Bug wars combat invasive pests and plants

Exploratory entomologist Mohsen Ramadan
Exploratory entomologist Mohsen Ramadan
Neil Reimer
Neil Reimer

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Exploratory entomologist Mohsen Ramadan is searching for the antidote to fireweed. The poisonous plant has killed cattle on the Big Island.

Ramadan scours the world for bugs to battle invasive insects and plants plaguing the state. The science is called biocontrol.

"The best way of looking at specific natural enemies is to go to the center of that native region and look for biocontrol agents," he said.

For decades, the state has used biocontrols to attack invasive species.

Entomologists at the Department of Agriculture's Plant Pest Control Branch test and then propagate the insects. With state and federal approval they are released to go after the enemy.

"We want to make sure that when we release it it's safe, it doesn't attack anything else, and it's very host specific and only hits the targets that we want it to hit," branch chief Neil Reimer said.

Besides fireweed, another target is the coffee berry borer beetle that's wreaking havoc on Hawaii's coffee industry.

Ramadan recently found the beetle's natural enemies.

"We know that the coffee borer originated from Africa, and there are parasites that work very well up there," he said.

Biocontrol saved the native wiliwili tree, once threatened by the gall wasp. And it brought under control the stinging nettle caterpillar.

"When we do biocontrol it's not always 100 percent successful, as far as controlling the pest," Reimer said. "But I think we've had a number of cases where it's had significant control."

Ramadan recently returned from a three-month insect expedition to South Africa and Tanzania. He brought back several species that might help Hawaii.

"If I go and look for things and find that these are important and potential biocontrol agents, that makes me feel good," he said.

Time and testing will prove if the parasites he found will be the predators we need to beat the bugs that are bugging us.

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