Weed eaters

It’s about the size of a sesame seed, but the milfoil weevil has a big appetite.

Luckily, the only thing this tiny water beetle eats is a type of aquatic weed that has become a nuisance in many of the Great Lakes and in Northeast portions of the United States.

The beetle’s sole diet is the Eurasian milfoil, a long, feathery weed that grows so rapidly that it strangles native plants and interferes with boating, fishing and swimming. It can grow in water one to 20 feet deep, depending on water clarity. And unlike most plants, when it hits the surface, it doesn’t quit growing.

“They’ve been known to stop a 150 horsepower outboard motor dead in the water,” says Marty Hilovsky, whose company, EnviroScience Inc., introduces milfoil weevils into water systems to eradicate the weed. “You can get up to 1,000 stems of the weed within a single square meter of lake bottom. That’s how dense it is.”

The weeds came from Asia to the United States during the 1930s for use in aquariums. Once they were accidentally introduced into public waters, they became almost impossible to control.

Efforts to control the weeds cost the United States millions of dollars annually.

Enter Middleburg College Professor Dr. Sallie Sheldon, who in the mid-1990s, after nine years of research, confirmed her theory that this type of water beetle would be an effective, environmentally-friendly and low-cost method of milfoil control.

Hilovsky, who heard Sheldon speak at the college on the topic, licensed the rights to breed the beetles and sell them as the MiddFoil Process.

Since the Stow-based company launched in 1998, EnviroScience’s Lake Management Division has used its MiddFoil Process in more than 75 lakes in 10 states. That division has reported an annual growth rate of 80 percent, and Hilovsky is anticipating another record year of sales in 2003.

But what’s to prevent another company from breeding these beetles for the same purpose? Nothing, Hilovsky says, but EnviroScience is way ahead of any competitor in terms of expertise, and holds several proprietary breeding methods.

“We’re the originators, and we’ve been doing this for six years now,” Hilovsky says. “It takes an awful lot of specific know-how on how to culture them in large numbers and how to stock them.” How to reach: EnviroScience Inc., (330) 688-0111