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North Dakotans gather beetles to get rid of the thorns in their sides. Literally.

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Mandan residents Carol Carlson, left, and Virginia Hambrick gathered flea beetles on Thursday, July 9 to combat the growing leafy spurge that is present on their properties. Michelle Griffith/ The Forum.

ELGIN, N.D. – North Dakota property owners traveled to Lake Tschida on Thursday, July 9, and continuously swung nets left and right to capture thousands of tiny beetles to bring back home.

The beetle-collecting event drew about 50 North Dakotans, many of whom had one objective: round up as many flea beetles as possible.

These beetles feed on leafy spurge, an invasive plant species that takes up space, sunlight, nutrients and water from other vegetation. The plant is everywhere in North Dakota, and it can cause headaches and monetary losses to local ranchers and farmers.

Leafy spurge rapidly reproduces, is highly adaptable and collectively costs the U.S. millions of dollars in product loss each year.

North Dakota holds these beetle-gathering events each year and attracts hundreds.

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"This is really the granddaddy of bug days," said Merlin Leithold, Grant County's weed officer, adding many attendees believe the beetles have been crucial to keeping their land's vegetation.

Both the leafy spurge and flea beetles are not native to North Dakota. Leithold said that more than 20 years ago, he introduced the flea beetles to the area where Thursday's event was held.

At the time, he said, leafy spurge was everywhere. Leafy spurge is still there today, but it is much more controlled.

July is the optimum time to capture flea beetles, said Margaret Rayda, a specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Health Plant Inspection Service. The female beetles are just about to lay eggs, meaning the beetles that are brought back to various properties will lay eggs there.

The larvae do the most damage to leafy spurge, according to the USDA, because they feed on the plant's roots.

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The captured flea beetles were collected in plastic jars, as pictured. Residents were able to divide up the beetles and take them home to introduce onto their properties. Michelle Griffith/The Forum.

Carol Carlson and Virginia Hambrick are neighbors in Mandan who embarked on the hourlong drive to the beetle collection event.

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Carlson said she has an approximately 40-yard stretch along one of her fences that is all leafy spurge. She said this was her and Hambrick's first time at event like this.

The attendees scavenged for beetles with large nets made from canvas. In a general sweeping motion with the net, many captured hundreds of tiny beetles to bring back to the collection site, where officials emptied the net into a funnel.

The funnel removes all other insects, like spiders and caterpillars. Each resident took home about 3,000 beetles for free, Leithold said.

He has received many thank-yous from landowners, farmers and ranchers who said the beetles keep the invasive species from their land.

"It's a really great event that brings people together," Leithold said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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