First Kudzu, Then the Kudzu Bug, Now What?

Posted on November 1, 2011 by Courtney

Please welcome today’s guest poster, Jamison.

Image credit: theresilientearth.com

If you aren’t from the South, you’re probably completely unaware of kudzu, but down here it’s referred to as the “plant that ate the South.” A few decades ago, Southerners were having trouble with erosion, so they found this awesome quick-growing plant from Japan. And man, did it work like gangbusters — it grabbed onto the soil and held everything in place. And then something unexpected happened: it tried to take over the entire country. It killed off trees and even tried to overtake people’s houses. The stuff couldn’t be stopped easily.

For years, scientists have tried to turn lemons into lemonade with this plant. They’ve actually made some fairly decent progress. Lately they’ve started looking at it for bio-fuel feedstock, hoping to turn an ecological disaster into a vast source of fuel for the country. Unfortunately this story isn’t going to have a happy ending. 

Like with all invasive species incursions, nature finds a balance with things. In kudzu’s homeland there is a voracious predator that matches its grow rates and keeps it in check. Megacopta cribraria is the scientific name for it. So a few years ago, this bug showed up in the middle of Georgia, but no one is exactly sure how. Ignoring that extremely red-flag-raising event for the moment, the “kudzu bug” started chomping away on the kudzu.

This is where being an environmentalist gives you a different view on things — it doesn’t take very long watching these kinds of situations to realize that this story is going to end really badly for us. The kudzu bug found a tastier plant growing in large mono-culture fields that is a legume, just like kudzu. It happened to be the southern soybean crop, which relies on heavy diets of chemicals and nutrients, allowing them to create impressive yields. In the two or three years scientists have been tracking the kudzu bug, its range has gone from one Southern state to four Southern states. There appears to be no range limitations for the kudzu bug in America. They seem to migrate back and forth between kudzu and soybeans, consuming whichever one is growing better. Now it’s just a matter of time before its range expands to include the largest soybean producing states in the country.

So what are we doing about it? Well, there are two vectors being used to attack the problem, both of which will do nothing but offend sensible people. Vector one: the chemical companies are looking for a new poisonous insecticide that will be effective against the kudzu bug, even though most existing insecticides are having a very limited effect. The other vector is to look at the kudzu bug’s natural predator in wild: a kind of wasp. But nature, as always, will adapt to a new environment. (In their defense, compared to 20 or 30 years ago, companies are actually doing extensive testing before releasing it into the environment randomly, not that I expect that will yield different results.) I imagine in a few years a new vector will appear, just in time: a Frankenfood alternative version that the kudzu bug won’t eat. The bad choices abound.

So what are some of the good choices? The most obvious solution is a quarantine zone. Basically no legumes would be grown or harvested in the affected region so as to reduce the spread of these bugs via harvesting equipment to other regions. This will likely slow their migration down a bit. Unfortunately their spread through the natural kudzu will not make this a cure-all. And then we have the challenge of what is going to fill the legumes’ spot in the crop rotation cycle. As Allie has mentioned many times before, Hemp might be a good substitute, if not for the political demagoguery surrounding it. So what else can can we do with this situation that will serve the environment in the long term?

5 Comments +

  1. First a funny anecdote: My dad used to tell me when I was a kid that if I acted up on road trips, he’d toss me out into the kudzu, and I wouldn’t be able to get away because it grew too fast.

    I wasn’t at all aware of this kudzu bug, but man, it is incredibly unfortunate it ended up here. The last thing the South needs is for one of its big crops to get destroyed. I was really excited when I first heard about the kudzu for fuel idea, but yeah, it’s hard to believe anything would efficiently manage kudzu.

    I just hope scientists who are far smarter than I will figure out the answer before it gets to be too late.

    November 1st, 2011 at 3:04 pm
    Comment by The Modern Gal
  2. I hadn’t heard about the Kudzu bug, but it doesn’t sound like we’d get along.

    November 1st, 2011 at 5:35 pm
    Comment by mickey
  3. Sometimes to eliminate a bug entomologists will release sterile males a few seasons. The females don’t reproduce & they die out.

    November 1st, 2011 at 9:51 pm
    Comment by Melissa
  4. I know it seems like a crazy request. But lately I’ve been thinking about the crowd sourcing movement and the way environmentalism at large has been approaching problems. Personally I’m a big fan of getting all the smart people in a room and hashing out the issues and problems associated with a particular issue. But that’s not how it works anymore. They instead put a bunch of businessmen with corporate agendas in a room to figure out how we are going to end up paying for their mistakes. Which isn’t really productive for us as society. I don’t know what it’s going to look like yet, but there has to be a way to harness the brain power we’ve got misdirected right now and create a new kind of interdisciplinary approach for dealing with these kinds of problems.

    Either way, thank you everyone for indulging my intellectual exercise.

    November 2nd, 2011 at 9:29 am
    Comment by Jamison
  5. I’ve had kudzu bugs in my SC garden for the past two summers and they have been totally destroying my pole beans, yard long beans and cow pea crop. They show up by the 1000′s. You can hand knock them off the plants into a container of water and the next day there will be just as many back on the vines. They fly all over you, stinking and staining your skin yellow as you harvest the beans and the harvested beans carry their stink back into the kitchen. Their activities cut bean production way down, causing the plants to lose their leaves and eventually die. Before the kudzu bug invasion, pole beans plants used to grow all summer until frost, almost all are dead by mid August. This summer, instead of growing the beans on their traditional long trellis, I tried scattering the beans of groups of 3 plants all over the garden in the hope that some of the plants would remain undiscovered by the bugs, but it didn’t help, the bugs found them all. Basically they have turned what used to be an easy to grow mainstay of the summer vegetable garden into an tricky to grow marginal crop. It looks like the only way I’m going to be able to grow pole beans in a kudzu bug environment is to grow them under a cold frame cover of insect screen.

    July 19th, 2012 at 4:33 pm
    Comment by Mturner

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