Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Funds requested for research to manage threat of the tiny exotic ambrosia beetle

Excerpts from two 12/2/08 Miami Herald articles written by Georgia Tasker and Charles Rabin.

Though the avocado crop is currently sound, Miami-Dade agricultural leaders tried a little preventive medicine Tuesday, warning commissioners of the dangers of the fungus carried by the beetle - no bigger than Abe Lincoln's nose on the copper penny - and saying it could wipe out the crop entirely.

The state's commercial avocado groves in Miami-Dade County are so far untouched by the fungus that the beetle can spread. Avocados are grown on 7,000 acres in Miami-Dade County. Last year it was a $30 million industry

Scientists have noted the damage it has done to red bay trees -- a close relative of the avocado -- as it creeps south from Savannah, Ga., where it was discovered in 2002. The funding requested by University of Florida researchers and agricultural leaders will develop a way to eradicate the insects and disease before they reach commercial groves.

Researchers looking for $10,000 for immediate work got $7,500 from the commission Tuesday. The money will pay for short-term research on insecticides and insect repellents and other means to stop the spread of the beetle.

''We're at the beginning research stage,'' said Craig Wheeling, chief executive of Brooks Tropicals. ''Obviously this is a good first step in putting in place a successful disease management program.”
Brooks Tropicals manages 3,700 acres of avocados in Miami-Dade.

Reports of dying red bay trees started turning up in 2003 and 2004. Red bay is native to coastal forests throughout the southeast, and the fungus now is killing most of the large mature red bay trees in Georgia, South Carolina and north Florida.

The fungal disease spread by the beetles is called laurel wilt. It attacks the laurel family, which has about 100 species, including the avocado and red bay. It plugs up the trees' plumbing so that the leaves wilt, turn reddish and then brown as the trees die.

The beetles are hard to control, because they spend most of their life cycle inside trees. Wilt diseases like this one are equally difficult to control.