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Invasive aphids menace iconic cacti

Infestation of destructive insects discovered in Hula Valley; Agriculture Ministry weighs responses

Fruit from the sabra cactus plant. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)
Fruit from the sabra cactus plant. (photo credit: Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Israel’s iconic sabras could be in danger: not the native-born Israelis, but the cacti from which they get their colloquial demonym.

An aggressive species of parasitic aphid thought to have been recently introduced into the country threatens to wipe the plants out in Israel, according to the Volcani Center, part of the research arm of the Agriculture Ministry.

Officials said the aphid infestation, discovered several months ago, is for the moment confined to the Hula Valley area in northern Israel, but can easily spread to cactus plants elsewhere in the country and could eventually threaten the entire population.

The insect “secretes toxins into the tissues of the plant” in order to feed, which “damages those parts of the plant which are vital for food supply and, in the end, the plant dies,” said Zvi Mendel of the Volcani Center, according to a Haaretz report published Tuesday.

This particular aphid species, Dactylopius opuntiae, is thought to have been inadvertently introduced to Israel from its native South America and has no natural predators in Israel, allowing it to propagate unchecked. The sabra cactus, or prickly pear, is also native to South and Central America.

Officials from the Agriculture Ministry said they were looking into solutions to the problem. One likely option is introducing a foreign predatory species which would feed on the aphids, but according to the ministry, such a move would have to be carefully researched due to possible collateral effects on the environment.

Native Israelis are often called sabras after the fruit of the cactus, which, like the stereotypical Israeli personality, are tough and prickly on the outside but sweet on the inside.

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