Florida biologists release insect to combat invasive Brazilian peppertree

Landowners in Florida may finally win the decade long battle against the Brazilian peppertree ( Schinus terebinthifolius ) thanks to a tiny bug.

In June biologists released Brazilian peppertree thrips ( Pseudophilothrips ichini ) to control the invasive plant. The Brazilian peppertree is a relative of poison ivy and poison sumac so the plant is not edible for livestock. Birds, however, snack on the berries and spread the seeds.

The tiny bug eats new shoots on the peppertree controlling its growth but does not eat other plants according to Carey Minteer, assistant professor of biology at the University of Florida.

“This insect is a much more environmentally friendly way to manage” Brazilian pepper, Minteer said. “They only thrive and reproduce on Brazilian pepper itself.”

If the bug does what it’s supposed to it will save ranchers, the state and federal government millions of dollars annually by controlling or eradicating the Brazilian peppertree.

In Florida alone, this non-native plant imported from South America in the 1800s now covers 700,000 acres, which is almost as large an area as Rhode Island. It was originally prized as an ornamental shrub with bright red berries and given new names like Florida Holly or Christmas Berry.

The tree is now listed as a noxious weed or invasive problem in Florida, Hawaii, Texas and in parts of California because it crowds out native plants and takes over large areas of pasture, coastline and fallow farmland.

After 20 years of study, the peppertree thrips were approved for release in June. The first distribution of the thrips took place on July, 16th in Davie, FL, just south of Fort Lauderdale. More of the thrips have been released in Miami-Dade, St. Lucie, Brevard, Collier, Hillsborough and Polk counties, Minteer said.

If Florida is successful in its efforts with biological control of the Brazilian peppertree, Hawaii and other states are likely to follow with their own release of Brazilian peppertree thrips in the next year or two.