Agriculture

Crop-destroying moth lands in northern part of Valley

A light brown apple moth is shown In this undated photo provided by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Agriculture officials are scrambling to contain the invasion of the voracious Australian pest spotted in the San Francisco Bay area in February 2007.  (AP Photo/California Department of Food and Agriculture)
A light brown apple moth is shown In this undated photo provided by the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Agriculture officials are scrambling to contain the invasion of the voracious Australian pest spotted in the San Francisco Bay area in February 2007. (AP Photo/California Department of Food and Agriculture) AP

It's nicknamed the "light brown everything moth," and it's found its way to the Central Valley.

The light brown apple moth, an invasive species native to Australia, was first discovered in California in 2007 -- and that's not good news for farmers, plant lovers or forests.

"It's a pest that feeds on 2,000 different hosts," said Steve Lyle, spokesman for the California Department of Food and Agriculture, or CDFA.

Those hosts include almonds, corn, peaches and strawberries, along with many ornamental plants and trees, such as poplar, cottonwood, Monterey pine and eucalyptus. The moth has been found mostly in the Bay Area, but last week it was found in Davis, the first time it's turned up in the Central Valley.

"It certainly raises the level of our concern," said David Robinson, agricultural commissioner for Merced County. Robinson's staff will be putting out traps for the moth beginning on May 1.

"This pest could have an impact of more than $100 million in the state, for both nursery and ag products," Robinson said.

The biggest problem the moth would create in the Central Valley would be the fact that other states and countries would quarantine products from the Valley.

"If we want to get products out of California into other markets, they have to be fumigated or show that the product is free from the pest," Robinson said. Because so much of California's produce is sent out of state, a quarantine would add millions of dollars to producers' costs.

Lyle said most invasive species hitchhike into the country somehow, and the moth probably came in by boat or airplane.

The CDFA is putting together a plan that would use sterile insects released to fight the moth, Lyle said. In the past, aerial spraying has been used, but because of controversy over harming people, that's been stopped. Lyle said that the first sterile moths should be released later this year.

The CDFA has also used twist ties that emit moth pheromones, which confuse male moths and keep them from finding female moths.

Robinson said if the pest were found in Merced County, his office would try to find the distribution in the area, then start a major trapping program to find out exactly how widespread the moth was.

If the moth is found in the county, the CDFA would take over the eradication efforts, Robinson said.

"The whole point of these programs is to keep the pests out in the first place," Robinson said. "We don't want to have to use treatment programs. It's more environmentally sound to keep them out."

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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