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Tiny Beetle Threatens Florida’s Avocado Industry

May 8, 2009

Florida’s thriving avocado industry could be in danger due to the arrival of the redbay ambrosia beetle.

Scientists say the little beetle (Xyleborus glabratus) spreads a fungus called laurel wilt disease that kills off avocado trees. The implications of the beetles’ arrival into Florida could spell out danger for the state as it is the second-largest source of avocados in the US.

The adult female redbay ambrosia beetle carries in a special pouch in its mouth — called a mycangia — the spores of the fungus that causes laurel wilt (Raffaelea lauricola).

University of Florida plant pathologist Randy Ploetz told the Associated Press scientists are monitoring the beetle’s journey throughout the southeastern US. So far, they have only reported infestations in the avocado trees of homeowners, not in commercial farms in South Florida.

The beetle has been discovered in Okeechobee County, which is not too far away from Miami-Dade County, where Florida’s largest concentration of commercial avocado trees are located.

“It could wipe out the entire industry,” University of Floridan agricultural economist Gilly Evans told the AP.

The beetle is said to be from Asia, and was brought into the US through a shipping port in Georgia. The beetle naturally expands its range about 20 to 30 miles each year, but can also be transported when its host tree is used for firewood.

“When you’re moving wood around and you have some redbay growing out there and you have some backyard avocados growing as well, you may be providing an easy pathway for that pest to move south,” said Frank Koch, a researcher with the North Carolina State University who has projected the beetle and the disease it carries will hit South Florida around 2020 or sooner.

The avocado industry is a source of about $30 million in profits each year. Evans said a beetle infestation could result in a massive blow to the economy in terms of lost earnings and lost jobs.

He said about $250,000 has already been spent in order to find a treatment that could halt the deadly disease being spread by the beetle, but pesticides or fungicides could be unsafe and too expensive for farmers.

Craig Wheeling, CEO of Brooks Tropicals in Miami-Dade County, told the AP that the beetle issue is reminiscent of a citrus canker scare among orange and lime growers in the early 2000s.

“Having gone through that mess in the early 2000s, we’re very concerned when we see the redbay ambrosia beetle coming down,” he said.

The citrus canker disease resulted in the loss of millions of dollars for citrus farmers.

Most ambrosia beetles target trees that are stressed, dying, or dead, but the redbay ambrosia beetle is known to attack healthy trees.

“Trying to predict what this thing is going to do has been difficult, because this is actually a brand new disease,” Ploetz said. “We knew nothing about this before it showed up.”

Scientists say the beetle’s range currently stretches from southern Delaware to coastal Virginia to eastern Texas and includes coastal areas of North Carolina and South Carolina, Georgia, southern Alabama, Mississippi, parts of Louisiana, and all of Florida.

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