsboro. No native plants have grown in its place. All he sees now are phragmites, another invasive wetland plant that has no benefits to honeybees.

Honeybees are dying rapidly nation wide due partly to lack of nectar sources as a result of housing development. Two decades ago, there were five million honeybee colonies in the U.S.; now there 2.5 million, Reault says. And half of that is dying each year.

After fruit-flower season, bees need other plants to live on. If they can't find nectar in mid-summer, they won't have enought honey stored to get through the winter. They also become weaker and susceptible to diseases, which Reault has already seen happening.

Gus Skamarycz, a beekeeper from Tyngsboro, remembers when all of his 25 colonies died one year.

"I don't think people know the whole story about purple loosestrife," Skamarycz said of residents who raise and release beetles, including volunteers for the Nashua River Watershed Association.

Rick Meuhlke, land prgrams outreach assistant for NRWA, points out honeybees are from Europe, too, and native bees can do a lot of pollination without "exotic plants" like loosestrife.

Keer also beleives loosestrife infestation has grown so bad that the benefit of controlling it far outweighs concerns over its impact on honeybees. But, if they are removing a nectar source, they'd better plant something else to help the bees in danger, Reault says. And, the state would be willing to have some descussions about such posibilities, Keer said.

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