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posted: 7/26/2011 9:01 AM

Japanese beetle problem grows for Mo., Ill. farms

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Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- The Japanese beetle has been striking Missouri and Illinois with full force, eating its way through rose bushes and tomato plants and now threatening major crops like corn and soybeans.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that the beetle has been an urban problem for years.

"There's quite a concern about the number and just how prevalent they've been," said Julia Pryor, a program coordinator with the University of Illinois Extension. "I'm seeing a lot of people coming into our offices with jars, literally full of these little critters."

Farmers in Missouri and Illinois say the bugs are now attacking corn and soybean fields -- crops vital to both states.

The bugs eat the corn silks, preventing pollination and development of the corn kernel. To stop it, farmers in some areas are spending $20 per acre to have their fields sprayed with chemicals from airplanes.

The beetle arrived in the U.S. around 1916, plant scientists believe, probably in a shipment of ornamental irises to New Jersey. It made its way to Missouri and Illinois gardens over the past several years, mostly attacking ornamental plants.

But as it now gets into commodity crops, the risk of economic damage is much greater.

"They're moving in fast," said Braden Thomas, who farms in Tazewell County in central Illinois. "This is the first time they've really been a problem to have to actually worry about."

Wayne Bailey, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Missouri, said he has been getting calls from around the state about the beetles in corn and soybeans.

The St. Louis area has suffered the beetle for at least 10 years. Nursery owners are cautiously optimistic the worst is over.

For farmers, the worst is yet to come, Bailey said. He expects Japanese beetle numbers in rural Missouri to build for 5-7 years until predators and pathogens bring their population into balance.

The beetles eat anything, including some 400 crop species. However, they are especially drawn to plants that are sweet or fragrant. They have become a persistent problem for grape growers in Missouri.

"Their populations have really built up, and in the last couple years they've been worse," said Katie Kammler, of the University of Missouri Extension. "But people are just spraying now. They've gotten used to them."