They come in shipping crates and potted plants, as stowaways in automobiles and souvenirs. And though they’re small, invasive insects from around the world can create a big problem for Mississippi.
“Exotic, invasive species come from other regions and can cause major physical, ecological and economic damage,” explained JoVonn Hill, a Mississippi State assistant research professor of entomology. “We want to educate the public about what they can do to help prevent their spread.”
Hill serves as education and outreach coordinator for Mississippi Bug Blues, a statewide education program designed to bring awareness to invasive insect species, conservation and biodiversity.
Last year, the program reached more than 12,000 people through K-12 classroom instruction and public events across the state. It is based at the Mississippi Entomological Museum, which is housed at Mississippi State University. Project coordinator Jennifer Seltzer and research technician Jason Sanders make up the rest of the three-person team behind the program.
“Everyone has insect questions, but no one was talking about how we’re getting the invasive species, how they’re affecting the state, and what people can do to help,” explained Seltzer, an invasive species expert in the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology.
Invasive species can cost millions of dollars in crop loss and property damage. The United States Department of Agriculture, which is one of the sponsors of Bug Blues, predicts that by 2019 one such species, the emerald ash borer, could exceed $10 billion in management costs across 26 states where it has decimated ash tree populations, wiping out up to 99 percent of some stands.
Other species act as nuisance pests. For instance, tawny crazy ants, which have spread from Florida across the Gulf Coast, are a problem based on their sheer number. With millions of individuals, multiple queens and no centralized home, these ants—which are attracted to and known to short-out electronics—can overwhelm an area and are nearly impossible to control once they establish a foothold.
Seltzer explained that while it’s too late to prevent the spread of some invasive species, like the imported fire ant, others can be contained or at least have their progress slowed if people are aware of the danger. There’s no one fool-proof method to avoid spreading invasive species, but she said there are several things people can do to ensure they don’t introduce unwanted creatures into their environment.
Only use local firewood.
Bringing in your own wood or taking home unused logs can introduce unwanted species of insects.
Inspect plants before purchase.
Most plants sold at garden centers are shipped in from hothouses and nurseries across the country. Make sure they aren’t harboring ants or other insects before bringing them home.
Be wary of antiques, crafts or souvenirs made from natural materials.
While most people would never bring home a decoration that obviously had insects on it, insect larvae and eggs might be hidden inside, unseen from the surface until they emerge after hatching.
Though one hitchhiking insect might not start an invasion, Seltzer said it is important to be vigilant and do your part in prevention. She recommends that those who suspect they’ve found an invasive species try to have it identified by a trained entomologist. The staff at the Mississippi Ento
mology Museum, experts in MSU’s Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, Entomology and Plant Pathology and county-based agents for the Mississippi State Extension Service all have expertise in differentiating native species from non-native.
“We’re prepared and have plans of action for controlling invasive species once they’re found,” Seltzer explained. “But we need the public’s help to stop them before they get out of control.”