SEBRING — Approximately 100 citrus growers have signed up for a meeting this Thursday morning on the lebbeck mealybug.
Not much is known about this new pest to citrus groves, said Laurie Hurner, Highlands County Extension director. She said scientists are still doing voluntary surveys — at grower request — of groves to learn how widespread it is.
Hurner said those scientists will include members of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Division of Plant Industry.
Currently, they are assessing groves based on owner’s requests to see if any of those trees have been infected with the insect.
“I don’t know if they have a good handle on it, yet,” Hurner said. “They are still looking at how bad it is.”
Whatever they have learned, growers and other members of the public can hear this week, they will hold a meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday in the main auditorium at the Bert J. Harris Jr. Agricultural Center on George Boulevard in Sebring.
In previous alerts, the USDA has described the creature as approximately 4 millimeters long, 3 millimeters wide, with a black-purple to blue-green body producing thick white or pale-yellow wax.
Females produce an ovisac with a wax that is sticky to the touch, alerts stated.
A large number of insects in one place will look like a continuous layer of wax and will obscure individual mealybugs.
The insects cause fruit to drop early, much like the bacterium that causes citrus greening, the Agriculture Department states.
While this is considered an agricultural pest in many parts of the world, in Florida, it would likely affect citrus, cotton, ornamentals and tropical plants.
The first reports of lebbeck mealybug in Florida were 10 years ago.
On Nov. 13, 2009, Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey (CAPS) Specialist Andrew Derksen of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Plant Industry and Karolynne Griffiths of the U.S. Department of Agriculture found the insect in Palm Beach County.
Since then, Hurner said, there have been 89 recorded infestations on 40 host plant species in Broward, Martin, Miami Dade and Palm Beach counties.
Mealybug can live on more than 45 different host plants including several species of citrus from at least 63 countries all over the world.
On June 14, 2019, a citrus sample with lebbeck mealybug was collected by Lauren Diepenbrock of the University of Florida in Highlands County, after she noticed a heavy infestation of white wax on branches and citrus fruits.
This is the first occurrence of lebbeck mealybug in commercial citrus, the Agriculture Department reports.
When asked about the conditions that make the insect spread, Hurner said it depends on the environment and production factors. U.S. citrus growers, and Florida growers in particular, work in advance to prevent getting such infestations.
“The U.S. is in a better stance to deal with it,” Hurner said, versus other countries.
When asked if less stringent practices or more difficult conditions in other countries might contribute to the mealybug finding its way ashore in Florida and through other ports, Hurner said she had not heard any conversation on the insect becoming more invasive.
The fact that it is an invasive species, however, is not in question.
“(They’re) working hard to make sure any inspector is up to speed,” Hurner said.