Researchers with the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS) are already trying to help growers figure out how to effectively manage the problems created by an invasive pest – confirmed last week in Highlands County — that could further erode citrus production at a time when growers are just beginning to turn the corner on managing citrus greening.
UF/IFAS researchers and Extension faculty are working to develop management recommendations that growers who are currently experiencing high levels of damage can implement to mitigate the damage to their crop.
Division of Plant Industry scientists confirmed the lebbeck mealybug, known scientifically as Nipaecoccus viridis. It has previously been seen on dodder and tallow wood in Palm Beach County and intercepted at ports of entry in Florida, including Miami.
Lebbeck mealybug spends time on many plants in Florida, including citrus, mango, pomegranate and several ornamentals like hibiscus and mulberry, said Lauren Diepenbrock, assistant professor of entomology at the UF/IFAS Citrus Research and Education Center (CREC) in Lake Alfred.
This bug prefers to feed on and reproduce in fast-growing tissues like new branches and fruit. It can make fruit unsightly and unmarketable for fresh fruit markets, Diepenbrock said. Damage to fruit, while small, can result in fruit dropping from the tree before it is ready for harvest.
“Florida gets new insects all the time,” Diepenbrock said. “This is why we respond urgently when we find a new invasive species known to cause crop damage.”
Diepenbrock has wasted no time and is already setting up field trials to test different approaches to manage this pest under Florida growing conditions, said Michael Rogers, director of the UF/IFAS CREC.
Diepenbrock is working with UF/IFAS Extension citrus agent Laurie Hurner to assess the extent of the problem in Highlands County. After Diepenbrock and DPI scientists obtain a better picture of the issue, UF/IFAS will provide recommendations on how commercial and backyard growers can cope with the bug.
UF/IFAS recommendations on how growers can deal with the lebbeck mealybug will be based on Diepenrock’s research.
UF/IFAS Extension citrus agents will be able to advise growers on the most important next steps.
Because the pest can accidentally be moved quite easily, UF/IFAS researchers recommend power washing large equipment, sanitizing smaller tools using both bleach and water, and washing all clothing in hot water to help reduce the spread of this pest to new areas.
Meanwhile, if residents find the bug in their backyard citrus, they should cut off the branch, double bag it and place in the trash can, Rogers said.
For updates on managing this pest, find your UF/IFAS Extension county office here.