Quay County Sun - Serving the High Plains

Beetles helping with tree infestation


September 9, 2020

Courtesy photo: Jason Lamb

Quay County agriculture extension agent Jason Lamb shows a saltcedar beetle crawling on his hand at Tucumcari Lake.

Tucumcari Lake this summer is experiencing what could be described as a good insect infestation - especially when notorious saltcedar trees are involved.

Jason Lamb, director and agriculture agent at the Quay County Extension Center, said he recently received two calls from residents asking about apparent damage to invasive saltcedar trees at the lake.

Lamb went there and observed saltcedar beetles, also known as tamarisk beetles, and their larvae feeding on the trees. He verified the species with New Mexico State University entomologists.

"If you go out there, just about every saltcedar has been affected by them this year," he said. "It looks like somebody sprayed something on them. But they didn't.

"Anytime you see a tree dying, it's probably a saltcedar tree with beetles on it. They should be green right now."

Lamb said an entomologist first observed saltcedar beetles in Tucumcari Lake about two years ago, but this summer was the first time they're making a big impact. He said the voracious beetles, along with hot and dry weather this summer, are curbing those trees.

"It's good news, because we eventually want to get rid of the saltcedar trees," he said. "It will encourage willows, cottonwoods and native plants to replace those saltcedar trees, something that's supposed to grow here."

Saltcedar originally was introduced to the United States in the early 1800s as an ornamental plant due to its pink flowers. It's became common in the Southwest in the past century and is designated as a noxious plant in New Mexico. It grows to five to 25 feet tall.

He estimated about 70% of Tucumcari Lake's vegetation is saltcedar, so he welcomed the insects bringing them more under control.

"It chews on the tree and kills the top part of the tree," Lamb said. "It will take two to three years of damage to kill the tree permanently."

Lamb surmised the beetles migrated from Texas. He said it is likely the beetles eventually will migrate to the Canadian River Valley, where saltcedars are a problem there, as well.

He said each saltcedar tree can consume as much as 70 gallons of water a day. Loss of moisture isn't the only detriment.

"It really changes the soil structure underneath those plants and makes it so grasses don't even want to grow underneath them," Lamb said. "It crowds out many other beneficial plants that are out there."

The Texas Invasive Species Institute also reports saltcedar trees are undesirable to many birds, supporting only four bird species compared to native trees that support more than 150 species.

Lamb welcomed a new, natural weapon against saltcedars.

"They have done restoration projects for the last 20 years to try to control the saltcedar," he said. "They've spent millions of dollars trying to control these things. Now we have a beetle that prefers the saltcedar to any other plant, and they'll at least knock the tree back."

Tucumcari Lake, on an undeveloped area on the east side of town, is about 430 acres. Much of the lake is dry after years of drought. It exists in a natural low spot and has been listed on maps for at least a century. The New Mexico Game and Fish Department long has eyed Tucumcari Lake as a possible wildlife resource and reserve.


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