There's a thin line of scientists who are the nation's last best hope against scores of invasive plants and insects that they say could take out power lines and overrun fields.
Many of them were at Plant Science Day, the state Agricultural Experiment Station's annual get-together of experts, farmers and nursery owners, on Wednesday.
From ornamental bamboo that spreads from one yard to another to a tiny fruit fly that can wipe out a strawberry crop overnight, Experiment Station scientists are researching the scores of living things that have found their way here from Asia and that seem hell-bent on taking over the state.
"The Connecticut Light & Power people are very concerned about this one," said entomologist Carole Cheah, pointing to a humble plant in a flowerpot. Experts say it grows so quickly it can short out power transmission lines, destroy fields and cropland and out-compete just about every plant in the book.
"Our best hope is this little fellow, Rhinoncomimus latipes," she said. "This weevil is the only host-specific insect that we have. They only eat the mile-a-minute weed."
Native to central China and Japan, mile-a-minute weed has been a scourge in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia since the 1990s. It has since spread in every direction, and gained a foothold in Greenwich in about 1999.
The weevil, about 2 millimeters long and with looks that only a mother could love, lays its eggs in the vines. After hatching, the larvae can severely weaken the plant and reduce its seed production.
"Nothing much was eating it prior to the release of this weevil," she said. "The plant is spread by seed. Birds feed on it, and spread it everywhere."
Cheah has released the weevils in most, but not all, of the 25 towns in the state that have reported the weed, from Greenwich east to Stonington and north to Simsbury.
"Fortunately, the weevil, like the weed, can survive the winter," she said. "But biological controls take time to be effective, so people have to be patient. If you pull it up, you'll affect the life cycle of the weevil."
All too often, an insect is the problem, not the solution. Entomologist Richard Cowles is studying the spotted-wing drosophila, a fruit fly with a particularly malevolent reproductive strategy.
"Unlike the fruit flies we commonly use in lab experiments, the females have this double-saw blade, egg-laying structure with extraordinary sharp teeth," he said pointing to a picture of the insect.
Using this tool, he said, they can deposit 500 eggs in a single strawberry, turning it to mush in a matter of hours after the eggs hatch.
"It's worse than the Mediterranean fruit fly," he said. "Not only will it attack just about every fruit, you can expect a 100-fold population increase every 14 days if you do nothing."
He said it can even destroy a raspberry crop. "Until now, raspberries hardly needed any insecticides at all," he said. "I made the first detection in New England in August of 2011, and within a few weeks fruit growers suffered massive losses."
Cowles is fighting back, though, experimenting with a scheme that uses kaolin dust or clay.
"Once the kaolin particles get on the fly, it acts as a desiccant, and it dries out the fly and kills it," he said. "The problem is, we have to educate the consumer. We have to tell them that the white dust is utterly harmless and that they just have to wash it off."
At another booth, plant scientist Jeffrey Ward was looking at a problem that has been pitting one neighbor against another: The ornamental plant known as running bamboo.
"About the only way to keep it from spreading is with this," he said holding a semi-rigid plastic sheet about a yard wide. "You have to install this barrier in a circle and plant the bamboo in the center. It has to go 30 inches down and a couple of inches above to work as a root barrier."
But it's not a project for the amateur. "We tried to install one with a Bobcat-type digger, and it wasn't enough. We had to call in a full-size power shovel," he said.
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