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Fruit-destroying fly poses Arkansas threat

By The Associated Press

This article was published February 17, 2013 at 3:26 p.m.

— Agriculture experts are urging fruit growers in Arkansas to become familiar with a fly that can destroy crops after it was found in the state.

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture says growers to learn to identify, sample for, and control the spotted wing drosophila, which has been found in traps recently in Johnson, Washington and White counties.

“They’re the boll weevil of fruit,” White County Extension Agent Sherri Sanders said. She likened the insect in its destructive potential to the pest that devastated cotton crops until its eradication.

White County has a long history of berry farming and Johnson County is the heart of the state’s peach production.

The spotted wing drosophila cuts through the skin of ripening fruit to lay eggs that hatch within 12 to 72 hours into white larvae. The larvae feed inside and damage soft-skinned fruits, especially blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries and possibly peaches, plums, tomatoes and melons. The entry and exit holes and feeding damage leave the fruit vulnerable to infections.

Sanders said growers elsewhere have been taken by surprise by the insect.

“Almost before they knew what hit them, fruit growers suffered 80 to 100 percent losses — the kind of losses that put people out of business,” Sanders said.

In 2010, a report on the potential impact of this fly estimated revenue losses to strawberry growers in California, Oregon and Washington alone to be $314 million. That estimate rose to more than a half billion dollars when including revenue losses due to fly damage to raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and cherries.

Arkansas produces millions of dollars’ worth of fruit each year.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service pegged the 2012 value of the blueberry, peach and grape crops at $6.54 million. Add in tomatoes and watermelons, and the total rises to more than $31.4 million.

The spotted wing drosophila is a native of Asia and was first spotted in the U.S. in California in 2008. Since then, the insect has spread from Oregon to western Canada, Florida to Maine and several central states such as Michigan.

Arkansas agriculture officials have used traps since 2010 to determine how pervasive the insect is in the state.

In 2012, the spotted wing drosophila was captured in traps near blackberry, blueberry and raspberry acreage in Johnson, White and Washington counties.

Donn Johnson, professor and research/extension entomologist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said the USDA also confirmed the pest.

“We have additional traps in Crawford, Faulkner and Hempstead counties, but have not captured any flies in those counties,” he said.

Johnson asks that anyone who finds what appears to be a spotted wing drosophila pack the insect in alcohol and bring it to a county extension agent, the Arkansas Plant Board or the USDA.

Johnson recommends checking traps a month before fruit begins to ripen and to check ripening fruit twice a week for signs of infestation.

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