A disaster for some is an opportunity for others. When noxious weeds invade Montana pastures and hillsides, two enterprising Missoula teenagers reap the benefits. Jonathan and Matthew Rich have spent the summer collecting, sorting, and selling thousands of weevils and flea beetles that feed on knapweed and leafy spurge, some of the state’s most invasive weeds.
The idea originated with their father, Bob Rich, a forester for the state who works with biological agents to control weeds on state lands. The business is in the capable hands of his sons, as are all the crawling insects.
Using cloth nets resembling butterfly nets, the boys collect thousands of leafy spurge flea beetles and knapweed flower weevils as they wade through dense patches of weeds. The knapweed root weevils are tougher to collect as they live on the ground. To round up these weevils, the boys built a 30-by-30-foot bug corral using galvanized metal flashing.
The bugs live comfortably in old ice cream containers stored in the family refrigerator until they are sold. Typically, customers are seeking an alternative to chemical herbicides. The going rate is $100 for 100 root weevils, 200 flower weevils, or 1,000 flea beetles.
However, the boys are careful to warn people that biological control agents are not a quick fix for weed infestations. The bugs do not kill the weeds, which are both their home and food, but instead stress the weeds, making them more susceptible to other weed management tools. Sheep grazing, competitive plants and even herbicides are needed to knock back the weeds. It usually takes several years to see results, but they can be dramatic.
Business looks good for next summer as fires burn across the state clearing even more land for invasive weeds. And the success of another weed, Dalmation toadflax, means the brothers will be expanding their product line with more bugs.