Southeast Missouri, which was hit by tough spring flooding this year, now faces a trio of onerous insects picking on crops, timber and foliage.
The Japanese beetle, the emerald ash borer and the gypsy moth, already present in other sections of the state, have moved into southeast Missouri, a major agriculture hub for the state, said Michael Aide, chairman of the agriculture department at Southeast Missouri State University.
"We've been waiting for their arrival for the last 10 years. We keep watching their advance," Aide said. "Now they're in our region."
It's unclear how much damage the insects have done so far, but they have shown up in ash trees, vineyards and food crops, including corn and soybeans. The infestation is expected to become worse over the years, he said.
Flooding along the Mississippi River that began in early April left thousands of acres of southeast Missouri cropland under water.
"The flood is by far the worst issue," Aide said. "But right now we're looking ahead to the future. The real damage (from the insects) is yet to happen. ... But we're seeing the first wave of the infestations, and we're trying to get a head of this before it gets any bigger."
The Japanese beetle, which has been in Missouri for several years, has shown up in southeast Missouri in increasing numbers the last few years, said Kelly Tindall, research entomologist with the University of Missouri division of plant science.
"They keep going up and up. I don't know if we're going to plateau and stay high or keep going up," Tindall said.
The Japanese beetle, which feeds on plants until they're defoliated, is especially problematic because it has such a large host range. But Tindall said it likely would not reach a point where Missouri would not be able to grow soybeans.
"I can tell you when a farmer goes out to his fields and he sees 26 Japanese beetles on a single ear of corn that really freaks him out," she said. "They're going to go ahead and spray. It's not a complete loss impact, but it has an impact."
The beetle can be fought with pesticides and natural predators, including a particular wasp. But Tindall said the wasp has not grown in numbers like the beetle and insecticides can have adverse effects, like killing other beneficial insects.
The emerald ash borer however, is a major threat to Missouri's ash trees, Tindall said. The borer has decimated millions of ash trees in Michigan and has also hit several other Midwest states and Pennsylvania. In Missouri, officials have quarantined infested trees, but the insect has spread. The gypsy moth also eats plant foliage, until it eventually kills the plant. They attack also corn, beans, grapes, fruit trees and most of southeast Missouri's major crop plants and forests, as well as forest landscape plants.
The emerald ash borer and the gypsy moth could cause millions of lost tourism dollars if they get established in the state, particularly in the heavily-wooded Ozarks, Aide said.
"How would you like to float the Current River without trees?" he said.
The agriculture department at Southeast Missouri State has been working with genetics to develop crop and plants that would be more resistant to the pests.
"We're looking at genetics as a way out of this," he said. "There are insecticidal sprays, but an insecticide only takes care of the problem now. What we want are biological solutions to minimize spraying."