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A Reasonable Argument in Support of the Chinese Tallow Flea Beetle

A note on the Chinese Tallow Flea Beetle from Dr. William Kern, UF/IFAS Associate professor:

I hope to offer a reasonable argument why Florida Beekeepers should support the release of the Chinese tallow flea beetle, Bikasha collaris (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae)The Chinese Tallow tree, Triadica sebifera  formerly Sapium sebiferum (Family Euphorbiaceae), is known as tallowwood, popcorn tree, chicken tree, vegetable tallow, Florida Aspen, candleberry tree, or white wax berry.  The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council Invasive Plant List classifies it as a CATEGORY I invasive weed.  Category 1 are “invasive exotics that are altering native plant communities by displacing native species, changing community structures or ecological functions, or hybridizing with natives. This definition does not rely on the economic severity or geographic range of the problem, but on the documented ecological damage caused.”  For more information on identification, invasive biology, and management, please see the following resources: Natural Area Weeds: Chinese Tallow, USDA Plant Guide: Chinese Tallow Tree, and UF/IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants. Chinese tallow have spread across the Gulf Coast of the Southeastern USA (Figure 1).

Chinese Tallow out-competes many native nectar sources

Many beekeepers recognize Chinese tallow as a good nectar source, which is true for a period of the spring.  The problem is that it creates a dense monoculture in wet prairies and bottomland forests.  These stands crowd out such useful bee nectar and pollen sources as white tupelo (Nyssa ogeche, Figure 2 ) water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica, Figure 3),  red maple (Acer rubrum),  buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), buckwheat-tree / spring titi (Cliftonia monophylla, Figure 4)  willow (Salix spp.),  elderberry (Sambucus sp.)., dogwood (Cornus spp.), swamp cyrilla (Cyrilla racemiflora),  loblolly-bay (Gordonia lasianthus), dahoon holly (Ilex cassine), inkberry / gallberry (Ilex glabra), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), fetterbush and lyonia/ staggerbush (Lyonia lucida).

This is why Chinese tallow is sometimes called the melaleuca of north Florida.  It is this exclusion of native plant diversity that, like melaleuca and Brazilian pepper, hurts non-migratory honey bees and native pollinators by causing nectar deserts 10 months of the year.  It flowers April, May, and into June, when other nectar sources are abundant.  Additionally, Chinese tallow leaves are poisonous to cattle and horses, but may be tolerated by sheep and goats.

Controlling Chinese Tallow with the flea beetle

The USDA-ARS procedure for selecting weed biocontrol agents involves in-depth quarantine trials to show it will not attack non-target crop, ornamental, or native plant species.  Only after it has been shown to not attack desirable plants are limited field tests begun.  If the field trails show no negative impacts, then it will be considered for widespread release.  Even after release, its impact and effectiveness is studied.

The flea beetle larvae and adults feed only on Chinese tallow leaves in the Southeastern US.  Flea beetles will not kill mature Chinese tallow trees, but stress the plants so that native species can successfully compete in the environment.  It is one tool, along with herbicides and physical removal, to control this highly invasive species.


This post was written by Dr. William H. Kern, Jr., UF/IFAS Associate Professor, Entomology and Nematology Department, Fort Lauderdale Research and Education Center, University of Florida.