Insects will win the battle

2015-05-05 06:00
Michaela van Boom is a staff member at the insect rearing facility. 


Michaela van Boom is a staff member at the insect rearing facility. PHOTOs: supplied

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Since the launch of the Insect Mass Rearing Facility in Westlake more than 80 000 insects have been reared for release across the city to help root out invasive plants.

The City of Cape Town facility was launched in September last year as part of the City’s efforts “to create a more sustainable future city”.

Johan van der Merwe, mayoral committee committee member for energy, environmental and spatial planning, says the facility is using an organic, cost-effective and environmentally safe biological control method to curb invasive plants by breeding and releasing their natural enemies which are insects.

“I am incredibly pleased with the growing success of this initiative which has made use of innovative approaches to create a more sustainable future,” he says.

Van der Merwe says programmes to mitigate against the ecological and other damage that is believed to be caused by invasive plants, which can spread aggressively, are an important facet of a more sustainable tomorrow. “This exciting facility, which offers inclusive job creation for people with special needs, has been focusing on insects to control prickly pear and devastating infestations of invasive aquatic weeds, such as water lettuce, parrot’s feather, water hyacinth and Kariba weed, which are considered the worst weeds in South Africa,” he says.

According to Van der Merwe this facility is a remarkable asset for the City as it is using cost-effective biocontrol agents to fight the battle against invasive plants.

“It is also enabling green job opportunities, which are suitable for people with special needs as the weed ponds are raised and the greenhouse tunnels are easily accessible for wheelchairs by concrete ramps,” he says.

And to date, five employees (two of whom have special needs) have reared over 80 000 insects, which have been released since operations kicked off at the facility.

He explains that through a well-known biocontrol agent the cochineal insect was reared and later released on the invasive drooping prickly pear (Opuntia monacantha), with much success. The plant on which the insect was released was destroyed within six months.

“The cochineal insect thrives on the moisture and nutrients of prickly pear. Treating prickly pear with cochineal biocontrol is a vastly superior method to removing the plant manually, which is difficult and dangerous for City workers as the plant has many thorns,” says Van der Merwe.

He explains that another problem with the manual removal of prickly pears is that bits of the plant, especially the cladode, will drop to the ground and grow. The risk of unintended introduction of prickly pear plants is eliminated when using the biological control cochineal insect.

“The City’s invasive species unit plans to increase the awareness of the application of biological control by working with schools. The aim is to show learners how biocontrol insects are reared for release, thereby creating awareness about this exciting part of invasive plant management.”

However, Van der Merwe says the school outreach programmes will not only raise awareness, but will also provide learners with the opportunity to see first-hand how these highly specialised insects are reared.

“The City’s invasive species unit is making every effort to ensure the success of this project so that it can be rolled out to more locations across the city.” he says.

He adds that this will see the reduction of invasive plants, making room for indigenous species, and “in turn contribute to a more sustainable environment which can be enjoyed by all”

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