efe-epaBy Ana Mengotti Miami, United States

Florida is recruiting armies of insects in the fight against invasive species, in this case, plants, which although might not appear to be as dangerous as the pythons, iguanas and lionfish roaming these territories, are damaging to the local ecosystem.

Last month authorities in Orlando released a battalion of beetles on a farm to tackle a population of so-called air potato plants (Dioscerea bulbifer), a kind of vine, and now the people responsible for the conservation of the Everglades wetlands are doing something similar to stop the advance of the Brazilian pepper tree (Schinus terebinthifolius), which is actually a shrub.

In both cases, experts have selected true specialists to take on the task — insects that only have a taste for the targeted invasive species.

"We deploy these insects and I call them our tiny troops that are going to combat to help us save the Everglades," Jennifer Renolds, a Lt. Col. with the Army Corps of Engineers said as she released minute thrips (Pseudophilothrips ichini) into the tropical Everglade wetlands covering 1.5 million acres (607,500 hectares) in this area of southern Florida.

These little thrips, sometimes called spider mites, feed on the Brazilian shrub, which was first introduced to Florida in the early 19th century as an ornamental plant but later spread across the peninsula.

Like the shrub, the insects are also of Brazilian origin.

For the air potato plants, scientists have chosen Lilioceris cheni, a red-backed beetle also known as an air potato leaf beetle which, as its name suggests, is the perfect foot soldier for beating back the invasive vine.

They feat uniquely on leaves and stems of the plant and, within a matter of months, can leave it bare.

On June 27, personnel from the Orlando Parks division in the center of the state released the beetles onto a three-acre site covered in the air potato vines, which originate from Asia and were introduced to Florida at the beginning of the 20th century.

According to a spokesperson from the city council, the bugs could cause substantial damage to the plants within three months.

"They have a lot of work to do, but they won't damage other plants," said Tara Russakove, communication and marketing manager at Orlando City Council.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), its Florida branch and the University of Florida are working together to breed and release the air potato-eating critters into the natural environment between May and October.

Individuals who own properties overrun by the invasive species can even order and collect their own little personal army of bugs from the University of Florida.

The application form for the minuscule mercenaries highlights several reasons why the plant is undesirable, such as its tendency to block light from native plant species, its unsightliness when it dies in fall and the fact it can decrease the value of a property.

Lilioceris cheni beetles fight the air potato plants admirably save for winter, when they seem to disappear for the cold months.

In the case of the Everglades, which is also plagued by rogue Burmese pythons, the Brazilian pepper tree drowns local plant life.

A member of the same family as poison ivy, it is also damaging agricultural land in Florida, Texas and Hawaii.

The project of releasing insects as pest control is being conducted jointly by South Florida Water Management District, the USDA, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection aims to the Brazilian pepper tree by 80 percent. EFE-EPA

ar/jt/sh