Can ladybirds save Rome's pine trees from killer parasite?

Pines in Rome are under attack from a sap-eating parasite.

Rome neighbourhood associations are recruiting ladybirds in a bid to save the city's umbrella pine trees from a deadly parasite called the pine tortoise scale.

Voluntary groups in Rome continue to raise funds to release thousands of ladybirds - or ladybugs - in various parks in the city's suburbs, reports newspaper La Repubblica.

The biological fight against the parasite, which arrived in Rome about three years ago, involves the volunteers working in collaboration with the city to release ladybirds and install little 'houses' for the insects, high up in the trees.

Ladybirds - coccinelle in Italian - are being released in several green areas including Villa Leopardi in the Nomentana area, and Parco Mario Riva in the Parioli district, as well as in Villa Chigi and Villa Pamphilj.

Environmentalists say the ladybirds are effective at wiping out the parasite infestations by feeding on the highly-invasive bugs and their eggs.

The pine tortoise scale is causing havoc on Rome's pines, weakening the tree by eating the sap and leading to extreme needle loss. If untreated, trees can die within two years.

The Roman associations involved in the biological fight against the parasite plan to release the next batch of ladybirds on 30 September - 'Coccinella Day' - with an online fundraiser to help purchase the colourful insects.

Currently there are numerous private and public operations underway, using both organic and chemical treatments against the parasite (toumeyella parvicornis), which arrived in Italy from North America in 2015.

The city administration has allocated €1.2 million in funds to tackle the parasite, on top of half a million euro pledged from the Lazio region, amid growing calls for widespread, urgent action before it is too late.

In the meantime, for details about the ladybird project and how to donate, see the 'Coccinella Libera Tutti' Facebook page.