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Beetles introduced to attack pesky plant

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Three thousand South American beetles were released in Oklahoma City to combat an outlawed tropical plant that has invaded seven north Oklahoma City lakes and frustrated homeowners.

The release marked the first time alligatorweed flea beetles have been used in the state.

``They were excited,'' said Jeanetta Cooper, pest survey coordinator at the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry. ``They were already eating.''

The yellow-and-black-striped beetles eat alligatorweed, a South American plant that forms a thick floating mat.

Alligatorweed chokes out native plants and interferes with boating, fishing and swimming. Homeowners along the Spring Creek chain of lakes have been fighting it with expensive herbicides.

``The stuff is tough to kill chemically,'' said one homeowner, Gene Doub of Lansbrook.

Doub said the problem has been frustrating to kids who like to fish the lakes.

``This stuff is right along the best fishing places. The kids can't get to open water. They try but they use up a lot of lines and a lot of tackle,'' he said.

The flea beetles have been used for years to control alligatorweed in Florida, Texas, Louisiana and elsewhere. They will not survive the winter in Oklahoma and a new population will have to be brought back next year.

Cooper and officials with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation released the flea beetles Friday at the affected lakes.

``We are optimistic this is going to work. It won't be a quick fix,'' said Gene Gilliland, senior fisheries biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Gilliland said officials are hoping for a significant reduction this year in the alligatorweed growth, which covers about five acres.

``We don't know if it will ever all be gone,'' Gilliland said. ``This is kind of new stuff to us.''

Eventually, if enough of the plant is eaten, homeowners may be able to eliminate small new patches with herbicides, officials said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provided the flea beetles free. They were collected in Florida and will reproduce about every 30 days. The bugs are _ like the plant _ native to South America.

Cooper approved their introduction in Oklahoma. She said agriculture inspectors will monitor their progress.

Experts said the flea beetles are not a danger to other plants and will die if they run out of alligatorweed.

``There's no collateral damage,'' Gilliland said. ``They do their job and they don't do anything else.''

Officials said the alligatorweed likely came from a back yard water garden or aquarium and is an example of why homeowners must be careful.

Cooper said state agriculture inspectors will stop sale of the plant if it is found in a garden center or commercial greenhouse.
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