Tom Nordlie (352) 392-1773 x 277
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Rare Florida bromeliad plants threatened by an imported weevil may be preserved with the help of seed collection efforts planned for this spring.
Five bromeliad species in South Florida are under attack by the Mexican weevil Metamasius callizona, known to bromeliad lovers as the “evil weevil,” said Howard Frank, an entomologist with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.
Hardest hit are the giant airplant, cardinal airplant and twisted airplant, all of which have been declared endangered under Florida law. Six other rare species could be jeopardized if the weevil expands its range.
“By collecting seeds now, we get a head start on repairing any future damage,” Frank said. “I hope we don’t have to use the seed banks, but we probably will — the damage so far has been terrible.”
Frank has spent 10 years researching the weevil, which feeds exclusively on bromeliads.
Bromeliads are members of a plant family that includes the pineapple. Florida has 18 native bromeliad species, all of which grow in trees and are commonly known as airplants. Larger species have cup-like leaf structures that trap rainwater and serve as treetop reservoirs for many arboreal animals.
In August, the Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies secured a contract with the state to collect and store bromeliad seeds and perform other functions, Frank said. Data on the species and location of each donor plant are logged so seeds can be used to repopulate collection areas when — or if — the weevil is brought under control.
“This is a unique opportunity,” he said. “Not only could it give the bromeliads a second chance, it allows the public to get involved. With 16 counties in South and Central Florida affected, the more people who get involved, the better.”
Before collecting seeds, volunteers must join a recognized bromeliad society and obtain a permit from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said Frank, who developed the collection procedures.
Members of bromeliad societies in Sanford, Fort Myers and Miami have secured permits and begun collecting seeds, said Al Muzzell, president of the Gainesville-Jacksonville Bromeliad Society. Bromeliad societies in other areas are expected to take part when seeds become more available in the spring.
The effort comes too late for parts of Broward County, Myakka River State Park near Sarasota and the Caloosahatchee River basin near Fort Myers.
“When I was a kid in Broward County, the large bromeliad species grew in oak trees everywhere,” Muzzell said. “Now you only see them in people’s yards where they’re protected with chemicals.”
Muzzell said the weevil is established on both coasts and is moving inland. Experts are most concerned about two remote parts of the Everglades that are home to several bromeliads found nowhere else in the United States.
The weevil was established in Florida in 1989 when it arrived in Fort Lauderdale, apparently in shipments of Mexican bromeliads, said Barbra Larson, a postdoctoral associate with UF’s department of entomology.
The weevil’s larvae develop while eating tunnels through bromeliad stems, Larson said. This activity kills host plants but limits infestations to large-leaved species. Small-leaved bromeliads such as Spanish moss are not likely to be affected by the pest.
“The weevil has no natural enemies here in Florida, so it’s been reproducing unchecked,” Larson said. “But we’re trying to change that situation.”
Larson and Frank are researching a parasitic fly that attacks a similar weevil in Honduras. The fly kills evil-weevil larvae in the laboratory, but it cannot be released into Florida’s environment until possible threats to native insects are evaluated.
“If everything goes well, we may start releasing the fly this fall,” Larson said. “We’re going to focus on heavily infested areas, but lack of funding will slow the process.”
Larson said research on the fly is supported largely by a $58,000 state grant awarded to the Florida Council of Bromeliad Societies as part of the seed collection project.