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Scientists release small insects to rid South Florida of Brazilian peppertree

About 100 vials of thrips released Tuesday at Davie park

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DAVIE, Fla. – The Brazilian peppertree is a non-native plant now found in Florida that's already invaded some 75,000 acres of land across the Everglades.

But rather than using pesticides to eradicate them, scientists are now relying on tiny bugs that could have a huge impact.

"They are tiny, but they do a lot of damage to the plant," said Carey Minteer, assistant professor of entomology at the University of Florida.

It's a small but powerful solution to a problem that has been plaguing South Florida for decades.

"We have a very long and successful record of using biological controls in Florida," Minteer said.

Scientists from across the state gathered Tuesday at Tree Tops Park in Davie to release nearly 1,000 South American insects, known as thrips, into the wild.

Their goal is to eliminate the invasive Brazilian peppertree plant that is threatening South Florida's native ecosystem.

"It crowds out native species and plants, and then it also reduces foliage for our native animals," Minteer said.

Crews carried the critters in a series of vials before releasing them inside the park -- just one area where the invasive plants have taken root. 

Tuesday's insect release marks the culmination of years of research to make sure thrips would not harm Florida's natural plants.

"The insects are very safe to release into the environment because they will only eat the Brazilian peppertree. And so, they allow us to reduce the density of this awful weed," Minteer said.

Scientists believe the bugs are a safer alternative to current eradication efforts, many of which use pesticides or other harmful chemicals.

"With 700,000 acres of this plant, spraying it with chemicals is a little bit problematic because that's a lot of chemicals into our ecosystem," Minteer said.

Scientists released about 100 of the vials full of thrips Tuesday, and that's just the start.

They're planning to hold even more releases across the state during the coming months, hoping to make invasive plants history.

About the Author:

Trent Kelly is an award-winning multimedia journalist who joined the Local 10 News team in June 2018. Trent is no stranger to Florida. Born in Tampa, he attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he graduated with honors from the UF College of Journalism and Communications.