WHITE HEATH, Ill. (AP) – Blueberries at Rick Pontious’ farm are chewed to the stem, hardly the plump, appetizing fruit they’re supposed to be this time of year. Leaves on his cherry trees are falling like it’s autumn.

Pontious’ farm is no different from hundreds of other farms and yards across Illinois and neighboring states where Japanese beetles are having their annual feast. Beetle activity reaches its peak by mid-July, experts said.

“They go after everything,” said Pontious, who operates a farm about 15 miles southwest of Champaign where customers pick their own produce.

Japanese beetles, small bugs with a green tint and copper-colored wings, have damaged more than half of his blueberry bushes and are also busy devouring leaves and fruit on raspberry and blackberry bushes, he said.

“The bushes were just looking fantastic and then all of a sudden the beetles came in,” he said. “Last year I thought was bad. This year is worse.”

He might be right, said Kevin Steffey, editor of the University of Illinois’ Pest Management & Crop Development Bulletin.

“I think I’m getting more reports of problems than I got last year, and it was bad last year,” he said. “They’re starting to show up in areas where people hadn’t noticed them before.”

The beetles have been so thick in southern Illinois that traps had to be modified so they didn’t have to be dumped more than twice a day, said Ron Hines, a crop scientist at the university’s Dixon Springs Agricultural Center. A single trap in Massac County caught more than 155,000 beetles last week, he said Thursday.

The beetles are a pest in more than fruit bushes. They have a voracious appetite for roses, attack Japanese maple and linden trees and can cause havoc in corn fields if they chew off the silk that carries pollen necessary to produce kernels.

There’s not much that can be done, said Phil Nixon, an insect specialist with University of Illinois Extension.

Some pesticides, such as carbaryl and cyfluthrin, slow the beetles down, but they’re effective for only a few days and more beetles come before long to replace those killed by the chemicals.

But Japanese beetles rarely kill a tree or bush, because it has obtained all the nutrients from its leaves necessary for survival by the time the bugs begin eating, Nixon said. “Most of the damage is aesthetic,” he said.

That’s little consolation to Pontious or to James Orr, who owns a 23-acre berry farm northeast of Springfield.

“They almost totally devastated my red raspberries,” Orr said. “They’ve been a real problem this year. It’s the worst I’ve seen yet.”

And they’re not going away.

“Once they become established, they’re problematic for the rest of our history,” Steffey said.

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