Page last updated at 12:20 GMT, Monday, 13 October 2008 13:20 UK

The march of the insect invaders

By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News

Clockwise from left: oak processionary moth caterpillar, horse chestnut leaf miner, harlequin ladybird, rosemary leaf beetle, red lily beetle

Alien insects are having a dramatic impact on the UK's native flora and fauna.

Some have been deliberately introduced, while others are hitching a ride into the UK on imported plants and food.

Here are some of the key insect invaders that are causing ecologists concern.

THE ALIEN LADYBIRD

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Peter Brown explains how to spot an alien ladybird

The harlequin ladybird (Harmonia axyridis), which comes from Asia, was first introduced to Europe to control the spread of aphids on crops.

However, it rapidly spread, and arrived in Britain in 2004.

See distribution of harlequin ladybird

The species is an extremely voracious predator that outcompetes the UK's native species and even feeds on them.

Peter Brown, from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology who co-ordinates the Harlequin Ladybird Survey, said: "Our surveys have shown that harlequin ladybirds are spreading extremely quickly and are causing a lot of damage to our native species."

To help scientists monitor the spread of the ladybirds, visit the Harlequin Ladybird Survey's website.

THE TOXIC MOTH

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Monique Simmonds on the spread of the toxic moth

The oak processionary moth (Thaumetopoea processionea), a native species of central and southern Europe, can be found around London.

It is causing ecologists much worry - its caterpillars feed on the foliage of many species of oak, causing considerable damage.

However, it also poses a risk to human health. Silky hairs on the caterpillar contain a toxin, and contact or inhalation can cause severe skin irritation and allergic reactions.

Professor Monique Simmonds, from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, said: "This is a real potential pest."

Suspected sightings of oak processionary caterpillars or their nests in spring or early summer can be reported to the Forestry Commission's Forest Research agency.

Reports of the moths are not required because they are very difficult to distinguish from other similar moth species.

THE ROSEMARY MUNCHING BUG

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Andrew Salisbury on the bronze beetle that has a taste for rosemary

The rosemary leaf beetle is an attractive insect with metallic green and bronze stripes.

See rosemary leaf beetle distribution in England, Scotland and Wales

But despite its good looks, this native of central Europe has been causing a problem for gardeners since it invaded the UK in 2003.

It has become a pest on rosemary, lavender and related plants, where it strips the leaves.

Andrew Salisbury, from the Royal Horticultural Society, said the insect was first spotted in the RHS gardens in Wisley, Surrey, but has now spread around the UK.

He is currently monitoring the species' movements. If you have spotted the beetle, you can help by submitting a record of your sighting to the Royal Horticultural Society.

THE HORSE CHESTNUT DESTROYER
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Monique Simmonds explains how a tiny moth is damaging the iconic horse chestnut tree

The horse chestnut leaf miner (Cameraria ohridellais) is another recent addition to the UK.

See distribution of horse chestnut leaf miner in England and Wales

After spreading throughout Europe, it was thought to have became established here in 2002.

Larvae of the tiny insect, which belongs to the moth family, burrow into the leaves of horse chestnut trees, creating unsightly brown mines.

Scientists are still unsure whether the moths are damaging the trees, but some believe the insects may leave the trees more susceptible to other pests.

THE LILY DEVOURER

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Andrew Salisbury explains how the red lily beetle has spread

The RHS's Andrew Salisbury describes the red lily beetle as "the lily growers' nemesis".

See distribution of red lily beetle

This pretty insect, which is native to Eurasia, was first noted in the British Isles at the end of the 19th Century.

However, it has only been in the last decade where it has really started to spread.

Adults and larvae can devour a plant in a matter of days.

To help scientists keep track of the red beetle, you can submit a sighting to the RHS team.


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SEE ALSO
Killer ladybird seen in Scotland
21 Feb 08 |  Highlands and Islands
Beetle enters top of pest charts
17 Apr 06 |  Science & Environment
Warning over spring moth menace
10 Apr 08 |  London
Moth causing devastation to trees
30 Jun 06 |  England
Lily beetle reaches South West
18 Sep 03 |  England

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