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Death to Beetles

Japanese beetles will meet their ends this spring in hundreds of Broadlands lawns.

A communitywide effort in Broadlands to eradicate Japanese beetles this spring has met with an overwhelming response.

More than 230 homeowners have signed up to help eliminate the pesky beetle, which has been a scourge of gardeners since it was accidentally introduced in the United States nearly a hundred years ago.

Japanese beetles are the shiny-winged bugs that are everywhere during the summer, eating anything pretty and soft in a garden — often roses, crepe myrtle and fruit trees. In grub form, they burrow under lawns and munch on grass roots, leaving unsightly brown circles of dead grass.

The battle against beetles is another step in Broadlands' environmentally-friendly challenge to become one of National Wildlife Federation's certified community wildlife habitats. There's only nine certified communities in the United States — and one of them is nearby South Riding.

There are several requirements to become a certified community. One is to get at least 50 homes with certified backyard habitats, meaning the yards provide food, shelter, water and a place for wildlife to grow their young. Wildlife of any kind qualifies — mammals, birds and butterflies.

"It's pretty easy," said Linda Schlosser, Broadlands Nature Center director. "We just need to convince people to do it."

BROADLANDS HAS about half the backyard habitats it needs to fill that requirement. When it comes to the community project aspect, however, the race to kill Japanese beetles qualifies as a real success already — and the killing hasn’t even begun.

Broadlands resident Amy Mechem, a member of the volunteer Broadlands Habitat team, has spearheaded the effort to rid the neighborhood of beetles.

"I do a lot of gardening," Mechem said. "I was so tired of Japanese beetles eating my flowers and destroying my grass. I started learning everything I could about them."

Mechem read academic journals and agricultural reports, learning the many ways to kill the beetles. Her research led her to an easy, environmentally sound solution: Milky Spore.

Milky Spore, or bacillus popillae, is a U.S.D.A.-developed biological tool to combat Japanese beetles. It's a spore found in nature that invades beetle grubs. Once inside the grub, the spore multiplies so that upon the grub's death, it spreads to other grubs.

Milky Spore is a remarkable solution to the beetle problem for several reasons: It's absolutely safe for children, pets, plants and other animals. It targets only Japanese beetles. While it takes one to three years to have a total effect, one application then lasts for many years. And even if a next-door neighbor doesn't apply Milky Spore to his lawn, a lawn with Milky Spore will still be protected.

THERE ARE a couple of drawbacks: it doesn't have a total immediate effect like a harsh chemical pesticide. With each grub it kills, Milky Spore spreads to new grubs, but meanwhile full-grown female Japanese beetles are laying 50 eggs each. The original treatment of Milky Spore will get to them, but it might take up to three years.

"In this fast-paced world we live in today, sometimes it's hard for people to wait that long," Mechem said. "They want to enjoy their lawns now."

The other drawback is the cost — Milky Spore is not cheap. So Mechem contacted the distributor directly, St. Gabriel Laboratories in Orange, Va. She was able to secure a discount bulk price for Broadlands homeowners. Treating a half-acre costs $205 under the deal.

"We've been investigating and producing all kinds of natural insect controls for years," said lab director Theodore Reuter.

Milky Spore is a model natural product, especially given that chemicals and pesticides, which require application every year, have become increasingly banned by the government in recent years.

Japanese beetles are often prevalent in new residential communities, Reuter said, because the grubs are already living in the sod as it's laid down.

"The nicer the grass is, the more beetles are attracted to it," he said.

THE BROADLANDS effort to get rid of beetles has proven so popular that the deadline to sign up for Milky Spore treatment has been extended. Other Ashburn neighborhoods have heard the news and are interested as well.

Schlosser thinks that once spring 2006 rolls around even more homeowners will want to learn about Milky Spore.

"My guess is when they see their neighbors' yards, we'll have 230 more families [signed up]," Schlosser said.