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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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Yucky Maids All in a Row

Day-old melaleuca sawflies

Yucky maids all in a row: Hungry, day-old sawflies "tidy up" a melaleuca leaf.

These wormy, squirmy little kids must like their veggies--a lot! They line up neatly and munch the soft part of the leaf until they eat it all up. Then they crawl to the next leaf and start again.

They really can't get enough, can they? And they don't even need ketchup!

These bugs are the children of an insect called the melaleuca sawfly.

Some people might think the sawfly kids look yucky. And strangely, the only things they will eat are the leaves of a large tree, the melaleuca (mell-uh-LUKE-uh).

But that's very good for the environment in Florida. Why? Because melaleuca trees are marsh burglars, as you'll soon see.

Paperbark (melaleuca) tree

Can you see why melaleuca's nickname is "paperbark"?

Melaleuca, or paperbark trees, have taken over huge areas of Florida's Everglades.

There's lots of water in the Everglades marsh, but melaleuca trees are thirsty thieves. They drink so much that they can make life difficult--or impossible--for other plants, fish and other animals.

The water-robbing melaleuca did not always grow in the Everglades. It came from Australia. Long before your grandparents were born, people brought melaleuca seeds into the United States and planted melaleuca trees around the Everglades to dry out the ground.

This worked--too well, in fact. The trees went wild. They spread very fast. Huge parts of the Everglades marsh are now forests of melaleuca.

Melaleuca, how perculia,
It's way too fast you grow!
But axe and spades won't save the 'Glades;
Try yucky maids all in a row!

Melaleuca leaf weevil

In 1997, scientists released the melaleuca leaf weevil in the Florida Everglades.

Today, most people want to try to protect the remaining marsh, and even shrink the melaleuca forest. That will mean getting rid of a lot of melaleuca trees.

To get some help with this, scientists from the Agricultural Research Service went to Australia, the melaleuca's natural home.

The scientists searched for some living creature they might be able to use as a biocontrol--something that would harm melaleuca, but leave other plants alone.

The scientists found several bugs happily chewing on Australian melaleuca. One was the sawfly. Another was the gray-brown melaleuca leaf weevil--just call them "gray-b's," for short.

The scientists couldn't just invite their newfound friends over for a visit, however. First they had to make sure the gray-b's would not harm other plants.

Sure enough, the gray-b's were very finicky, eating only the leaves of melaleuca.

Since then, the scientists have set loose hundreds of gray-b's in the Everglades melaleuca forest. The young gray-b's are taking the melaleuca down a peg, one leaf at a time.

Melaleuca forest

Above, visitors at the first release of melaleuca leaf weevils walk amid 50-foot-high melaleucas. The trail is made of melaleuca chips!

Adult sawfly

A female adult sawfly prepares to lay her eggs on a melaleuca leaf. Go, Mom!

If they scarf down enough leaves, a melaleuca tree won't be able to survive. That's because leaves are where the melaleuca, like any green plant, makes its food.

Scientists hope that, in time, the gray-b's will help kill off many of the melaleuca trees.

Meanwhile, they're also testing the young sawflies and other bugs to make sure they're safe to release in Florida. If they pass, some may be released to join the gray-b's in their melaleuca feeding frenzy.

Then the Everglades could someday be more like its old self again.

Those trees don't stand a chance!

By Gerald Smith, Information Staff, Agricultural Research Service.

A more detailed story about melaleuca biocontrol, written by Marcia Wood of the ARS Information Staff, is on the World Wide Web at:


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Last Modified: 8/12/2016
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