New Milford’s Red Lily Beetles to be eaten alive after Thursday release of natural enemy
NEW MILFORD — Nobody is sure how red lily beetles came to America, but once they did they made major pests of themselves.
For some 70 years, they spread unchecked in the Eastern U.S., where they laid waste to lilies of Asian origin. But now they are being fought with the help of their old enemy, a tiny wasp also is native to Asia.
Their latest battleground is Galileo’s Garden in New Milford, where the beetles have all but destroyed the Stargazer lilies.
Gail Reynolds, a University of Connecticut Master Gardener Coordinator brought 27 of the little wasps at the urging Bob Lambert, co-founder of the garden and of John J. McCarthy Observatory. Lambert was at wit’s end with the beetle’s destructive and messy habits.
“I can’t tell you how much [beetle feces] I’ve had on my fingers,” Lambert said.
The beetle’s demise begins when the wasps lay their eggs inside the bodies of the beetle larvae.
“As the wasp larvae develops, they use the beetle larvae as food,” Reynolds said.
To defend against the wasp, the larvae cover themselves in what she described as a “fecal shield.” But that doesn’t stop the wasps, who burrow right through it.
The wasps are coming just in time, Lambert said. For the past two years, the garden’s 50 Stargazer lilies had been under siege.
“There’s not one healthy,” he said.
The lilies were dying and there seemed to be nothing Lambert could do. The garden, a fully organic cultivation, would likely have to do without the flowers, barring a saving grace.
“These Stargazers are so special,” Lambert said, explaining that the flowers had been donated to garden because their name is fitting in a place named for famed astronomer Galileo Galilei.
So Reynolds made the trip from UConn’s Middlesex County Extension Center with a vial full of wasps she had obtained from the University of Rhode Island Biological Control Lab to begin a science project she hoped would save them.
Like the beetles, the wasps are originally from Asia. But unlike the invasive beetle, which first appeared in North America in the 1940s and spread, invading state by state until common throughout New England, the wasp had yet to be introduced.
With help from the USDA, UConn changed that four years ago.
And when Reynolds heard of Galileo’s Garden, she thought it was a near-perfect site for the old Asian battle to take place.
The lilies were in poor health, but Lambert and other gardeners didn’t want to spray them with pesticides because of the garden’s organic mission. But letting the wasps do their work takes patience — three or four years to get them under control, longer than many gardeners are willing to wait.
This form of bio-control — introducing natural adversaries instead of using pesticides or toxic chemicals — is the green way of handling gardening issues, Reynolds said.
To those afraid of wasps, Lambert said not to worry: These little insects don’t sting, he said.