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Five living-room-size greenhouses are attached to the general quarantine lab, which is where routine work is done. To reach the maximum-security lab, which is used for work on plant diseases, you must pass through yet more safety chambers. Thirteen doors separate the outer world from this inner sanctum; an eerie, muffled clank signals you've earned the clearance to move through the next doorway.
"We can't work with viruses or bacteria, but we can work with fungal pathogens, which is mostly what we're interested in," Center says. "They [federal environmental authorities] will give us permission on a case-by-case basis."
The building is a huge leap forward for the dozen entomologists, plant pathologists, and ecologists working here on biocontrol. Until now these researchers have used two small greenrooms at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "It's been incredibly productive," he says. "They've developed over 20 biocontrol agents in maybe the last 25 years. But it was small and too far away. With the invasive species problem getting bigger and bigger, we needed more space."
They will now be able to test several, maybe up to a dozen, different kinds of insects at the same time. "Before, we had to do it one at a time," Center says. "Our limitation had been space and funding; now it's manpower."
Center opens a large glass door into a greenroom, where one of the first experiments is underway. A score of young melaleucas rise up a yard from small black pots. Clinched around their leaves are a series of screen cylinders. Inside each cylinder is a particular breed of fly that carries within it minuscule worms. The fly and worms share a mutually beneficial relationship: The fly lays eggs inside the buds of the melaleuca, which is a source of food for the larvae when they hatch. But the fly also inserts the worms. The tree is tricked into believing the hungry worms are part of its blossom system, and it steps up the amount of nutrients it's sending to the buds.
In essence, the tree wastes valuable photosynthetic energy on swelling buds that will never bloom because the fly larvae will consume them after birth. The worms then re-enter the newborn females, and the cycle begins anew.
The payoff for the enemies of the melaleuca is that the tree's ability to bear seeds is largely stymied.
"We recognized very early on that basically a dead tree and a nonreproducing tree are the same thing, from a biological standpoint," he explains. "If it's not producing seed, it's not doing any harm. You don't really have to kill the tree to control it."
Biocontrol has a long and reliable history behind it. Aquatic invasives were targeted in the Sixties, primarily because few herbicides have been licensed for use in water. Alligator weed, a green, spaghetti-like plant, was a particular problem for boaters and fishermen. "Three insects were introduced to control it," Center says. "Within a few years it was no longer a problem, although it's still a problem in the Mississippi Valley, where it gets too hot for these insects to survive. Alligator weed is still here at a low level, and so are the insects. When the alligator weed pops up, so do the insects."
Center's work with biocontrol began with an aquatic nuisance called water hyacinth, a plant that sprouts beautiful flowers and kills everything beneath it by cutting off sunlight. One insect eventually released on the hydrilla offered a hard lesson about just how specialized these herbivores are to their native terrain. In this case the scientists, after years of testing and seeking government approval, released an Australian weevil that feeds on the stems of the hydrilla.
"This weevil looked really effective because it would burrow down the stems, mowing them off four or five feet below the surface," Center recalls. "We tested it; it was safe; we released it; never saw it again." That happened repeatedly. What they eventually surmised was the weevil larvae continued down the stem to the lake bottom. The species had apparently adapted to extreme wet/dry seasons in its outback homeland, so when its larvae become fully grown, they simply wait for the water to dry out -- a seasonal extreme that doesn't occur in Florida. So it was back to the drawing board.
Still, even if you find the right bug for the right place, biocontrol takes patience. Although it's a very general rule of thumb, establishment in the wild is considered successful only after five generations have come and gone -- which is judged simply by the amount of time that's passed. It can take years to build up enough insects to reach a critical mass that can debilitate its host plant. And some insects just aren't as inclined to spread as others.
Melaleuca has long been recognized as a problem in South Florida, but it's now the poster boy for biocontrol success.
Like so many invasives, it was brought here from Australia as an ornamental lawn tree in the early Twentieth Century. With waxy green leaves the size of a small banana peel, it was fast-growing and made an excellent full hedge. Nicknamed the paper-bark tree, it's far from attractive once it reaches maturity, however, when its whitish bark peels off in onion paperlike sheets.