Japanese beetles can wreak havoc on crops. Photo by shadow planet/Flickr. Used under the CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

Japanese beetles really discovered western Illinois this year. They have wreaked vengeance upon us.

The old adage, “never seen anything like it before in my life,” is no exaggeration. Even the experts are saying it.

Popillia japonica is described as “a common species of beetle.” That’s an understatement. Apparently, because last winter was so mild, the beetles emerged from their underground quarters early, healthy, and in uncommon numbers that raised them to the level of a pestilence for gardeners and farmers. They fueled their emergence by feeding on the roots of grass and smaller plants, causing early damage to pastures, shrubs, and lawns.

A tree in a neighbor’s yard shows the destructive capacity of the Japanese beetles in western Illinois.

Popillia japonica is, as its name implies, an exotic, better called an invasive species. It is voracious, apparently the greediest of its type, with an appetite for more than 200 varieties of plants. After emerging from the underground, the beetle will strip a tree, leaving spidery skeletons of leaves; attack the strawberries and blackberries; and decimate ornamental plants and flowers, along with the grapevines that supply our region’s small wine industry.

Japanese beetles also are avid destroyers of row crops. They apparently hit the soybeans first this year, waiting for the corn to tassel. Seems the tiny strands of corn silk are really attractive.

You know the beetles are bad when you drive down a country road and see thousands of them circling in the air between the corn and soybean fields. They slap against your windshield like pebbles. I hope that kills them, but they are so hard-shelled, I’m afraid they just bounce off to do more damage.

Our hydrangea is trying to sprout new leaves after the beetles stripped it nearly bare.

You know the beetles are bad when you see a farmer using green and yellow traps placed every 50 feet or so along a field perimeter, where the beetles congregate. The traps are laced with pheromones, with the hope that an appeal to the beetles’ sex drive will lead to their imprisonment and death.

Experience of living “out East” some years ago suggests traps can be helpful at first, but the beetle’s sex drive is so strong, the traps may actually attract even more of the ravenous insects to do even more damage.

The initial invasion of Popillia japonica was discovered in a New Jersey nursery in 1916. The coming plague may have come in a shipment of Iris rhizomes (bulbs) delivered sometime around 1912. By 1937, the pests had reached Louisville, Kentucky. They now can be found across most of the United States and in Canada, but have been slower to infest the West, which is, perhaps ironically, closer to their native land. But the experts say they are out there too, just not yet widespread. Yet.

The adaptable menace now can be found in Europe, too.

The introduction of Japanese beetles in America turned out to be more than a little “oops.” They, like other invasives such as the Dutch elm beetle, are a nightmare for native species. In Japan, the metallic green and bronze beetles are far enough down in the ecological chain that they have predators to control them. That is not so here and in other parts of the world where they have turned up in huge numbers.

We had an extraordinarily beautiful spring in western Illinois this year, with an appropriate roller coaster of cool and warm days that allowed our daffodils, tulips, redbuds, dogwoods, and azaleas to have a long run that brightened the season more than usual. It was an “Oh wow!” season that extended into the summer for the early perennials. The strawberries looked pretty good. The blackberries promised to be loaded.

Then came the charge of the beetles, first to some trees in the neighbors’ yards and then descending on our gardens. I realized how bad the infestation really was on a drive through the farm fields to the country seat. Here I saw what the entomologists call “economic” damage that hits the pocketbook in terms of crop yield and quality. Farmers had to decide whether they needed to use another round of costly insect spray—applied by crop dusters—to limit the damage and protect their investment.

I wish the farmers did not have to spray. It’s not good for them or the environment. But it is a matter of survival for them, so I mute my criticisms.

Here’s the real problem. We find ourselves in 2017 entangled in an environmental web that dates back a little more than a century. The sins of the forebears who brought the hungry critters here have been visited on the generations that followed.

The old web of problems continues to be spun. You wonder if it will stop. Or if it even can stop.

A plague of beetles, brought here by accident generations ago, reminds us of our vulnerability in light of seemingly minor accidents.

Timothy Collins is an independent writer and proprietor of Then and Now Media. From 2005 to 2016, he was assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, where he is now on the adjunct faculty of the community development master’s degree program. He is the author of a recently released fantasy book, Memories of Santa Claus, as well as Selling the State: Economic Development Policy in Kentucky.

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