The Department of Agriculture is working to contain a pink mealybug infestation that was discovered on the western part of Cayman Brac last week.
Laboratory analysis at the Florida Department of Agriculture confirmed the outbreak Thursday.
The DoA sent a rapid response team to the Brac to determine the true extent of infestation and to confine it, the DoA said in a press release Friday.
Chief Agricultural and Veterinary Officer Dr. Alfred Benjamin said the team will set up a temporary laboratory on the island to test for the pest.
It is not clear how the pest arrived on Cayman Brac but the location where it was found suggests it most likely hitchhiked there on a traveler from Grand Cayman, Dr. Benjamin explained.
The department is now urging Cayman Brac residents to look out for a white, cotton-like mass on plants, and to call the DoA if they find any suspected cases.
If residents come across an infestation, they should not cut or destroy the plant because it could increase the risk of the pest spreading, Dr. Benjamin explained.
He said awareness programmes carried out on the Sister Islands following the outbreak of mealybug on Grand Cayman last year means Brackers know what to do to minimise the damage caused by the pest.
‘They will be well drilled in what to do and from previous experience with Cayman Brackers, when they rally, they really rally,’ he said.
But despite their best efforts, it will be very difficult to eradicate the pest now it has got a footing on the island, conceded Dr. Benjamin.
Wasps will follow
On Friday, the DoA was trying to establish whether the parasitic wasp that was imported to Grand Cayman last year to combat mealy bug had followed the infestation to the Brac.
If it hasn’t, the department will work rapidly towards establishing them on the island, Dr. Benjamin said.
The department has alerted suppliers at the US Department of Agriculture and the Florida Department of Agriculture that additional supplies of the parasitic wasps will be needed, he added.
The presence of pink mealybug was confirmed on Grand Cayman in June last year. Since then, the DoA has rolled out an aggressive biological control program using parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs inside the mealybug and as the larvae grows and feeds, they kill the mealybug hosts.
‘We think we are seeing reasonably good success,’ said Dr. Benjamin. ‘If you drive around Grand Cayman I don’t think you get a sense that we have a disaster. You have to look very, very carefully to detect the activity of the pest. Our study sites indicate the [wasps] are following the pest.’
The insect first hit the Caribbean in Grenada in 1994 and has since spread throughout the Caribbean, the Central American mainland, some southern US states and Guyana.
Mealybugs suck plant juices and inject toxic saliva into plants that leads to damage and sometimes death. Although wind, birds, ants and other wildlife spread the pest naturally, it is most commonly introduced into non-infested areas by people moving infested plant matter.
The pest is difficult to spray but parasitic wasps have been able to reduce mealybug populations by 90 per cent in parts of the Caribbean, California and Florida where they have been introduced.
That 90-per-cent mark is what the DoA hopes the wasps will achieve in Cayman.
‘We’re trying to bring the population down to a point where the pest might be [here], but it is so well controlled that you are not even going to know it is there,’ said Dr. Benjamin.
Aside from its favored host, the hibiscus, pink mealybug is also known to attack 250 to 300 different plant and tree species, including citrus, coconut, sea grape, mango, okra, desert rose and oleander.
Residents that find evidence of pink mealybug are urged to call the Department of Agriculture on 948-0522. A hotline is being established and will be announced shortly.