Louisiana Beekeepers Oppose Introduction of Beetle to Control Tallow Trees

By Steve Payne, Louisiana Beekeepers Association

Presidents and officers from the Louisiana and Texas Beekeepers Associations, the American Beekeeping Federation, and the American Honey Producers Association sent a letter to government leaders in December expressing their concern and opposition to a recent agricultural development.  They strongly urged these legislators and officials to oppose action to introduce the non-native flea beetle, Bikasha collaris, as a biological control for the eradication of the Chinese tallow tree (Triadica sebifera).

The introduction of this beetle for control of Chinese tallow would result in the loss of a major forage source for honey bees and other pollinator species. This would directly affect these important pollinators, exacerbate the already disastrous Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and lead to very serious economic impacts for beekeepers and others on a national scale.

The current and future status of honey bees and other pollinating insects has received increasing scientific and public concern in the last decade.  Honey bees and beekeeping are now considered an essential part of our overall agricultural efforts, not just for the economic contribution of honey sales, but for their key pollination contributions to one-third of the food that Americans consume.

The Chinese tallow tree, while considered a non-native and invasive species, has been cultivated in the USA since colonial times.  Studies have shown that tallow can be a lucrative source for biofuel, and the trees are also considered by some as an ornamental plant.  It is commonly found in many states, particularly in the Deep South, and is the primary floral source for honey bees and other pollinators in many areas.  Tallow can be found in all 64 parishes in Louisiana and also in 55 counties of Texas.  Nationally, honey sales contribute roughly 336 million dollars to the value of US agriculture commodities in 2016 according to USDA statistics.  Yet the USA still remains the top national importer of foreign honey at 423 million dollars.  Domestic beekeepers and honey producers need public support to preserve existing pollinator forage and nectar sources, especially those as valuable as the Chinese tallow.

Tallow trees can truly be considered as a cash crop for beekeepers.  Steve Bernard, commercial beekeeper and owner of Bernard Apiaries Inc. in south Louisiana, claims that loss of the tallow trees would result in a 1.25 million dollar annual loss for his business. A decrease in tallow population or even worse, the complete eradication of the tallow tree by the flea beetle would greatly damage the commercial beekeeping industry statewide and nationally. Many thousands of bee hives are moved into our state by migratory commercial beekeepers for the tallow bloom season to improve the strength or vitality of these hives.   The hives later go to other areas in the country for further honey production and pollination services. This is of even greater economic value than the direct honey produced from tallow trees.

Colony Collapse Disorder and other honey bee maladies have been linked to a number of problems, but particularly from the disappearance or reduction of critical pollinator habitat. Federal government dollars are being set aside to fund the repopulation of areas for pollinators and to provide protection for existing habitat. The Pollinator Protection Act instituted federally in 2014 tries to address such concerns.

In recent years, however, there has been research and testing for the purpose of greatly reducing the existence of Chinese tallow.  Particularly, timber and forest products corporations are exploring new means to reduce the impact of tallow on replanted pine land.  Chemical controls for this purpose have certain negative impacts and costs, so biological controls using a species of flea beetle have recently been tested and explored.

Beekeepers and honey producers, as well as some truck farmers and environmentalists, are disturbed about these early efforts to test and introduce the non-native flea beetle for tallow reduction.  Our country has not had a great success record for introducing non-native biological species, even with very careful research protocols and trials.  Cases such as of the purple loosestrife in Massachusetts, the Asian Lady Beetle, and others introduced as biological controls are examples.   Release of the Bikasha collaris into less than very carefully controlled settings could lead to disastrous consequences. The opportunity for the beetle to adapt and reproduce in a new environment is virtually unknown. In Biological Control: Measures of Success (2000, editor G. Gurr, Steve Wratten, p. 1), the authors report “only around 10 per cent of attempts are successful” and that the success rate has changed little for a century. They also note that “biological control can cause harm, for instance when the released agent attacks a non-target organism of conservation or economic value.”

There has been research and claims that Chinese tallow is leading to an economic loss of about $300 million over a twenty year period in certain timber and forest regions of this state and others. Some of these industry researchers also believe that introducing this flea beetle could conceivably decrease the amount of chemicals used in that industry and in other agricultural sectors in order to control the encroachment of the tallow tree on cleared land. Yet these industries have alternative methods of control whereas the beekeeping industry does not have an alternative forage source comparable to the Chinese tallow.

For these and other reasons, beekeepers and honey producers have respectfully urged opposition to the introduction of the non-native flea beetle for the biological control of the Chinese tallow tree. Further research and experimentation with such a potentially dangerous biological control species should be restricted, or at the very least, very closely scrutinized and carefully monitored, so as to not lead to irreversible damage to existing Chinese tallow and cause great harm to pollinator populations, the entire beekeeping industry, and ultimately the entire agriculture sector.