NEW PLANT PEST WREAKING HAVOC ON CROPS

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With Christmas on the horizon , the Ministry of Agriculture’ s Entomology Unit is battling a hazardous new pest currently wreaking havoc on a range of crops across the island including pigeon peas, the popular holiday delicacy.

Word of this has come from Entomologists at the Ministry’s Graeme Hall headquarters, who explained that the new pest “Icerya genistae” – which has no common name, was first seen on island approximately one year ago. Following a pest alert from Florida, its identity was confirmed one month ago.

According to entomologist Brett Taylor, the pest has so far attacked 21 plants across the length and breadth of the island and active surveillance is ongoing to determine the host range of this pest.

“We have found it attacking things like thyme, marjoram and even lettuce which is of concern because lettuce is a crop which you hardly find pests attacking. We have also found it attacking some crop plants that are of importance to us; what we consider some of our priority crops, such as hot peppers, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and egg plants – things that are topical at this time. With Christmas coming we have found it attacking and killing pigeon peas, “ explained Mr. Taylor.

He spoke also of the destruction of complete peanut fields in St. Peter as well as an entire crop of sweet peppers in St. Philip. “So it is widespread from one end of the island to the next.” The entomologist, however, noted that so far the pest had not been seen on sorrel, nor had the Unit received any such reports.

The pest, a white sucking insect is oval-shaped and bears a fluted tail in which eggs and crawlers can be found. In its young stages, the pest tends to be pink and as it grows older develops a white colour, with a striking similarity to what is often described by Barbadians as “blight”.

In speaking to the control of this pest, entomologist, Ian Gibbs, said unfortunately at this time they were no efficient biological control agents for it, which is often the first choice of action due to its widespread nature.

Noting that the only choice which they had at the moment was to use insecticides, Mr. Gibbs said farmers could use a range, especially those which are systemic. These actually go into the plant so that when the pest sucks the sac from the plant they take up the insecticide and are killed. On the other hand, the contact insecticides run off the plant. He cited Aval Perfekthion and Regent as those which “have been giving some pretty good control”.

For householders with a few plants, who do not want to go to the expense of purchasing insecticides, Mr. Gibbs suggested the use of a simple soap solution, utilising two teaspoons of dish washing liquid or even laundry detergent per gallon of water, to be sprayed on the plant.

He advised: “Make sure that you get good coverage of where the insects are and all on the leaves. You will have to repeat this once weekly until the problem goes away. So this is a virtually inexpensive method that householders can use if they have this pest on their property.”

The entomologist , however, underlined that a vital aspect for the control of the pest was for persons to keep their surroundings or fields as free of weeds as possible since this particular pest was utilising wild plants or “bush” in Barbadian parlance, to feed on, following which they move into the crops.

Mr. Gibbs, who surmised that the only answer to the control of the Icerya genistae, would be the use of efficient biological control agents possibly in the form of a predatory ladybird-type beetle or a small parasitic wasp, stressed that at this point in time neither local scientists nor their United States counterparts knew of any.

“We have started a collaborative effort with scientists from the United States Department of Agriculture ( USDA) in trying to see what natural enemies they are. I understand, that at some point in time they may be looking to send a team to Brazil, the centre of origin for this pest, to see what natural enemies are controlling it there, and also look at the possibility of introducing the more effective ones into Barbados and Florida,” he explained.

The pest was said to be recorded in Brazil in 1912, in Florida in 2005 and in Barbados this year.

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