Newly arrived bug threatens to decimate Israel’s citrus fruit industry

Sap-sucking Asian citrus psyllid identified in Emek Hefer region, prompting Agriculture Ministry to launch pesticide campaign; likely arrived on smuggled plant material

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Asian citrus psyllid. (Agriculture Ministry)
Asian citrus psyllid. (Agriculture Ministry)

A tiny bug that can carry a disease deadly to citrus trees has been detected in Israel, posing a potentially catastrophic danger to the country’s citrus producers, the Agriculture Ministry has warned.

The Asian citrus psyllid, or Diaphorina citri Kuwayama, is a known vector for citrus greening disease and was recently identified in the Emek Hefer region in the center of the country.

The disease causes stunted growth in infected citrus trees and irregular misshapen fruit that can’t be used as produce. Ultimately, it kills infected citrus trees as there is no treatment, the ministry said.

Shlomit Zioni, director of the ministry’s Plant Protection and Inspection Services, said in a statement on Tuesday that the Asian citrus bug could lead to the establishment of “a dangerous disease that will put the entire citrus fruit industry in the country in danger of extinction due to being the vector that spreads it.”

The presence of the insect, barely four millimeters in length, was confirmed in Emek Hefer by the Plant Protection Services Laboratories at the Agriculture Ministry.

Due to the size of established populations already found, ministry officials assume that the insect has spread to adjacent areas as well.

View of an orange orchard near Netivot. March 28, 2011. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90

In the wake of the discovery, officials performed a thorough review in the Emek Hefer region and other areas of the country as well as in specific forests, the ministry said. Monitoring arrays were set up as well as new traps in areas near where the pest was spotted.

Due to the danger posed by the pest, an emergency meeting was held in the Agriculture Ministry, leading to a decision to spray plots found to be infected with the bug.

In the first step of the plan, some 750 dunams of Emek Hefer orchards are to be sprayed during the winter, with operations continuing throughout the year. Growers will be compensated within the framework of insurance from the Insurance Fund for Natural Risks in Agriculture, which is jointly owned by the government and the Farmers Marketing Boards and Organizations.

There will also be constant monitoring of the pest population, and if necessary evaluations and adjustments will be made at the start of each season, the ministry said.

Asian citrus psyllid. (Agriculture Ministry)

Zioni, the Agriculture Ministry official, said that trials of pesticide use on a small scale against the bugs were showing positive results and that the search was ongoing for others areas that may be infected. Early detection, she explained, raises the chances of wiping out the pest and costs “immeasurably less” than when the infestation becomes an established population.

There are a total of 169,000 dunams of citrus orchards in Israel.

The ministry said it has not identified how the bug first arrived in the country. However, it noted that it could only have arrived on the leaves and branches of cuttings that were not imported through proper channels, and the chances are that it arrived on plant material that was smuggled into the country, most likely on Kaffir lime or other citrus cuttings.

“If we do not succeed in eradicating the pest in this targeted operation, it will be a real threat to the local citrus industry to the point of extinction, as has happened elsewhere in the world, as well as increasing the use of insecticides over years and across the country,” Zioni said.

The Asian citrus psyllid is found in North and South America, as well as East Asia, including Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has also been found in some southern African countries.

The citrus greening disease it spreads has destroyed entire orchards in Brazil, California, Florida and Cuba, the ministry said.

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