Exotic insects on lockdown at Florida research facility

Security is top priority at the UF/IFAS quarantine facility in Ft. Pierce

By Paul Giorgio - Producer

FT. PIERCE, Fla. - Locked behind fencing, security key pads and chambers with interlocking doors, researchers from the University of Florida are working with exotic insects from around the world.

[WEB EXTRA: See pictures of dangerous insects ]

The UF/IFAS (Institute for Food and Agriculture) quarantine facility is a highly secure state of the art lab in Ft. Pierce.

The lab, which opened in 2004 at the Indian River Research and Education Center is dedicated to finding biological control agents for invasive insects and plants.

Security is top priority because if any insects were to escape, their impact in our environment would be unclear. 

The scientists work for years to establish the bug's tendencies and characteristics before they can be safely released.

That mission is in jeopardy after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the lab's budget along with other state and local programs across Florida late last month.

Bill Overholt, professor of entomology and one of the lead researchers at the facility, says the cuts will put several projects and the employment of 12 employees in limbo. 

"I'm worried, I'm very worried," he says, while showing off one of the facilities' success stories-- a tiny beetle brought in from Asia.

The beetle, from Nepal, feeds exclusively on the" Air Potato" plant. 

The Air Potato, a native of China, is an aggressive vine that blankets native growth, choking out light and killing the native plants below. Here in Central Florida it's become a nuisance for environmentalists and homeowners alike.   

After years of study, the beetle was released in large scale a year and a half ago and has made a considerable dent in the plant's population in many areas of the state.   

"The estimates are that the introduction of invasive species in the United States cost taxpayers $120 billion a year," Overholt says. "So that's why we're so concerned and why we think our work is so important. It's costing people money and it's decreasing the native biodiversity of the state."

The facility has operated on a $720,000 a year budget since it opened. This year that budget was increased by $180,000 and approved by legislators. The increase was made to compensate for higher operating costs and salary increases.

Gov. Scott's line-item veto eliminated both the increase and the previously allocated funding. Scott's reason for eliminating the money was that "a clear state return on investment has not been demonstrated at this time."

Overholt says they are close to finding a suitable insect to help slow the spread of another invasive, the Brazilian peppertree plant. The Brazilian peppertree covers nearly 700,000 acres in south and central Florida, crowding out native growth.

The facility is currently operating with emergency funds provided by IFAS. That money is said to run out on July 15.

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