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Little beetles take on big battle
NGCSU lab breeds bugs to battle insects destroying hemlock trees
Visitors tour the Predator Beetle Lab on Sunday at North Georgia College & State University. Insect club member Tim Kennell, second from right, holds a Bess beetle for visitors to see. - photo by SHANNAN FINKE

It’s tough to be a bug, especially if your job is to eat away an invasive exotic species killing off trees across the country.

But that’s the role of three beetle species being bred in the Predator Beetle Lab at North Georgia College & State University. At an open house Sunday, lab manager Amanda Newton gave tours showing how the lab-raised beetles are helping to combat the hemlock woolly adelgid, an insect brought to the United States from Asia that now eats and destroys Eastern hemlock trees.

“There’s very few trees that could fill the gap if the hemlocks disappeared,” said Newton.

The Eastern hemlock, a long-lived evergreen tree, is the habitat for many species of forest animals, including Georgia’s state bird: the brown thrasher. Hemlocks also help to maintain forest floor and stream temperatures by providing shade, an important part of the forest’s ecosystem.

Alexis Petrassi, a biology student at the university and lab worker, said saving the hemlocks turned into a passion when she saw the devastation the hemlock woolly adelgid was causing.

“I saw how many of the hemlocks had died, and I didn’t realize how bad it was, but it really impacted me,” said Petrassi. “That’s when I knew I wanted to get involved.”

The lab is hoping the beetles it breeds will set up house in the forest regions where they are released and begin to eat the population of hemlock woolly adelgids that suck the life out of the trees.

“The beetles we have now are from Asia and the Northwestern United States,” explained Newton.

While progress sometimes seems slow, Newton is encouraged by one species in particular that is sticking around to colonize in the forests where it is released.

“With a nonnative species, it takes at least a decade for the species to start to adjust,” Newton said of the beetles the lab is raising and releasing.

Newton is also hopeful of the new beetle species the lab will begin breeding in November.

The lab is always looking for volunteers to come help with releases, where at least a couple thousand beetles are moved from their lab-controlled habitats to new, natural homes.

Releases usually occur from March to May.

Newton also encourages those who think of insects as pests to get involved in the lab’s mission of using bugs to better the environment.

“We’re trying to spread the positive aspects of insects. Not all insects are bad; they do good things.”