FISHER – They're scooping Japanese beetles up by the bucketsful in the Fisher area.
In pockets all over the state, the voracious iridescent beetles – the subject of environmental landmark publication "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson – are driving homeowners and farmers crazy. They're stripping trees and flowers, they're clipping corn silks and they're doing significant economic damage to gardeners' food crops too.
White Heath fruit and vegetable grower Richard Pontious surveys his crops, 60 percent of which were ruined by Japanese beetles, with resignation. Pontious says he's turning to natural products, not pesticides, to control the infestation.
"It's frustrating," Pontious said. "They go after all the tender stuff first, then they go after what's left. They're working on my blueberries, raspberries, gooseberries, currants and the herb garden. They love basil and green beans. They came in about three years ago, each year it's getting worse, and this year, it's substantially worse."
Fisher resident Loyd Sloat put out traps to try to protect his apple tree. So far, Sloat has killed and bagged a horrifying 86 pounds of beetles.
"According to a farmer I talked to, there are 4,200 beetles per pound," Sloat said. "He counted them. I took his word for it. I didn't want to count them."
Amanda Bryan lives in a rural area between Mahomet and Fisher.
"I walked out July 1 and there they were, in droves," Bryan said. "We sprayed them with Sevin and scooped up three five-gallon buckets of them. In the past, they'd eat anything red. They've skinned our barberries. But this year they really tore up our birch and hickory trees. They were hanging in clumps from the birch tree. The whole top is leaf membrane."
University of Illinois entomologist Kevin Steffey said if area residents think the beetle population has grown dramatically this year, they're right, and the weather and current farm practices have helped.
"When I got here in 1979, they weren't much of a problem in corn although they had long defoliated soybeans," Steffey said. "But corn wasn't planted as early as it is now, and by planting early, we foster survival of the grub in the soil."
After they swarm, eat and mate, Japanese beetles lay eggs in the soil, the eggs hatch and overwinter as grubs. When they break dormancy in the spring, they start tunneling around looking for roots to dine on. Steffey said early-planted corn gives those grubs a rich source of food. Also, he said, winters recently have been mild so grub survival has been high.
"As adults, they look for flowering plants," he said of the current phase of their life cycle. "Anyone who lives near a field knows that. They eat more than 200 species of plants. "
Steffey said the beetles are strong flyers, and they've developed a taste for corn silks. Silk clipping can damage kernel growth, and that can cost farmers yield.
Steffey said agronomists in southern Illinois counting beetles in traps there are turning in numbers that are "ridiculous they're so high."
One agronomist, Ron Hines, counted 155,462 beetles in traps in Massac County July 4 and 84,537 that same day in Pope County.
Steffey said farmers have to carefully weigh costs and benefits of spraying for Japanese beetles. He said infestations have been very localized so scouting is a key to that decision.
Rick Reed's business, Reed's Fly-On Farming based at Mattoon, has been very busy.
"There are lots of them around Monticello, and we've sprayed thousands of acres between Pana and Decatur," Reed said. "When they're hot, they're hot. But we're on the downside in this area, and rootworm beetles will begin picking up."
Reed, executive director of the Illinois Agricultural Aviation Association, said he started spraying for Japanese beetles 20 years ago, before most companies did, because he had "hot spots" in Edgar and Coles counties. Now almost everyone's doing it, he said.
"They're voracious," Reed said. "They're not that tough to kill but the problem is with reinfestation. If there's heavy pressure , it can happen in an hour. It's disconcerting to the farmer and tough for us because it's hard to guarantee a clean field."
Pontious at White Heath hasn't used pesticides on his food crops for years, but he's getting desperate in this war against the beetles.
"We put out milky spore last year, but that's not going to make a difference for two or three years," he said. "It's a bacteria that grows in the ground and as the grubs eat it, it kills them. "
Pontious also has a new weapon in his arsenal, neem.
"It's an extract from the neem tree from Southeast Asia, a liquid used for organic farming," he said. "We're already using it, and it seems to be making a difference. I think more people should be doing what we're doing, looking at what nature can provide."
Steve Brown, manager of Prairie Gardens in west Champaign, said he hasn't had big problems with beetles at the store, but he does send employees out patrolling with buckets of soapy water to pluck any strays off plants. He also put a new shipment of roses under roof, not out in open air.
"We don't recommend traps because we think they attract more beetles," Brown said. "For trees like lindens and crab apples, those on their favorites list, the best thing to use is a soil drench, a systemic insecticide that's absorbed by the tree. But you do have to think ahead. For bushes you could apply it in the spring, but for trees, you have to apply it in the fall."
Brown said homeowners tend to get particularly irate about damage to their roses, which Japanese beetles find especially savory.
"Be aggressive about cutting them back," he said. "Whack them back. It will take two or three weeks to get new buds and blooms, but the beetles will be gone by then. You have to think, 'I don't get to enjoy the roses, but the beetles didn't get to enjoy them either.'"