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Laurel Wilt Disease Poses Threat To Avocados

Regional Infestation Map - September 11, 2015
Laurel wilt is often spread by moving infested firewood from one area to another. When redbay ambrosia beetles are found outside of their usual territory, it’s often because they have been inadvertently transported by people. Photo courtesy of Jiri Hulcr.

This year, Florida avocados face two threats to making it out of the grove and into guacamole.

One is the Oriental fruit fly. It was previously eradicated in the state but it was confirmed last month that the pest had reemerged in Miami-Dade County.

Jiri Hulcr, assistant professor of forest entomology at the University of Florida, said the fly was reintroduced unintentionally through imported produce. It lays eggs in avocados, and the larvae then feed on the fruit, he said.

But the second threat – laurel wilt – is even more serious, Hulcr said.

The disease is caused by redbay ambrosia beetles,which come from Asia and were established in Georgia. They drill in dead wood and deposit a pathogenic fungus in trees, he said.

Avocado trees are part of the laurel family, making them susceptible to this threat.

Though Florida is devoted to combating agricultural pests, no fail-safe method has been discovered for eliminating redbay ambrosia beetles, Hulcr said.

“Fruit flies keep appearing occasionally, and then there’s a massive effort to eradicate them, and we are often very successful,” he said. “There is hope that they will go away. With the ambrosia beetle, probably not.”

Jenn Meale, communications director at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, said the state has about 7,000 acres of avocado trees, most of which are in South Florida.

The first case of laurel wilt disease was identified in February 2012 and 9,000 trees have died since.

“Florida’s warm climate makes it a hotbed for invasive pests and disease,” Meale said.

FDACS partnered with different organizations, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and UF, to protect avocado trees.

Dogs can sniff out signs of laurel wilt disease, and heat-sensing drones can identify early stages as well. Meale said these are coupled with more traditional methods, such as fungicide and wood-chipping, which breaks up and removes sick trees.

Alicia Crisp, of Apopka-based Crispy Farms, said she has been growing avocados for 11 years and hasn’t had any pest problems with them. She attributes this to her farm being surrounded by residential areas rather than farmland.

The family-run farm produces several different crops on five acres. Crisp said she’s found avocado trees to be very low maintenance. She sells the avocados they yield along with young trees grafted from the ones on her farm so people can grow their own.

Despite threats of flies and laurel wilt, Crisp said people shouldn’t be discouraged from buying trees and growing their own avocados.



About Kristina Ramer

Kristina is a reporter who can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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