Entomologist secures $300k to stop invasive plant threatening deer, livestock, monarchs and plant diversity

Marianna Szűcs will research whether a Ukrainian moth can help stop invasive black and pale swallow-wort vines in Michigan.

Larvae defoliating vines
A newly approved biological control agent, larvae of a moth from the Ukraine, has defoliated these invasive swallow-wort vines.

Marianna Szűcs, Michigan State University Entomology assistant professor, has been awarded a $300k grant from the state’s $3.6 million Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program earmarked to battle invasive species. The program supports promising new developments addressing invasive pest challenges on land and in water.

Swallow-worts are an invasive plant species that release biochemicals into the soil, preventing other plant species from establishing. Large monocultures of swallow-worts replace native and other plants that contribute to diversity. They are also toxic or bad tasting to animals. They can kill the caterpillar stage of monarch butterflies and are toxic to livestock, deer and other animals.

Szűcs and her team are testing a newly approved biological control agent, Hypena opulenta, a moth from the Ukraine whose larvae primarily feed on invasive black and pale swallow-wort vines. Whether or not the moth can flourish and help manage this toxic plant in Michigan is yet to be determined. Szűcs’ study is the first classical biocontrol program against invasive swallow-worts in Michigan and will test the moths’ ability to establish, reproduce and help control these vines in Michigan.

“These vines are spreading despite continued efforts to control them with herbicides for the past decade.” Szűcs said. “It is time to try something new, such as biological control, which appears to be the only long-term management solution for swallow-worts.”

Szűcs is collaborating with researchers from Canada where the moth has been released for four years. “We will conduct joint studies and exchange information on different release methods to better understand the factors that affect establishment and impact of this agent,” Szűcs said. “As with most biological control programs, it will likely take years until the moths establish widely, start building up large populations and begin to impact the weed, but with our studies we can hopefully increase chances of success and speed up this process.” 

The full list of grant recipients, project descriptions and award amounts is available on the Michigan Invasive Species Grant Program website.

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