Attack Begins on Palm-Killing Beetle

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Tree trimmers that removed a dead palm in North Laguna last week found an infestation by the destructive red palm weevil, the first time this quarantine-rated pest has been detected in the continental U.S., and spurring an aggressive effort to halt the outbreak.

State agricultural inspectors are deploying an initial 1,000 containers spiked with a chemical-soaked cotton lure within a quarter mile or so around the intersection at Chiquita Street and Hillcrest Drive, said Jay Van Rein, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, in Sacramento.

The beetle native to Southeast Asia prefers as its host Canary Island date palms, its draping fronds a favorite of landscapers. But the beetle is also considered a threat to California’s $30 million date crop in the Coachella Valley. “We’re concerned about the date-palm growing industry and we want to protect the nursery industry,” Van Rein said.

The pest infestation spreads as the adult beetle takes flight, but its larval stage kills, tunneling galleries into a plant’s trunk and cutting off nutrients, Van Rein said.

Since the discovery was reported last week, about 400 palm trees in the vicinity were inspected, but no further infestations were found, he said. “We have to revisit those trees more than once,” he said, since only the insect’s adult stage is visible in the palm’s crown and because mature palms are often physically hard to inspect.

“We don’t want people scaling trees,” Van Rein said, but agriculture officials would appreciate the public’s help checking the base of palms for dead beetles as well as information about dying palms. “We’re at the beginning stages of a survey and trapping,” he said.

Cooler weather is not likely to impact the results of the survey, according to entomologist Nick Nisson, with the county Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. Even though the pest’s life-cycle development is temperature dependent, “it’s likely the adults will still be flying,” even during the coming cooler months, he said. “It’s been on the federal government’s radar for many years.”

In fact, federal agricultural scientists are already involved, trying to forecast when the adults will hatch, Van Rein said. “This is one of hundreds of pests the USDA is always looking for.”

The agriculture department’s pest hotline is 800 491-1899.

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