Environment

UF researchers discover ‘beetle juice’ to save avocado trees

A tree killed by laurel wilt stands beside a highway near Miami in the Florida Everglades. A fungus that follows an invasive beetle from Asia is killing trees across the Everglades.
A tree killed by laurel wilt stands beside a highway near Miami in the Florida Everglades. A fungus that follows an invasive beetle from Asia is killing trees across the Everglades. AP

University of Florida researchers have a new weapon in the fight against laurel wilt, a fungus withering the state’s $100 million-a-year avocado industry and wiping out trees across the Everglades: beetle juice.

Since it arrived from Georgia in 2003, the beetle that spreads the fungus has stampeded across South Florida, home to the Everglades and the state’s avocado industry. Commercial growers, whose only weapon against the spread so far was to cut down infected trees, say they’ve lost 12,000 of them.

UF researchers say they now believe they’ve come up with an effective weapon, based on the tree’s own immune system.

Using red bay trees, a close cousin of the avocado tree, they discovered the trees emit a chemical to repel the beetles once infected. When combined with another well-known pheromone used to treat mountain pine beetle, another pesky forest insect, the repellent successfully drove away beetles about 90 percent of the time.

Used with a network of traps set around groves to lure and kill beetles, researchers say the added treatment should work at protecting trees and limiting outbreaks.

“We believe that these repellants could be used in a larger context, if associated with bug lures to have a push-pull system,” Marc Hughes, a former researcher in UF’s Forest Pathology Lab, said in a statement.

The treatment is also about 80 percent cheaper than other alternatives. More information about the treatment can be found here.

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich

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